The current coronavirus pandemic has changed our everyday lives as we know it. Even though we seem to be past the worst of it, many of us are feeling stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. You are definitely not alone and someone else who might have similar emotions right now is your pet! Cats are very perceptive animals and can sense and reflect our stress or anxiety. While they might not understand the coronavirus itself, just like humans, animals can become stressed and overwhelmed when changes in their daily routine occur.
Cats are creatures of habit and like to feel in control of their ‘territory’ aka the surrounding environment (your house, your garden and the neighbourhood you live in). During this pandemic countless people are either self-isolating or working from home and many children are no longer able to attend school. Due to this there are more people at home during the day and daily routines have been disrupted. Animals find comfort in routines and cats can be especially sensitive to any household changes.
So, while your cat may love having their family home all the time, it is important to remember these abrupt changes can also be disconcerting or stressful. Stress can negatively impact on your pets mental and physical wellbeing, which can lead to poor health or behavioural problems. Stress can also have a negative impact on the human-animal bond between you and your pet. Due to this it is essential to be proactive during this pandemic to decrease stress in all of your pets.
Signs of stress in cats
As you probably know, cats are very independent animals and commonly hide signs of stress or anxiety. Due to this, it is important to watch for any subtle behavioural changes you may notice them displaying. These signs of stress can and will differ from cat to cat with varying severity. Signs of stress include:
Changes in demeanour
- Aggression towards other cats or owners
- Increased vocalisation and demanding attention
- Increased hiding or sleeping
- Increased awareness and response to surroundings
Changes in body positioning
- Eyes – large, round pupils
- Ears – out to the side; back against head
- Body – legs tucked under body; body crouched
- Mouth – open; panting; hissing, growling, spitting
- Tail – curled around body or tucked; forceful movement, twitching, thumping
- Over-grooming – leading to hair loss around the abdomen, leg, flank and chest; irritation of the skin
Changes in toileting behaviours
- Inappropriate toileting (large amounts of urine and/or faeces) or Urine marking (small amounts of urine)
- Frequent, painful urination – often a sign of stress cystitis (inflammation of the bladder)
Change in appetite
- Decreased appetite – in severe cases this can lead to anorexia
- Increased appetite
- Eating strange things (pica)
Ways to decrease stress in cats
Luckily, if you are worried your cat may be feeling stressed during these uncertain times, there are many different ways you can try to make your cat feel more comfortable and prevent or decrease stress.
One of the most important things you can do for your cat is to try and keep a daily routine where possible. As mentioned earlier cats like to feel in control and are comforted by routines. It is a good idea to develop a schedule that can provide structure by feeding, playing, grooming and exercising your cat at the same time each day. By maintaining such routines this allows your cat to feel safe and decrease their stress while preventing further changes during this pandemic lifestyle.
It is also important to provide places for your cat to hide as hiding is an important coping tactic for many cats. Safe spaces can be something as simple as a cardboard box or high-sided/igloo cat beds, to areas or rooms in your home you know your cat is partial to hiding in (under beds, inside cupboards). If you have children at home, it is important to remind them to leave your cat alone when they are in their ‘safe space’ and when they are sleeping or hiding around the house. This ensures your cat knows they have a regular area where they can be left alone for some peace and quiet without being disturbed. These spaces are important as they provide a safe and familiar territory which allow for your cat to feel a sense of control and increased security, helping to reduce stress.
There are a wide range of enrichment and toys available for cats that may also be a useful tool to prevent or reduce stress.
- Introduce food puzzles, interactive feeders and treat dispenser toys to provide mental stimulation and entertainment
- Play with your cat for 10 – 15 minutes every day
- Grow indoor plants such as catnip or catmint
- Provide new climbing/perching areas
- Play classical or cat music for a calming effect (yes, really!)
Cats have an excellent sense of smell and communicate with other cats through the use of pheromones (chemical messengers). There are a number of different pheromones cats produce. One important one is the feline facial pheromone which is a comforting pheromone. This pheromone is produced by glands on their cheeks, chin, forehead, around their mouth and base of their ears. When you see your cat rub their faces on people, other pets and household objects (doorways, chair legs) they are depositing this pheromone to mark these items as safe or familiar.
An artificial version of this facial pheromone (Feliway) has been developed and can calm animals and provide a sense of reassurance. Reducing stress and stress-related behaviours. This product is available as a spray or as a diffuser and can help cats handle stressful situations such as abrupt changes in daily routines.
Massaging or gentle rubbing on their forehead, under the chin and around the cheeks of your cat can help comfort your cat and reduce stress. However, it is important to allow your cat to come to you for attention, do not seek your cat out for cuddles or attention. Allow them to feel in control of the situation.
If changes to your cat’s environment haven’t been successful or if you are struggling with behavioural issues, there are also antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications available from your local veterinarian.
Remember that each cat is an individual. What may work to alleviate stress in one cat may not work for another. If you are still concerned or want further advice or information, don’t hesitate to contact your local veterinarian. While the pandemic has changed the way we live, vets all around the country are still open in some capacity for your animal and we are always happy to help!