8 ways stress affects your cat's health and what you can do about it. Scared cat hiding under sofa.

8 Ways Stress Affects Your Cat's Health and How You Can Help

We’re not the only ones that experience stress. Cats do, too. Your cat may not get flustered in traffic the same way you do, but she may not trust the vacuum cleaner. How can stress affect your cat and what can you do to help? Here are 8 ways stress affects your cat's health and what you can do to detect, prevent, and treat your kitty’s stress.

What Causes Stress in Cats?

Just like people, there is a wide range of factors that can cause a cat to get stressed out. And just like humans, cats are individuals with unique needs and stress-triggers. While theirs may have nothing to do with bills or deadlines, there are some commonalities between what stresses us out and what stresses out our cats. Here are some common sources of stress for cats:

  • As a cat parent, YOUR stress and anxiety can have a direct impact on your cat's stress levels. Cats are highly sensitive to changes in their environment, including shifts in their human's mood and energy levels. When you're stressed or anxious, your cat can pick up on these cues, leading to their own feelings of unease and stress.

Distressed woman sitting with her hands covering her face while her cat looks on with concern

  • Diet plays a crucial role in a cat's overall well-being, and a high-carbohydrate diet, commonly found in kibble, can inadvertently cause stress in cats. High-carb diets lead to inflammation in the body, triggering a stress response. This inflammation can manifest in various ways, including digestive issues, skin problems, and even behavioral changes. To help alleviate stress caused by diet, consider transitioning your cat to a diet that's more in line with their natural carnivorous needs, such as a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet rich in quality animal-based protein sources.
  • Major life changes like moving or the loss of a family member can cause cats stress. Sometimes the addition of a new pet or someone moving in can also create a stressful situation.
  • Improper food bowl setup can lead to whisker fatigue and stress in cats. When food bowls are too deep or narrow, a cat's sensitive whiskers can become irritated and overwhelmed during feeding. This discomfort, known as whisker fatigue, can cause stress and anxiety in cats, leading to reluctance to eat or changes in eating behavior.

Angry cat sitting by a deep and narrow food bowl causing whisker fatigue and stress.

  • Changes in their routine. Cats are creatures of habit and thrive on predictability. Any sudden changes, such as a new feeding schedule, a reduction in playtime, or a shift in the household's dynamics, can disrupt their sense of security and trigger stress. We all know that if it’s 1 minute passed breakfast time and you’re still in bed, there will be a cat sitting on your bed (if you’re lucky) or your chest (most likely) pawing or meowing at you to WAKE UP. It’s feeding time!
  • A less than ideal litter box setup can cause anxiety and stress for cats. Cats are inherently clean animals and have specific preferences when it comes to their litter boxes. If the litter box is not kept clean, if they don’t like the type or texture of the litter, if there’s not enough or too much litter in the box, if the litter box is in a high-traffic area, if there aren't enough litter boxes for multiple cats in the household, if the size of the litter box is too small, or if the litter box design is not to the cat's liking, it can lead to avoidance behaviors and stress.

An improper cat litter box placement can cause stress in cats. Covered litter box placed in a laundry room.

  • Cats are social creatures, despite their reputation for independence, and they can experience feelings of loneliness and anxiety when left alone for extended periods. Just like humans, cats thrive on companionship and interaction.
  • There are some situations that are just weird, new, and somewhat scary that can stress out some cats. New furniture, loud noises, or strangers in the house… situations like these can be scary for cats.

What Are Some Signs that a Cat is Stressed?

Black cat sitting beside a couch with scratched fabric, a sign of cat stress

Stress comes in all shapes and sizes and so do the symptoms. Some signs that your cat is stressed may be subtle while others, like hiding when you have guests over, are more obvious.

Common Symptoms of Stress

  • Overgrooming
  • Urinating or spraying outside the litter box
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Digestive issues like diarrhea
  • Destructive scratching behavior
  • Excessive vocalization (attention-seeking behavior)
  • Changes in playing habits
  • Aggression
  • Jumpiness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Shivering or shaking
  • Restlessness and pacing

Cats are individual creatures so it’s up to you, the cat parent, to really watch and get to know your cat; to understand what’s “normal” for your kitty and to be able to recognize when something has shifted.

How Can Stress Affect Your Cat’s Health?

Stress can have both mental and physical effects on cats. And long-term stress can have a profound negative result on your cat’s health. Some of the most significant effects of stress on cats include:

