Managing stressful situations for cats
Anxiety and fear are both negative emotions that can contribute towards distress in cats. Anxiety is an emotional state that occurs in anticipation of a real or perceived threat, where the individual’s safety or wellbeing is compromised. Fear is an emotional state in response to an immediate and known adverse event or challenging situation. It can be difficult to differentiate between these two emotions in cats because we cannot know how a cat is feeling. We do not know whether a cat is anxious about something that might happen, or something that is actually happening because we cannot ask it. However, both anxiety and fear are associated with high levels or arousal and unpleasant experiences.
How can I tell when my cat is anxious?
If you have lived with cats for a while you will probably be quite familiar with the body language they use to express their emotions. Cats that are anxious show different facial expressions such as:
- Wide eyes
- Staring/fixating on threat or turning gaze away (especially to the left)
- Eyes tightly shut
- Ears lowered, rotated, or flattened against head (can also signify frustration)
- Tense/tight muzzle and jaw
- Fast blinking
- Whiskers fanned and pointing forwards
- Exaggerated swallowing
- Nose licking/tongue flick (can also signify frustration or conflicting emotions)
Their body postures may also change:
- Body and all four paws close to the floor, paws under body
- Muscles very tense
- Head drawn inwards towards the body
- Tail wrapped closely around body
- Crouched/tucked up
- Feigning (pretending to) sleep
- Trying to escape/run away
What effect does anxiety have on my cat?
Just as in people, states of anxiety can affect your cat’s bodily function. When we are anxious heart rate and breathing rate increases and blood pressure rises. Your cat’s hair may stand on end and they begin to sweat from their paw or salivate more than normal. If the fear or anxiety lasts for a long time these physiological changes can result in signs of disease. Cats living in prolonged periods of fear or anxiety are also more prone to gastrointestinal upset, FIC (feline idiopathic cystitis), house soiling and over-grooming.
How can I help my cat feel less anxious when travelling?
Cats are often afraid of unfamiliar things so may be frightened by the sight, sound and smell of the carrier and car if they are not used to travelling. If your cat has had a previous bad experience when travelling, ie felt sick, anxious or fearful whist travelling in their carrier they may be unwilling to enter the carrier again. Some cats feel trapped in a carrier as they no means of escaping the stressful situation. So, try to acclimatise your cat to its carrier before you need to take your cat on a trip. Have carrier out all of the time (ensure it is free from ‘vet’ smells) and use it as safe place for your cat to relax in. Use treats, play, and praise in or near carrier to help your cat form a positive association with carrier. Gradually get your cat used to travelling in the carrier (shut door, carry in house, then short journeys). Ensure there is enough soft, comfy bedding inside for your cat to rest on and hide under during travel. Before travelling spray the carrier with a pheromone therapy spray (Feliway Classic) to help your cat feel less vulnerable during the journey.
Make sure the carrier is strong and secure and carry it carefully when moving and ensure it is secured properly during travel to reduce the amount of motion of the carrier with your cat inside. If you partially cover the carrier during travel it will help your cat to feel safer. The environment of travel is also important and you should avoid strong odours or loud noises in the car during a journey.
How do I reduce the stress for my cat when moving house?
Make sure your cat is happy to use its cat carrier before the move. Synthetic pheromone sprayed in the carrier 30 minutes before travelling may also help with the journey. Once at the new home, confine your cat to one room initially until he or she is confident and secure and the unpacking has finished. Make sure you take your cats old bedding to the new house so he or she has something that smells familiar. You may consider putting your cat in a cattery while the house move takes place so they can avoid the stress often associated with packing and unpacking homes.
How can I make my cat less anxious when we go to the vets?
There are a number of things that may stress your cat about a visit to the vets. It may be going in the cat carrier, travelling in the car, waiting in the waiting room where there are strange smells and sights (and even dogs) or it may be the actual examination itself. It is common for a combination of these events to stress a cat. Travelling time and waiting time are both known stressors to cats so don't make any extra stop offs to or from the vets. At the vets, place the carrier high up if possible and try to keep in an area of the waiting room away from dogs.
My cat does not like being stroked – what can I do?
If a cat has not been socialised well as a kitten (not enough positive experiences with people) it might never learn to actually enjoy being stroked. Some cats just like to sit or play with their owner without being touched. Provide places for your cat to perch and rest in rooms where you spend most of your time and your cat can join you without physical contact.
If this is the case with your cat you should respect their wishes and unfortunately there is little that can be done about a cat’s preferences. Some cats are anxious if they find their owner’s actions unpredictable especially if they often being picked up and cuddled or carried. They may find this too intense and not like the loss of control. You should always allow your cat to approach you if it wants to interact and leave your cat alone if it just wants to sit quietly near you.
Cats will usually give signals to their owner that they want petting to stop, but if you fail to notice these it may become increasingly anxious and strike out. Watch how your cat is reacting. Stop stroking while your cat is still relaxed and happy. Do not to wait for signals that your cat is not happy such as tail swishing, skin twitching, dilated pupils, ears back, sudden turn of the head, growling, hissing, etc.
If your cat is in pain they may suddenly start to resent being handled or avoid contact with you. If you are worried about a change in your cat’s behaviour you should ask your vet to check them over. Seek professional help from a vet and/or clinical animal behaviourist if the problem is longterm. You can find a list of suitably qualified behaviourists at abtc.org.uk.
