Is Your Cat Stressed? (causes + signs of stress in cats)

Is your cat stressed or depressed? Modern day life can be very stressful for our cats but they are very good at hiding this.  Often we will only realize our cat is stressed when they develop extreme behaviors or illness.

In reality, if we know what to look for, we can recognize stress so much earlier.  Are they becoming withdrawn, grooming more or urine spraying?  Well these are just some of the signs of stress in pet cats.


Before jumping into the signs of stress lets look at what stress actually is, what it can result in and what can cause stress in cats.  

The problem with stress

Stress is a natural reaction and is not always bad.  In fact it can be very important for any animal to deal with sudden events as part of the fight or flight response.  The problems come when the stress moves from short term to long term, chronic stress.

It is this long term stress that can result in behavioral problems and it can actually be an important contributor or trigger to some serious diseases.  The big headline effects of this stress include urine spraying, aggression, over-grooming and cystitis.  This last one can even be fatal for male cats.

Causes of stress

But what do cats have to be stressed about?  Surely most of them live a pretty cushy life with their every whim catered for.  Well there is actually quite a lot in modern life that can cause stress and different factors such as genetics and socialization can influence how well each individual copes with these.  Some of our cats most common causes of stress include:

  • visiting strangers or a new baby

  • competition for resources such as food, water or litter trays

  • other cats both in the house or neighborhood

  • a change in routine

  • building work in the house

So let's look at the signs of short term, acute stress.  These situations are generally a result of an unexpected event or perceived threat.  The result is signs that are fairly easy to recognize.  It's important to know though that your cat may only show one or two of these signs and that some are only shown when more severe stress is present.

Acute stress

General body posture will change with a cat becoming motionless with legs bent.   The tail may be held close to the body or it may start to flick from side to side, almost like a dog slowly wagging their tail.  They will make sure not to expose the underside of their belly and their breathing is likely to become more rapid.

The big give-aways of stress are often found by looking it the head.  It may be held closer to the ground, motionless and lower than the body.  The eyes are likely to be wide open and the pupils fully dilated.  Rather than a vertical slit of black you will notice the eye is almost completely taken up by a circle of black and only a thin slither of iris color around the outside.

causes of stress in cats

Staying with their head, the ears will become more and more flattened and pulled back, the whiskers will be pulled back and your cat might start making a sad, mournful miaow.  As stress levels rise this miaow will turn to a yowl and then a growl.  they may then begin to hiss as well as potentially start shaking or drooling.

Finally, a terrified cat may pass urine or defecate uncontrollably.  By this stage, and even before if they are approached it is very likely that they will lash out either swiping with their claws or trying to bite.  If your cat turns from kitten to monster then you know they are truly stressed.

Chronic stress

As you can see, these signs of acute stress become progressively more obvious and I'm sure you would easily recognize them in your cat should the situation arise.  Chronic stress signs are much more subtle.  This makes them harder to recognize, especially as they often develop slowly over a long period of time.  Rather than clear physical characteristics, chronic stress generally causes behavioral changes rather than changes in physical appearance.

Long term signs of stress in cats

A reduction in activity is first up.  Chronic stress behavior often results in increased time resting, sleeping (or even just pretending to sleep) and also hiding away in safe places.  These safe places are often off the ground, darker and enclosed, giving your cat a feeling of security.

As well as this reduction in physical activity, we may actually get an increase in other behaviors.  One we can all relate to is eating.  If we are feeling a bit depressed or stressed we reach for the comfort food.  Cats are the same and you may very well notice that your cat is spending more time at their food bowl if you leave food down for them all the time.

If they are just fed at meal times you might find that they are pestering you for more food or seeming to be always hungry.  You might also notice them start to get overweight which can have serious implications too (learn all about the dangers of obesity here)

Grooming is the next activity that might be increased.  Excessive time spent grooming might appear as though your cat is itchy.  It is often directed at specific areas, frequently both sides of the abdomen.  Over-grooming can be to such an extent that the hair is all removed and your cat is left with bald patches.  We can tell that these bald areas are because a cat is removing the hair rather than falling out by feeling the hair that is left in that area.  What you will feel is that the hair feels sharp and rough compared to the rest of the coat.  This is because you are feeling broken hair shafts and not normal hair tips.


Interaction with the family is another activity that may be increased with your cat wanting continual reassurance and coming across as needy.  This is very personality dependent however with other cats either withdrawing from family life or coming across as though caught in two minds.  With either of these situations, for our outdoor cats, you might also notice that your cat is spending more time in the house.  They might reduce the amount of time they spend outside and may also either refuse to go out at certain times or never stray far from their cat flap.

With this time spent in the house will also come a couple of easily recognized behaviors, scratching and face rubbing.  These are both behaviors which identify safe places.  Scratching provides both visual and sent marking while face rubbing releases feline facial pheromone into your cats home environment.  All of these factors mark out your cats territory and the more they feel at home the safer they feel.

Toileting issues are often the behavior a stressed cat exhibits that results in help and advice being sought.  As owners we will often become understandably frustrated with a cat who sprays urine or toilets in unusual places as very often there seems to be no cause or reason as to why they are doing this.

Well the answer is generally stress (although there are some medical issues that can also cause problem peeing).  Spraying is when your cat is standing up and the urine is directed onto vertical surfaces like walls or furniture.  This is something normally only done by entire animals as a form of marking.  If your cat is stressed though, marking their own territory is incredibly important for them.  Spraying is another part of this along-side face rubbing and scratching.

Urinating and defecating in a normal way but in locations other than their litter tray can also be a sign of stress.  This might be for reasons such as too high a competition for litter trays, or a new cat spending time in "their" garden.  This one might also be because of cystitis, arthritis, senility or a number of other common causes.  This means it is a good idea that any cat urinating inappropriately gets checked out by their vet.

My final big sign of stress in cats is aggression.  Depending on your cats personality they may either choose to hide away or alternatively become aggressive.  Some might do both.  This aggression can take several forms.  They may attack other cats, they may target strangers to the house of even close family.  A stressed cat may also direct their aggression towards something other than the source of the perceived threat.  An example would be your cat attacking you after getting scared by a slamming door.   This aggression may even be towards inanimate objects.  A precursor to this behavior might be becoming hyper-vigilant, appearing on edge all the time, stopping playing and jumping at the smallest events.

Stress causes cystitis, obesity + other problems in cats

To quickly summarize this list of the tell-tale signs your cat is stressed, we can break them down to:

  • Reduced physical activity

  • Increase in some behaviors (feeding, grooming)

  • Increased marking (face rubbing, scratching, urination)

  • Change in interaction (more OR less)

  • Aggression

Remember too that these signs may be very subtle and the chances are that your cat would only show 1 or 2 of these if they become stressed.  By knowing what to look out for though you will now be able to pick up these subtle signs and help your cat feel comfortable and safe.  Don't underestimate the effects of stress on your cats quality of life.

As for how you can help your cat?  Check out my article all about reducing stress in cats.

Have you got a stressed cat?  How did their behavior change?  I would love to hear in the comments below.  Also consider signing up to my newsletter to make sure you don't miss out on future content and allow me to continue to help you and your cat live healthier, happier lives.

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