Cats and Stress

Pet Tales

by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Resting peacefully on your lap, as you gently stroke its soft haircoat, a soft, rolling rumble from its throat drifts up toward you. Standing tall and balanced deftly on rear legs only, it swiftly strikes at the dancing, brightly coloured feathers that you dangle in play before it. With eyes closed, lying flat on its side in the patch of winter sunshine striking the rug below the window, it seems totally oblivious to any care in the world. Yes, there are some behaviours that eloquently speak of a calm, confident and at peace with the world feline.

Unfortunately, there are stresses that can intrude on this ideal. We can recognize some of the things that seem to be particularly troublesome to cats. I'm certain there may be others that despite the long relationship between humans and felines, we may not yet fully understand.

As with many of us, cats sometimes have trouble dealing with change. A new home may  be exciting, but it will likely require some adjustments. Likewise with home improvements - new windows, a renovated room, new furniture, all may be disruptive. Newcomers may also be bothersome. A new baby, a new pet or even a new cat visiting in the yard outside, may trigger real concerns for a feline.

Cats are true homebodies. Traveling does not rank high on their list of pleasures. Meeting new people, encountering new smells, listening to unfamiliar noises, being handled by strangers, all are likely to create anxiety.

In many ways, cats are not dogs. This fact is true even in some of the most basic elements in how they live. Cats, big or small, domesticated or wild, tend to be much more solitary than dogs. Seldom do they live in groups or a pack the way dogs do. In a  multi-cat household, it's not uncommon for one or more of the cats to be disturbed by density of the feline population.

 When cats are stressed, for whatever the reason, it's likely there will be consequences. Often stressed cats may display undesirable behaviour. Urine marking, vertical scratching, litter box avoidance and food intake disorders are examples of such problem behaviour. When abnormal behaviour occurs cat owners, reacting appropriately to the issue, often seek advice from their veterinarian.

If stress is thought to be involved in causing a problem or if a stressful situation is anticipated, there are some things that should be done. At such times, as part of a solution, veterinarians may talk with cat owners about feline facial pheromones. Pheromones are chemical substances used by animals to communicate with others of their kind. Cats rely on these chemical communicators for different purposes. Cat people are very familiar with cats rubbing their faces against people and places in their environment. When they do so, they are placing the scent of these pheromones on the object they are rubbing against. Facial pheromones are used by cats to recognize passageways and to identify familiar surroundings and have a calming effect for them. Sometimes, when a cat comes into contact with secreted pheromones, it may react by wrinkling its nose and curling its lip. This is called the Flehman reaction and better enables the cat to perceive the scent. Feliway is a synthetic analogue of one fraction of feline facial pheromones. It has been recommended by veterinarians for many years in dealing with stressed cats.  It is available as s spray for use on objects in a stressed cat's environment or for spot use in carriers or cages. It also comes in a diffuser format for use in a house with a cat(s) experiencing stress. Remember psychological problems can be just as much a problem for our pets as for ourselves. Never hesitate to ask your veterinarian for help with problems of this nature. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at