As a human sharing your life and space with a cat you’ll already know that your feline friend is VERY SET in their routines, habits and territory. In these unprecedented times (how many times have you read that phrase lately?!?!) our poor cats are now forced to share their core territory – their safe space. Some cats might love this (I think of the social Siamese), but I’d venture to say that most of them are finding this all a little stressful.
Our cats had years of sleeping, eating and relaxing in solitude during the day, but now have us, and our kids in their space… ALL THE TIME!
Even the most loving marriage is taking strain at this time!
We have nowhere to run.
Cats normally run to their home for safety and security. Now the routines and dynamics are different and it is no wonder some cats are not handling it very well.
Many people might not recognise the subtle signs of stress in cats.
Partly because we are never taught this but mostly because cats are so good at hiding it. They are truly the masters of disguise when it comes to hiding both illness and stress, having evolved from a largely independent and solitary species. A highly strung cat might have been coping perfectly well the way things were before, but now things are different and he/she might be struggling.
Severe signs of stress can include:
- Over grooming or self-mutilation, including excessive scratching.
- Inappropriate toileting habits
- Aggression towards other cats or owners
- Diarrhoea and vomiting
- Eating inanimate objects like carpets or wool (called pica esp in oriental breeds)
- Frequent and painful urination due to cystitis (male cats can also get a blocked urethra and be unable to urinate – this is an emergency!)
More subtle signs can include, but is not limited to:
- Increased vocalisation
- Ears pulled back. Head shaking or rippling/twitching of skin. Quick flicks of tongue over the nose and slow/exaggerated swallowing.
- Increased sleep, or mimicking sleep (for example lying on the window still with eyes closed but ears up and body tense and rigid)
- Increased hiding and clinginess
- Increased vigilance or reluctance to respond to surroundings
- Reduction in appetite or excessive eating
The big question is:
How can I help my cat?!
We need to alleviate the stress by creating the illusion/perception that…
There are enough resources.
There is no need for competition (between cats, or between humans and cats…). We know there is no competition for the kibble or the litter tray, but from the cat’s perspective there might well be!
In a multi-cat household it is very important to follow the one-per-cat-plus-one rule in stressful times like this, if it’s not already enforced.
In some cases it might be necessary to temporality add even more resources if there is competition between cats (eg staring by one individual while the other is on litter tray or eating food)
- Food and water stations (food and water should not be next to each other or near litter trays)
- Litter facilities
- Hiding and climbing places
Let’s start with litter facilities:
Like us, cats are at their most vulnerable when eliminating (urinating and defecating).
They don’t want to be disturbed, or watched, any more than we do….consider yourself having to go in the garden where your neighbour can see you, or worse is waiting to hit you over the head with a baseball bat!
We often have our cat’s litter trays in bathrooms or near washing machines etc. This is not a huge deal when we are out for hours at a time as the cat will just go when quiet…but now…well, it’s never quiet…and anyone can interrupt at any point.
Consider adding a litter tray (with cat’s favourite substrate) to a quiet area of the house, where there is not a lot of “traffic” from family members or other pets. Some people leave a wardrobe open, or that cupboard under the stairs you always meant to tidy This is after all just temporary.
When it comes to feeding….
Scatter feeding can help entertain the scavenger.
There is no need for fancy, expensive balls/toys…. An empty toilet roll tube (if you can still manage to get hold of them!) with holes and cellotape works really well. Or crumple a piece of paper loosely around some dried food.
Throwing kibble down the stairs one by one might make the cat chase it and pounce in a mock hunting game.
For wet food cats one can simply split the meals and place another bowl somewhere else. Or place it in muffin trays or ice cube trays for the cat to eat out of.
If your cat normally eats once the house is quiet, consider moving its food to a quiet area (eg upstairs once the family is all downstairs for breakfast) or having the kitchen empty for a time allowing the cat to eat in peace. This is especially important if you have small children that tend to bother the cat!
A temporary baby gate to create a “safe space” also works really well. The cat will very soon learn that the dog or toddler cannot follow it in there!
Try to act normally!
If you usually leave the cat alone – resist the urge to now pick it up repeatedly to reassure it. The cat will just wonder “what is wrong with my person??” and this will make it stress more!
Excessive handling if your cat is not used to it will be very stressful.
Take care that children know how to handle and touch a cat gently and respectfully. If the cat has had enough affection and walks/runs away – let it go. Teach children not to chase them.
Having a toddler play with a wand-type toy is a great stress reliever for cats and kids alike (a great trick is the parent to have the actual toy and the toddler to have a stick only – thus when swinging it exuberantly the poor cat/kid/parent won’t get smacked in the face by a flying mouse).
Unpredictability can be stressful to certain sensitive cats so even in these lockdown times try to keep things to a routine to so your cat knows what to expect…for example, after breakfast the kids are outside for an hour giving the cat time to eat on his own etc.
If possible create a quiet room
Where the cat will be undisturbed if he goes there. Or tell all family members that a certain area (eg when hiding behind sofa) is off limits to everyone.
Many people now find the time to groom the cat every day…
If your cat was used to weekly grooming…stick to it! Excessively brushing might be painful (esp to elderly cats), so don’t let it build up!
Hiding and climbing places
These can be created without the need of online shopping or DIY shelves attached to walls. Just use what you’ve got…
- That old box in the garage/loft.
- Plastic “for life” bags seem to be a big hit (keep an eye on your cat as some cats seem very attracted to plastic and will chew and swallow it)
- Leaving a wardrobe open.
- Clearing a space on a bookshelf or on top of a chest of drawers.
- Creating a safe space to perch on the washing machine or fridge.
Teaching kids (and some adults) to not disturb the cat when resting/hiding. If they come for attention – give it, but don’t go seek out your cat for cuddles or affection.
If things happen on the cat’s terms they are less likely to feel trapped and stressed.
Various pheromone diffusers available on the market that may also be of use in this time.
Hopefully in no time at all this will all be distant memory and your bond with your cat and family will be stronger than before.
For serious behavioural issues like aggression towards family members or other pets please contact your vet or a qualified licenced feline behaviourist.
If your cat tries to urinate (repeatedly visit the litter tray) and passes nothing – this is an emergency – contact your vet.
If your cat has vomited and had diarrhoea for longer than 24 hours and is also lethargic, not eating or not himself – please also contact your vet.