How do I help my cat get used to new things?
Cats are creatures of habit and they generally don't like change to their environment. If you are bringing new furniture into the home give cat time to investigate furniture (including cat furniture). Use synthetic pheromone therapy on new furniture (test a patch first to make sure the fabric is not damaged by the spray) to help your cat feel more relaxed around the new item. If your cat allows, you can try scent swapping: gently stroke your cat on its face with a clean cloth/sock (under chin, top of head and cheeks) to gather facial pheromones and scents and then rub the cloth on the new furniture to transfer scent.
Most cats don’t appreciate the arrival of visitors to the house. If you are having people to stay, ensure your cat has ‘safe place’ to hide and relax away from where new people are. Place any essential resources nearby, eg litter trays, so your cat does not have to bypass unfamiliar people to use their toilet. Try to keep noise to a minimum. Ask visitors to leave their shoes, bags, and coats at the door. This prevents more unfamiliar scents being introduced into the cat’s territory and ask them not to approach your cat. A pheromone therapy diffuser (Feliway Classic) may help cat feel more safe and secure.
I want to get a new pet – how do I help my cat adjust?
Cats do not like to share their territory with other animals. If you are thinking of getting a new pet consider if it will be suitable for the household, eg introducing a new puppy could be incredibly stressful for an elderly cat. Never introduce a new cat into households where there are behaviour issues between current cats.
If you have to introduce a new cat into the house always introduce the cats slowly - never just ‘let them get on with it’ - this is likely to end in disaster! Set up a synthetic pheromone diffuser (Feliway Classic or Optimum) in house prior to new cat’s arrival to calm the environment. Swap items, eg blankets/bedding from each household (new and resident cat) so each cat can investigate the scent prior to the new cat’s arrival. Prepare a ‘safe room’, which should be a quiet area with all of the new cat’s essential resources, eg food and water bowls, litter tray, beds, scratching areas, and new toys for the new arrival and let them settle there for days or weeks. Then perform scent swapping between cats (rubbing a soft cloth around the head and chin of one cat and offering this cloth for the other cat to investigate). Then stroke each cat with a cloth/sock with other cat’ scent (if the cats will let you do this)
Very gradually introduce the cats to the sight of one another once they are familiar with the other cat’s scent. Keep a barrier between them, eg wire mesh or extra high baby gate, or only allow them to see each other through a crack in the door. Watch the cats closely during the introduction phase for any negative reactions, eg hissing or growling. As the cat’s start to come into contact use separate games with toys and treats to create positive association with each other. Once both cats are happy, allow short (a few minutes), supervised periods together. If any conflict occurs always go back to the previous stage.
Once the cats are relaxed in each other’s company, they can be left together for longer periods of time, but always ensure resources are easily accessible. Ideally resources should be spread throughout the household, so each cat has easy access to whatever they want. A general rule for resources is one per cat, plus a spare, eg two cats need three litter trays.
Cats have evolved to hunt and eat alone, so cats should be given the opportunity to play separately with owners and be fed in separate areas. Competition for food is a common reason for conflict in a multi-cat household. Litter trays should be located in different areas and not lined up next to each other, as cats will see this as one tray and litter tray bullying/avoidance may occur.
Offering vertical space (such as cat trees, shelves and perches) is an excellent way or helping to reduce stress in a multi-cat household. This means cats can avoid one other, but still observe what is going on in their environment. Older cat may need to be given additional furniture, eg steps or ramps, to enable them to reach a safe resting place.
Neighbouring cats using the same territory can also be a source of anxiety and fear. You shouldn’t bring another cat into the home if any cats in the household are currently experiencing issues with cats outside.
How can I help my cat adjust to my new baby?
Cats do not like change to their environment and babies are unpredictable and noisy. If you are expecting a baby there are likely to be lots of changes in the household. Introduce new baby items into household slowly prior to the arrival of a new baby to give your cat time to become familiar with these before the baby arrives. Set up synthetic pheromone diffuser (Feliway Classic or Optimum) in house prior to new baby arrival. Try playing baby sounds quietly via YouTube to help cat get used baby noises prior to the baby’s arrival. Scent swap from cat to baby items with a clean cloth/sock rubbed on the cat and then on the baby items to transfer your cat’s own, familiar scent to the new things. If possible, bring something home from hospital with the new baby’s scent on for your cat to investigate.
Once you bring the baby home ensure your cat has lots of ‘safe places’ to hide and relax away from babies, toddlers and older children - elevated beds and perches are ideal. Always supervise babies and children around cats and encourage toddlers and children to respect your cat’s space (do not disturb when asleep!) and only stroke the cat if it’s actively seeking attention.
How can I make my cat less afraid of fireworks?
Many animals are frightened by the loud noises and lights associated with fireworks and unfortunately these displays seem to be becoming more common throughout the year. Try to keep your cat indoors when there are fireworks locally and ensure they have a safe place to hide and rest. Cardboard boxes, elevated perches and beds are ideal. You can play soft or classical music or keep the TV on during fireworks to help drown out any noise and keep curtains drawn to prevent your cat seeing outside. Use a synthetic pheromone therapy, either as the spray on cat’s bed (15 minutes before use) or as the diffuser, ie Feliway Classic or Optimum - to help your cat feel safe and less anxious.