Why is it important? Cats are very prone to becoming stressed - and we now know that stress is a major factor in the development of a range of different diseases and problem-behaviours. In fact, stress and its attendant behaviours may be one of the most common reasons for cats to be rehomed. In this factsheet, we'll try to answer some of the key questions about stress in cats.
How do you know if a cat is stressed? "Acute", or sudden onset, stress or fear is usually easy to recognise - cats tend to crouch down, with their ears back, tail under them, and start shaking. Often, cats will hiss or growl, and they may wet or mess. However, "Chronic", longer term, stress is both more serious and harder to detect. Cats may lose their appetite, or sometimes start gorging. Often, they'll spend more time sleeping or hiding, and they may well increase their marking behaviours - urine spraying, scratching, and face rubbing. Personality changes may also be apparent - increased fussiness, or aggression, for example. Some stressed cats may also seem really confused, unable to decide if they like you or hate you; or appearing to forget the normal routines.
What things make a cat stressed? In general, there are three things that cats find stressful. Firstly, changes in the physical environment - so moving furniture, having building work, or replacing carpets or furniture are all difficult for them. Secondly, unexpected events - such as fireworks displays, trips to the vets, or alterations to routine. The most common source of chronic stress, however, is social stress. This typically involves competition between cats - cats often don't get on well with others, and often prefer to be solitary. Being forced to live with other cats, especially unrelated cats, can be inherently stressful (especially if they feel they have to compete for water bowls, food or litter trays). Likewise, new cats coming in (wanted or uninvited) will upset the existing residents. Of course, any human stress will also upset cats, so a new baby, or people moving in or out, will also be a problem.
What can stress lead to? Stress is the main cause of cystitis in cats (Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder). It also drives a number of unwanted behaviours, such as aggression, inappropriate urination and defecation, furniture scratching, and urine spraying. Finally, if a cat decides they're too stressed, they'll run away and try to find someone else to live with.
Solution 1 - Remove the underlying cause ...if possible! If there are several different cats living together, make sure that food and water bowls aren't all together, so the cats don't have to eat together if they don't want to, and make sure there are enough "facilities" for every cat plus one spare. In the case of changes to the human environment it's harder (we're not recommending you bring a child home from school because the cat is stressed, for example!) but where possible, try to minimise the impact on the cat(s).
Solution 2 - Use pheromones The product which has the best evidence is called Feliway; it contains a synthetic version of Feline Facial Pheromone, the scent that cats use to mark territory. The use of a spray or diffuser is to reassure the cat that they're safe, and it's really effective against all types of stress.
Solution 3 - Use calming products There are a huge range of cat "calmers" on the market; for many, we simply don't know how well they work. There is one product (Zylkene), containing the milk protein casein, that the evidence suggests does work; however, the effect of all of these products are variable and usually quite minor.
Solution 4 - Prescription medicines In some, very severe, cases, your vet can prescribe certain medications (such as alprazolam) which, at the right dose, can be useful in managing short-term stressors
In conclusion... If your cat seems stressed, it's really important to check that there isn't an underlying medical problem. If not, you need to try and work out why they aren't happy! Your vet can help, and in severe situations can refer you to a feline behaviourist to help you get it sorted.