  1. Immune System Suppression: Prolonged stress can weaken your cat's immune system, making them more susceptible to infections, illnesses, and chronic health conditions. Cats under stress may take longer to recover from illnesses or injuries.
  2. Weight Fluctuations: Stress can impact your cat's eating habits, leading to either increased or decreased appetite. This can result in weight gain or weight loss, both of which can have adverse effects on their health.
  3. Elevated heart rate and blood pressure: part of the fight or flight response to stress is for the body to be ready to respond in the blink of an eye. This results in an elevated heart rate and blood pressure for a stressed-out cat. Over time, this can take a toll on your cat’s body and could require medication.
  4. Upset tummy and diarrhea: Stress can cause a spectrum of digestive issues from constipation to diarrhea. Acute, sudden stress can trigger your cat to need to empty his bowels. While long-term stress can reduce your cat’s appetite.
  5. Urinary Problems: Stress is a common trigger for urinary issues in cats, including urinary tract infections (UTIs) and feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). Cats may urinate outside the litter box or experience painful urination when stressed.
  6. Respiratory Issues: Chronic stress can exacerbate respiratory conditions in cats, such as asthma or bronchitis. Stress-related anxiety may trigger respiratory symptoms or worsen existing respiratory problems.
  7. Depression leading to withdrawal and isolation: extended periods of stress can lead to depression for your cat. When your cat feels overwhelmed, stressed, and depressed, she may not feel like being around other cats or her family. If her stress is fear-based, isolation can be an attempt to hide. This can lead to weight gain due to inactivity and require medication for treatment.
  8. The inability to relax: cats with separation anxiety often feel the need for heightened vigilance. They look for signs and patterns that their owners may be leaving. This results in an inability to rest, sleep well, and stay calm. Without mental rest, a cat is more susceptible to depression, hypertension, and reactivity.

How Can You Help Your Cat Deal with Stress?

Relaxed cat laying on its back with belly up, feeling safe and content

If you suspect you suspect your cat feels stressed, you should consult with a holistic vet or cat behaviorist and work in conjunction with them. Together you can help your cat overcome his or her stress. Some techniques you can talk about include:

Pinpointing and eliminate or minimize stressors.

Identifying and mitigating stressors is crucial for reducing and eliminating stress in cats. Whether it's the vacuum cleaner's noise or the presence of a new pet, minimizing these stress triggers can significantly improve your cat's quality of life. Consider using pheromone diffusers to create a calming environment, and make simple adjustments like closing blinds or rearranging furniture to reduce anxiety. By taking proactive steps to address stressors, you can help your cat feel more comfortable and secure in their home environment.

Work with a behaviorist to desensitize your cat.

Working with a behaviorist can be invaluable when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety in cats. These professionals are trained to understand feline behavior and can develop customized desensitization plans tailored to your cat's specific needs. Through gradual exposure to stressors in a controlled environment, your cat can learn to cope with and eventually overcome their anxieties. With the guidance of a behaviorist, you can implement strategies to help your cat feel more comfortable and confident in various situations, leading to a happier and healthier kitty.

Stick to a routine.

Establish and stick to a consistent routine for leaving and returning from your home. Avoid making a fuss over your cat when you leave or return, as this can encourage anxiety. Train your cat to remain calm before you depart by engaging in calm activities for about 20 minutes beforehand. Consider creating a safe space for your cat to retreat to if they need a break from children or high-energy environments. Maintain regular meal times and bedtime routines, as pets thrive on consistency. By sticking to a routine and offering consistency, you can help reduce stress in your cat’s day-to-day experience.

Create an ideal litter box setup.

Creating the proper litter box setup for your cat can help reduce anxiety and mitigate improper urination issues. Firstly, ensure you have enough litter boxes - one per cat plus an extra one to provide ample choice and promote a stress-free bathroom environment. When selecting a litter box, opt for a lid-free or dome-free design to prevent odor trapping, which can be uncomfortable and stinky for your cat. Make sure the litter box is big enough; a general rule being at least 1.5 times longer than your cat's length from nose to the tip of the tail. This provides enough space for them to move and dig comfortably without stepping on soiled litter. Consider the type of litter your cat prefers, typically unscented or lightly scented, low-dust, quick clumping, easy to dig in, and soft on their paws. Avoid litter with sharp or pointy textures like silica or clay, which can cause discomfort or even injury to their sensitive paw pads. Maintain a depth of 2-3 inches of fresh, clean litter in the box and scoop soiled cat litter at least once daily (2x daily is event better!) to keep it fresh and appealing to your cat. Regular cleaning is paramount, as cats may refuse to use a dirty litter box, leading to elimination issues. Additionally, choose a quiet and private location for the litter box, away from heavy foot traffic but still easily accessible for cleaning. Spare bedrooms, guest bathrooms, or unused office spaces are ideal spots to place litter boxes. With the right setup, you can ensure your cat feels comfortable and secure in their bathroom routine.

Increase exercise.

Ginger cat engaging in play with colorful balls of yarn to encourage exercise and stress reduction

Get those toy wands and laser pointers out; it’s time to play! Regular exercise and social interaction releases endorphins, stabilizes mood, and promotes confidence in your kitty which can reduce stress. It's essential to provide your cat with regular attention, playtime, and environmental enrichment to help alleviate feelings of loneliness and promote their overall contentment. Plus, it strengthens the bond between you and your cat as you enjoy 1-on-1 playtime together. So carve out at least 15 minutes of play 2x per day for your adult kitties. Kittens, being more energetic, often require shorter but more frequent playtimes. You can read all about ways to maximize your playtime here.

Introduce more mental stimulation.

