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10 Things You Might Do That Stress Your Cat Out

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

causes of stress in cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are many things in the life of an indoor cat that can stress her out — including you, her dedicated human
  • Many cat parents don’t realize they do things or behave in ways that create stress for feline family members
  • Many stress triggers can be avoided when you understand the basic nature of cats and provide yours with environmental enrichment

If you share your life with a cat, you're aware that our feline friends find many normal, everyday things somewhat stressful. Just a slight variation in kitty's daily routine can make her skittish, and a major change such as a move to a new home or the arrival of a new pet in the family can quickly send even a laid-back cat off the deep end.

The reason for this is probably because felines associate "unauthorized" changes in their surroundings with a loss of control. Cats very much like to feel in control of their environment. When they don't, they get anxious. And what many well-intentioned pet parents don't realize is the extent to which the humans in cats' lives can create stress for them.

10 Ways We Cause Stress for Feline Family Members

1. Assume she understands what you're saying — Cats use body language to communicate. That's why talking to them is typically unproductive. Instead, if you teach kitty to "sit" and other commands (like "off the counter"), she'll learn to associate your words with the behaviors you want to see. Like dogs, cats can be clicker trained using food rewards, and it can be an easy, fun way to shape their behavior.

Needless to say, with clicker training, punishments are not used. Instead, you "mark" a desirable behavior with a click, and then reward it with a treat.

2. Punish him for acting like a cat — When your kitty is behaving in a way you don't want him to, getting physical with him will do only one thing — teach him to fear you. Yelling at him will scare him off, but probably only for the moment. Instead, when you find your cat doing something he shouldn't, distract him with a toy or activity to show him what you want him to do instead, and then lavishly reward him for his desirable behavior.

In addition, make sure he has plenty of approved climbing and scratching surfaces around your home, and keep potentially hazardous items out of his reach.

3. Hold her to kiss or hug her — Cats are natural predators, but they're also prey. The first thing a predator does upon catching a prey animal is restrain it, which is why your kitty needs to maintain her ability to move freely and escape.

It's also why she probably gets stressed when you hold her, even though you're being affectionate. Cats like to have all interactions on their own terms (it's part of their need to control their environment), so it's always best to let kitty come to you.

4. Hold his head — It's natural for humans to approach cats head on, however, it's anything but natural for the cat, which is why the response of most kitties is to recoil from a direct grab. Unfortunately, as soon as the cat throws it in reverse, many people are so committed to the exchange they grab his head and proceed to ruffle his fur. Now, imagine how you'd like it if someone did that to you!

Cats don't appreciate a head-on approach or head grabs. They are much more comfortable with long, gentle strokes from the head or neck area to the tail, or a bit of light scratching around the ears or chin.

5. Pretend your fingers and toes are toys — It's tremendously tempting to wiggle your toes or fingers under the covers to watch your cat's reaction. It's also normal to be painfully surprised to learn just how quickly he can move, and how sharp those little teeth and claws are!

What you should not do in response is get angry at your cat, since you mimicked the behavior of prey, and he responded like the predator he is. A better option is to use interactive toys to engage with your kitty so he learns your hands and other body parts are not prey.

6. Pick a bad spot for her litterbox — Just as human toilets aren't located in the middle of the living room, neither should your cat's litterbox be in an open, noisy, high-traffic area of your home.

Just like us, cats need a private, safe spot in which to do their business. Situate the litterbox in a quiet area of your home in which kitty isn't apt to encounter people, other pets, or loud appliances. If your cat is older, be sure the location and the litterbox itself are easily accessible to her.

7. Let litterbox cleanliness slide — Felines are very clean creatures, so it goes without saying they loathe a dirty bathroom. Most indoor kitties will happily use the litterbox and not the floor or some other off-limits location as long as their human keeps their bathroom clean.

Your cat's litterbox should be scooped at least once daily and dumped and thoroughly cleaned every 1 to 2 weeks. This will help prevent him from eliminating outside the litterbox and will also allow you to regularly monitor the quantity and quality of his "output."

8. Use scented candles, plug-ins, cologne, or other strong-smelling chemicals Cats are very sensitive to odors (it's one of the reasons they're so stressed during veterinary visits — all those smells!) and are often bothered by strong scents in the air, on clothing or bedding, and even on their humans.

If you share your home with a kitty, try to keep your use of chemicals of all kinds to a minimum, especially those with a strong odor. Instead, choose organic, nontoxic home cleaners in place of toxic pine-based floor cleaners, chemical wet mops, or ammonia/bleach-based cleaners.

9. Bring home unfamiliar cats — Any new member of the household, two-legged or four, will cause temporary stress for your cat. This goes double for a feline addition to the family, especially when the newcomer isn't properly introduced.

The introduction of a new cat to the family should be well controlled. This means setting him up in a separate area initially, and letting the cats get accustomed to each other gradually, at their own pace. This approach will help reduce the risk of inter-cat aggression and keep everyone's stress level down.

10. Leave her home alone overnight — Many people believe one of the advantages of having a cat is that their independent nature allows them to be left on their own for long periods. While it's true most cats don't require as much hands-on attention as dogs do, it's really not a good idea to leave your cat alone when you travel.

Number one, kibble, which is the only food that won't spoil sitting out in the open for days, isn't a species-appropriate diet for cats. I never recommend dry pet food, especially for kitties. In addition, many cats will gorge themselves, eating all the food within hours after you leave. Then they (often) throw up and have nothing to eat until you return. This is stressful for your cat, and can also endanger her health, since kitties need to eat every day.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, an unattended, un-scooped, stinky litterbox is an invitation to your cat to find some other spot to relieve herself.

And finally, in a worst-case scenario your cat could injure herself or become ill during your absence, and no one would know. I recommend asking a friend, relative, neighbor or professional pet sitter to stop by each day during your absence to feed and water kitty, scoop the litterbox, and spend a few minutes with her to insure she's content and healthy.

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Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020

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