Feline Stress

Feline Stress and its Effect on Health

Constraints to normal behaviour will lead to stress/tension and we must
understand normal feline ethology to know what these constraints are.
Emotional and physical health cannot be separated.

Basic Principles of feline ethology (behaviour)

  • Cats are solitary survivors although they are not anti-social
  • Cats have a fundamental need to be in control
  • Cats must have free and immediate access to resources at all times (waiting in line only occurs in socially obligate animals e.g. dogs, horses, humans)
  • Cats have limited behaviours to facilitate cooperation
  • Cats need the ability to evade or avoid sources of potential stress, e.g. cats will not eat everything put in front of them (compared with dogs) as they are more susceptible to the effects of toxins in foods – dogs can deal with ingested toxins much better, i.e. cats will not eat spoiled food
  • Access to privacy and seclusion are considered to be positive features of the environment – i.e. a cat alone is not an unhappy cat it is more likely to be a happy cat enjoying seclusion.


The Domestic Environment

  • Humans take control of cats’ basic resources and make feline survival a shared responsibility
  • Humans own pets as a source of companionship and put certain demands on cats in terms of social interaction.
  • Humans have a desire for close physical interaction and see retreat as malcontent – the person sitting alone is generally considered to be lonely
  • Humans believe company is crucial to happiness

Cats do live in groups but they exist as matriarchal societies for reproduction, the queens are related and the males just come in to reproduce.

Humans repeatedly pick cats up off the ground and restrain them in what humans believe to be displays of affection. This is in fact stressful for cats as their main evasive behaviour is to run and they can’t do this with their feet off the ground. However you can teach kittens to enjoy being picked up and cuddled.

The consequence of this is that many cats live a constant state of stress and tension.

Feline Idiopathic Cystitis (FIC)


  • Chronic rather than acute stress is more important in the aetiology(causation) of this syndrome. Acute stress can in fact be beneficial for survival as it makes you do something – (who gets more done when there is a deadline to work to?)
  • Cats with FIC have a difference in the way they respond to stress. Displacement behaviours allow animals to cope with stress. In cats with FIC they have increased sympathetic activity but not an increase in plasma ACTH and cortisol, this is caused by an uncoupling of the hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal axis (HPA axis). This uncoupling is also seen in humans with chronic stress.
  • We don’t know if chronic stress leads to a breakdown of the HPA axis or if these cats have an abnormal HPA axis to start with and therefore the stresses become chronic (chicken and egg situation)

History taking is very important when dealing with behaviour problems.

Draw a timeline, with behavioural factors such as environmental changes on the top and physical factors, clinical symptoms underneath. This will help to ascertain when the physical symptoms started and what they coincided with.

Adequate and appropriate socialisation is paramount to introducing cats to living with humans so

  • Touch kittens all over
  • Lift them frequently
  • Gently restrain them
  • Socialise them to a number of different people, i.e. more than four, in a controlled gentle and non threatening way
  • Handle kittens for an hour in total daily in short but frequent sessions
  • Have the queen present if she is well socialised and chilled but not if she is stressed by the situation.
  • Littermates will increase confidence of small kittens – hence in litters of one only, the kitten will tend to be timid
  • The boldness trait is important for sociable cats and is inherited from both the tom and the queen

Cats live in social groups of related individuals. If social incompatibility occurs, fighting is their last resort. This is because they are socially isolated; they do not have back up (compare with dogs, who will fight in packs)

Adult cats do not have submissive behaviour in their armoury. If they fight they bite. They are not good at getting out of conflict once it starts. If cats are hissing spitting and fighting, the social conflict and incompatibility is extreme.

Sometimes the effects of tension in households can be quite subtle e.g. cats sitting on front paws ready to run if required, turning their heads away from each other, ears back.

Cats have 5 key resources in the following order

  • Food
  • Water
  • Latrines
  • Resting places
  • Points of entry/exit for the territory(core territory which is where they eat sleep and play)

Food is more important than water to a cat as cats get most of their water in their food.

Humans have control over their resources

Feeding of meals is a restriction of THE major survival resource.

Cats prefer to graze, will eat 15 – 20 times a day in their natural environments.

Cats eat alone, they do not eat in groups – get rid of your double bowls, don’t feed cats at the same time in the same place all in a group.

Cats should be, as should everyone, in a relaxed parasympathetic state when eating.

Cats eating in groups will be in an adrenaline fuelled sympathetic state which can effect digestion and also changes the metabolism of food so that it is deposited as fat rather than protein/muscle.

Cats need free and immediate access to their resources at all times.

Cats prefer to eat and drink in separate locations because in the natural sate where they would be eating live prey, the water next to their food may be contaminated with faeces, guts or blood.


Cats do not like drinking from plastic bowls as it taints the water. They also do not like a change in water taste, e.g. if you suddenly started giving mineral water they probably wouldn’t like it.

When drinking cats need a clear view of the meniscus when the water is still (this ensures it is not stagnant there’s no algae growing in it), therefore they need a large bowl. It needs to be filled to the top; they do not like putting their heads inside bowls because they don’t like their whiskers touching the sides of the bowl.

Moving water is more attractive to cats because it is obviously not stagnant.

Litter trays – to be covered or not

It depends on the cat, some prefer to be hidden away but some would find that threatening as they felt they had only one escape route.


The location if the tray is more important than the number of trays. I.e. if you have more than one cat and therefore need more than one litter tray, putting them side by side is just the same as having one tray as far as the cat is concerned.

Elderly cats that have arthritis and pain use ramps so they can get to the tray easier. Use sloping trays (deeper at distal end, they walk into them like a sloping swimming pool – use plant potting trays).

Keep the trays clean – scoop them daily and clean them completely once a week do not completely clean daily as this will remove the scent.

Litter must be deep enough that they can easily cover the faeces.

Handling cats

Remember cats cannot diffuse conflict once it is happening. So start softly when handling cats. Use minimal restraint. IF a cat reaches a high state of stress and is biting and hissing, it will remain stressed for a good half hour – no point putting it back in the kennel for 5 mins to cool down, better to start softly so they don’t get into the heightened state.

Let the cat come out of the basket on its own. It has had a stressful time getting put in the basket, then transported to the practice.

New cats to a household must bring with it its own resources so as not to interfere with the other cats – this means another food bowl, another water bowl, another litter tray, another resting place, and maybe another cat flap.


Puzzle feeders are great – use a small plastic drink bottle, cut a few holes in it big enough for food to fall out when they roll it. Ensure edges of holes are filed so the cat can’t cut its tongue on it. Then the fat cat has to work for its food and the cat that prefers to be alone living in a multicat household, can take it with them to a safe place where it can eat on its own.

Contact usFor more information about our Greengates branch, or to book an appointment for your pet simply contact our friendly team on 0127 4610 627.