Just like humans, cats thrive on mental challenges that engage their natural instincts and abilities. Cat puzzles, interactive toys, and fun games not only provide entertainment but also stimulate their minds, keeping them engaged and satisfied. By encouraging mental activity, you help alleviate boredom, reduce anxiety, and prevent behavioral issues caused by stress.

Introduce dried herbs.

By offering dried herbs and flowers to your cat, you give your cat the opportunity to self-select remedies that address their unique needs, empowering and trusting them to manage their environment and reduce stress and anxiety. You can put out an array of dried herbs and flowers like valerian, catnip, chamomile, chickweed, rose, dandelion, and lemon balm, for example. While each cat may react differently to the remedies, observing behaviors such as rubbing, rolling, or ingesting the herbs can indicate their effectiveness and whether the cat likes them.

Introduce essential oils.

Essential oils can be a powerful tool in reducing anxiety in your cat when used alongside other calming tactics. Derived from plants, essential oils contain volatile compounds known for their therapeutic benefits. However, it's crucial to choose oils that are safe for pets and to use them appropriately, as cats can be more sensitive to essential oils. Lavender oil, known for its calming properties, has been shown to reduce anxiety in cats. Roman chamomile oil is gentle and can help relieve stress and tension in pets, while frankincense oil is versatile and amplifies the benefits of other oils. Valerian oil is particularly useful for calming the nervous system and promoting relaxation. When using essential oils, opt for reputable brands like Young Living or Plant Therapy, and always dilute them properly. Remember to use caution and consult with a holistic veterinarian before introducing essential oils to your cat's routine.

Create a whisker-friendly feeding setup.

To prevent whisker fatigue and reduce stress during feeding time, provide wide and shallow food bowls that allow cats to comfortably access their food without their whiskers touching the sides. Elevated food bowls can also be helpful, as they provide a more natural feeding posture and make it easier for cats to swallow their food. By making these small tweaks to the feeding bowl setup, you can help alleviate whisker fatigue and create a more positive mealtime experience for your cats.

Feed a species-appropriate, nutritionally-balanced diet.

Feed a species-appropriate diet. Cat eating a piece of raw chicken as part of a healthy cat diet.

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they require a diet primarily composed of meat to thrive. When cats are fed a diet that closely resembles what they would eat in the wild, they receive the essential nutrients they need to support their overall health and well-being, including their mental health.

A nutritionally-balanced diet for cats typically consists of high-quality animal proteins, moderate levels of fat, and minimal carbohydrates. These proteins provide vital amino acids necessary for muscle development, tissue repair, and overall bodily function. Fats supply energy and support healthy skin and coat. By providing a diet rich in these essential nutrients, cats are better equipped to manage stress and anxiety. Feeding a raw diet or high-protein diet can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce inflammation in the body, both of which are linked to anxiety and behavioral issues in cats. When cats consume a diet high in carbohydrates or fillers (like that found in kibble), it can lead to spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, contributing to mood swings and irritability.

Additionally, a balanced diet supports gut health, which is closely linked to overall well-being, including mental health. The gut-brain connection, known as the gut-brain axis, plays a crucial role in regulating mood and behavior. Providing cats with a diet that promotes a healthy gut microbiome can help alleviate anxiety symptoms as well.

Introduce goat’s milk.

Introducing real, natural food such as raw goat's milk can significantly reduce anxiety in cats. Raw goat's milk is packed with essential nutrients including trace minerals, vitamins, electrolytes, enzymes, protein, and fatty acids. Unlike cow's milk, goat's milk is easier for cats to digest and absorb, making it ideal for those with sensitive stomachs or digestive issues like leaky gut syndrome, which is often associated with anxiety in cats. Additionally, raw goat's milk contains higher levels of calcium, vitamin B-6, vitamin A, potassium, niacin, and selenium, all of which contribute to overall health and well-being. By incorporating raw goat's milk into your cat's diet, you can help support their digestive health and alleviate anxiety symptoms, promoting a happier and more balanced cat.

Work on your self-care routines.

Woman practicing self-care stretching exercises beside a relaxed cat on the floor

To help ease your cat's stress caused by your own, it's essential to practice self-care and stress management techniques. Engage in activities that promote relaxation and reduce your own anxiety levels, such as yoga, breath work practices, meditation, exercise, creative activities like drawing or painting, or spending time in nature. By prioritizing your own well-being and fostering a high-vibrational, positive environment, you can create a more peaceful and stress-free atmosphere for both yourself and your kitty.

Dealing with Stress Can Keep Your Cat Healthy

As vets learn more and more about cat psychology, the more they learn that stress has a profound physiological effect on our best friends. By pinpointing and minimizing stressors, working with behaviorists to desensitize your cat, and sticking to a consistent routine, you can help create a calm and stable environment for your cat.

Additionally, making simple adjustments like creating an ideal litter box setup, increasing exercise and mental stimulation, introducing natural, calming remedies like essential oils and herbs, and feeding a species-specific, nutritionally-balanced diet can significantly reduce your cat's anxiety and promote their overall well-being.

Remember to prioritize your own self-care routines to create a harmonious and stress-free environment for both you and your cat. By implementing these strategies, you can help your cat lead a happier, healthier, and more balanced life.

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