How to help your cat cope with stress

What diseases are stress related in cats?

1) Over-grooming

Over-grooming refers to any behaviour that goes beyond the grooming for normal coat maintenance and scent distribution. Over grooming leads to patches of broken and sparse hair, complete hair loss in some areas and occasionally damage to the underlying skin. It can occur in any part of the body that the cat can reach. Most commonly this occurs on, the belly, inside thighs, the legs front and back and across the flank. The patches can often appear in a symmetrical fashion on either side of the body.

2) Feline lower urinary tract disease (cystitis)

This is a common problem in cats which causes pain and discomfort in the bladder area. As the bladder lies in the lower abdomen, it appears cats will lick this area to try to relieve the discomfort. In doing so, they cause fur loss in that area. A common presentation of a cat with chronic urinary problems, is that they will have a bald belly and inner thighs. Stress is a major known cause of both Feline lower urinary tract disease and over- grooming.

3) Feline hyperaesthesia syndrome

This is a poorly understood condition. It manifests in various bizarre behaviours. This includes skin twitching and sudden bouts of intense grooming, biting and chewing, often of the feet and tail. This condition may have started as a result of allergy to parasites or other environmental factors, but stress is likely to be involved in the perpetuation of the disease.

Why do cats get stressed?

Cats do not show their emotions as overtly as some species. They may just become reserved and quiet, rather than acting out their anxieties. The cat has evolved mechanisms to deal with short term or acute stress – which is what they would need if faced with threats in the wild. Now cats are semi-domesticated, they face other things that they are less well suited to deal with. The development of chronic stress can lead to behavioural and physical problems.

What contributes to stress in cats?

Cats have evolved to be responsible for their own survival. Apart from lions who live in troops, all other cats live solitary lives. This means they have to constantly risk assess, looking out for the presence of threat and danger in every new location or social encounter – whether this be feline, canine or human. Cats do get used to their own owners and to the other pets that live in their home, but give them “foreigners”, and they will react very differently. Any change that occurs in a cats’ life is likely to cause stress, as will not having access to basic needs including: food, water, toilet, and escape route!

How can I stop it happening?

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Think about the number of cats you have. Introducing a new one will be very stressful for an existing cat.
  • Provide the right number of resources for your cats. One per cat and one extra. This goes for bowls, litter trays, scratching posts and so on.
  • Do not change your cat’s routine if at all possible. They are greatly reassured if their lives consist of familiar routines and a degree of predictability, as they know, historically, that these are safe.
  • If you do have to adopt change, such as, when the family descend including strangers and dogs for instance: make sure your cat has all it needs in a safe place. Try to introduce these changes ahead of when they are needed.
  • Use pheromone sprays and plug-ins to help.

If you are worried that your cat may be displaying signs of a stress related illness, or has behavioural issues – please do contact your local veterinary practice as our experienced vets and nurses will be happy to help.