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Does your cat have behavioral or health problems? Could they be due to stress? Litterbox issues, aggression, skin disease and bowel conditions - as well as many other health and behavior problems - can all be triggered or exacerbated by stress. As cat owners, we should always be aware of the potential causes of stress in our cats' lives and work to eliminate them as much as possible. Read on to see what might be stressing your cat out.

What is Stress anyway?

Stress is a word we often use in our daily lives, usually meaning a sense of being worried about something, sometimes to the point of feeling overwhelmed. We worry about our health, our loved ones, money issues, getting stuck in traffic... it’s a long list indeed. But what about our cats? What stresses out our cats and how does that stress affect them?

Stress is closely associated with change. All living beings aim at achieving a stable existence where its needs are provided. This is called homeostasis - a state of equilibrium. Various pressures, either from the outside world, or from within our own body or mind, can all interfere with this sense of balance and produce stress.

The effects of stress can be both physical and psychological. Change is always threatening at some level. Even positive change. It triggers the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism, causing the release of adrenal hormones.

What Causes Stress?

Stressors, or causes of stress, can be tricky to identify. It is the perception of threat, rather than an objective level of threat, that causes stress. Therefore, something may cause stress in one individual, human or feline, and not in another. Some cats are just more prone to stress, being more sensitive to changes and disturbances in their environment. These cats tend to see potential threats everywhere.

Psychologists have lists of potential causes of stress in people. Generally speaking, these lists include two types of stressors -

1. Events - either positive ones such as engagement and marriage, the birth of a child, or moving to a new home, or negative events such as getting a divorce, losing one’s job or a death in the family.

2. Chronic stressors - things you have to deal with on a regular basis. Dealing with a difficult boss, teenage kids, or a noisy environment can create a constant level of stress that can eventually take its toll.

The Effects of Stress

All living beings are affected by stress and cats are no exception. In the long term, constant elevated stress levels can be harmful. In humans, they are associated with depression, a weaker immune system and even cancer. It’s likely that stress has a similar effect on cats. Reports indicate that stress can trigger or exacerbate medical conditions such as FLUTD, asthma, skin allergies, stomatitis, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, liver inflammation and even FIP.

Behavioral problems are a common result of increased stress levels. They can be fairly quick responses to acute stress, or develop over time. Practically any change in the cat’s behavior, and any reported behavior problem, can have its roots in increased stress levels. This is why a cat behaviorist’s detective work includes figuring out the stressors in a cat’s life.

Causes of Stress in Cats

Stress patterns can be complex. For example, a disease can be caused, at least in part, by elevated stress levels, but it can also be a stressor in its own right.

When evaluating the condition of a cat, especially when dealing with behavioral problems, it’s important to go over the list of potential stressors and identify the ones that may be at the root of the problem. Only by addressing these stressors, can we achieve a long-term solution to the problem. Just remember to look into potential medical problems first.

Here’s a list of potential stressors in a cat’s life. Some of these are unavoidable; others may be changes with a long-term positive outcome. Either way, they cause stress to your cat and you should be aware of that. Even if your cat is relatively “stress-resistant”, stressors can add up and create a stress overload, eventually bringing on behavioral and health problems.

Physical
  1. A visit to the vet or being hospitalized at the veterinary clinic
  2. Physical trauma
  3. An illness
  4. Parasites
  5. Surgery
  6. De-clawing
  7. New medication (physiological effects)
  8. Vision and/or hearing loss (sometimes gradual)
  9. Flea/tick treatments
  10. De-worming
  11. Wearing an E-collar (the “cone”)
  12. Chronic or acute pain
  13. Going into heat
  14. Pregnancy
  15. Lactating
  16. Being medicated (aversion to being pilled)
  17. Getting a bath
  18. Getting a haircut
Diet
  1. Change in type of food
  2. Weight loss diet and limiting food
  3. Nutritional deficiencies or an unbalanced diet
  4. Thirst or hunger
Litter boxes
  1. Not enough Litter boxes (having to “wait”)
  2. Dirty litter box
  3. A change in type of litter
  4. A change in litter box type
  5. A change in the location of the litter box
Environment
  1. Moving to a new home
  2. Renovating or remodeling the house, changing the decor
  3. Loud noises like thunderstorms, fireworks, construction, dogs barking
  4. Strong odors
  5. Starting to wear a collar
  6. Being adopted
  7. Living in a shelter
  8. Traveling
  9. Being boarded
  10. Getting lost
  11. Change in daily routine
  12. Change in seasons and Daylight Saving Time
  13. Limiting access to rooms in the house
  14. Confinement to a single room or crates and carriers
  15. House too hot or too cold
  16. Loud music or television
  17. Surprises and “booby traps”
  18. Scary cat toys
  19. Earthquakes
  20. Extreme weather conditions.
  21. Not enough physical activity.
  22. Sudden change in levels of physical activity
  23. Boredom and lack of stimuli
  24. Not enough options to climb
  25. Harassment and/or attacks by a dog or another pet
  26. New pet in the household
  27. Participating in a cat show
Relationship with People
  1. New baby in the house
  2. A death in the family
  3. Guests in the house
  4. New roomates or roomates leaving
  5. Owner starting a new job
  6. New spouse
  7. Family member leaving the household (going to college etc)
  8. Physical abuse by children or adults
  9. Being shouted at
  10. Being punished in any way
  11. Aggressive play with human
  12. Stress in humans
  13. Training of any kind (harness, use of toilet etc).
  14. Excessive petting or attention
  15. Too little attention
Relationship with Other Cats
  1. Introduction to new cat (especially when not done right)
  2. Food rivalry - having to compete with other cats during mealtime
  3. General rivalry with other cats in same household
  4. Sounds of cat fighting/howling
  5. Harassment and attacks by another cat or cats, especially when using the litter box
  6. Unknown cats showing up near the home
  7. Smell of another cat’s territorial urine marking

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