Stressed Pet? Behavior Experts Offer 10 Key Calming Steps

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Over time, chronic stress can lead to physical problems and behavioral changes in your cat, so nipping stress in the bud is important
  • Some cats may prefer to be left alone for several hours following a stressful event, while others may appreciate your presence near them (but not necessarily want you to pet them)
  • It’s essential that your cat has a safe spot to retreat to when he’s feeling threatened or anxious; such spots may be hidden or covered areas, or vertical spaces, such as the top of a cat tree
  • Put your cat’s essential items, such as his litterbox, bed, food and water bowl, in an area he feels safe and secure; avoid noisy, high-traffic areas out in the open, instead opting for quiet, private spaces where your cat feels welcome and secure
  • Many felines dislike loud music, but white noise or soft classical music may provide a calming distraction for your cat, especially as a way to cover up more offensive sounds like construction work

From loud noises to an unfamiliar guest in your home, the list of things that can stress out your cat is likely endless. Every cat has unique stress triggers.

For some, it's the sight of a cat carrier, signaling a trip to the veterinarian. For others, it's an unsolicited attempt to pick him up or hug him. Other cats may become stressed by other pets in your home, fragrances (such as those from scented candles), thunderstorms or even the birthday balloons you've set out on the counter.

It's virtually impossible to eliminate every potential stress trigger for cats, but there are many ways you can help your cat to stay calm in the face of a stressful situation. Step No. 1 is knowing when your cat needs to be calmed down. Sometimes it's obvious, such as if your cat starts vocalizing his displeasure and tries to run away. Other times it's more subtle, such as slight tension in his body, changes in ear movements or even changes in the size of his pupils.

Over time, chronic stress can lead to physical problems and behavioral changes in your cat, from marking or avoiding his litterbox to becoming aggressive or destructive. So not only is it in your cat's best interest to take stress seriously, it's in the whole family's as well. Once it's clear your cat is stressed, PetMD spoke with several certified cat behavior consultants who shared 10 key steps for regaining calm.1

How to Calm Your Cat

1. Be Present, Not Smothering — While some cats enjoy being held, petted and hugged, others find this overstimulating or just plain frightening. If your cat is stressed, holding him may be especially unwelcome, as he needs time to unwind and decompress. Some cats may prefer to be left alone for several hours following a stressful event, while others may appreciate your presence near them (but not necessarily want you to pet them).

2. Be Patient When Introducing New Things — For short-term exposures to new people or places, such as a guest coming over for the day, there won't be enough time for your cat to adjust. In this case, it's best to keep kitty in a safe space, such as a bedroom, with a litterbox, bed, toys and water, so he doesn't get overly stressed.

If the guest is permanent, be it a human or furry family member, or you're going to be moving or otherwise permanently changing up your cat's world, be patient and make the introductions slow.

For instance, if you bring a new cat into your home, I recommend setting her up in her own little "apartment" for at least her first week. This will allow her to get adjusted on her own terms, as well as give your current kitty time to adjust to the new visitor, albeit from outside the door.

3. Provide Safe Spots — It's essential that your cat has a safe spot to retreat to when he's feeling threatened or anxious. Every cat is different, but some cats may like a hiding spot under a bed while others look for a perch off the floor.

Vertical cat condos with high up hiding spots are ideal for some cats, while others may love a covered space. Removing electrical pollution around your cat can also help (wireless Wi-Fi routers), as can a grounding pad.

"Some cats are more bush-dwellers, so they like to stay hidden and under things [while other] cats gain a lot of comfort and solace in being up high," Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant with Fundamentally Feline in Georgia told PetMD.2

4. Put Kitty's Things Where He Likes Them — You may be tempted to move your cat's litterbox in the basement and his food in the kitchen, but for fearful or stressed-out cats, those areas may be the last places he'd like to go.

Ideally, put your cat's essential items, such as his litterbox, bed, food and water bowl, in an area he feels safe and secure. Avoid noisy, high-traffic areas out in the open, instead opting for quiet, private spaces where your cat feels welcome and secure.

5. Let Your Cat Spread His Scent — I'm not referring to marking but rather the scent cats leave behind when they rub against you or the couch. "Cats do a lot of things to comfort themselves, like leaving their scent around with their facial rubbing, and their scent marking on their paws," Johnson said. "It brings them comfort to be able to send messages around."3

In addition to allowing your cat to express these natural behaviors, add cat-friendly areas where your cat can leave his scent, like a scratching post, and add a familiarly scented object, such as a toy or blanket, to the cat carrier if you need to leave home. Doing so will provide added comfort to your cat.

6. Try Flower Essences — Cats are very sensitive to scents, and flower essences are gentle enough to not be offensive to cats, but very beneficial for emotional support. Flower essences are safe to use topically on cats.

Although caution must be exercised when using essential oils around cats, Dr. Melissa Shelton, a holistic and integrative veterinarian in Minnesota, has developed a line of oil blends specifically for diffusion around cats, including a calming blend made from German chamomile, clary sage, ylang ylang, frankincense and more.

7. Try Calming Music — Many felines dislike loud music but white noise or soft classical music may provide a calming distraction for your cat, especially as a way to cover-up more offensive sounds like construction work. A team of researchers actually collaborated with a musician to create music that would be appealing to cats, based on natural feline vocalizations.

They created species-specific music that was played for domestic cats in their homes, and many of the cats showed their approval by rubbing their head against the speakers playing the music.4

8. Herbal Remedies and Supplements — While addressing the underlying cause of your cat's stress is important, if you need some shorter-term relief, herbs and supplements can be very useful.

Talk to your holistic veterinarian about calming herbs and nutraceuticals such as 5-HTP, calming milk protein, l-theanine, ashwagandha, rhodiola, hops, holy basil (Tulsi) and chamomile. There are also excellent traditional Chinese herbs that can reduce anxiety, as well as homeopathic remedies.

9. Provide Outlets for Play — When your cat is in a calm, happy state, try to entice him with some playtime. Pull out your cat's favorite toys and spend 15 or 20 minutes engaging your cat. "Play decreases stress in cats and can increase their confidence in places previously associated with fear," Johnson said.5

10. Look for the Underlying Problem — Ultimately, you should strive to seek out and eliminate the sources of your cat's stress, assuming they're environmental.

If you live in a multi-pet household and conflict exists between them, you may need to seek out professional guidance from a cat behavior consultant to determine where the stress is coming from and what can be done about it. Left ignored, chronic stress can lead to physical health problems in your kitty, so take time to seriously de-stress your home.

Pay attention to lighting (avoid LED lights), sounds (cats need quiet spots) and smells (remove smoke and other airborne toxins), making each amicable to your kitty, and don't forget about diet. Feeding a diet specifically designed for your carnivorous cat is the best way to prevent nutrition-related stress and enhance your cat's overall well-being.

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