Stress in Cats: common causes, how to spot it and ways to help.

From a human perspective cats might look like they have it easy: a warm bed, roof over their head, company, food provided on demand (meow!) and no responsibilities.

Yet stress related problems in cats are really common and often misunderstood and when we start to look at things from a feline point of view, we can quickly start to realise what might be making them feel on edge. 

Here are some common causes:

Poor relationships with other pets in the house. 

Nowhere to escape the hustle and bustle of a family home.

Lack of choice about when to go in or out.

Dirty litter trays or trays they do not feel comfortable using. 

Feuds with neighbouring cats. 

Changes in the home environment. 

And some situations we might have experienced that can help us empathise:

Not getting on with your housemates but stuck in a contract so you can’t move out.

The kids, your sibling, your parents constantly barging in while you’re trying to relax.

Lock down! Not being able to choose when we leave the house and where we go.

Public toilets…yuck.

Noisy neighbours, parking disputes….

Coming home to find someone has rearranged your room and now everything is in the wrong place. 

So how might you be able to tell your cat is stressed?

There are two medical conditions that are very commonly associated with stress in cats, the first being cystitis, also known as Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), the second being overgrooming. We will look at these in more detail in a moment, but there are also other signs you might see:

Behavioural changes associated with stress:

Hiding away / only coming out at night

Choosing to be in a different room all the time 

Spending a lot more time outdoors

Refusing to go outside

Reduced appetite

Aggression towards other pets or family members

Scratching the furniture

Cystitis / FLUTD:

Cystitis in cats can be a serious, chronic and painful condition. In male cats it can be life threatening, due to the narrow diameter of their urethra meaning their bladder can become ‘blocked’ (they are unable to wee). 

Changes in urination are sometimes hard to detect in cats, as we often do not see them urinating. However, urinating in unusual places is a key sign. For example, on the carpets, beds, in the bath or shower are common places. This can also be associated with a change in colour; owners often report a pink tone to the urine. This is the early stage, as blood starts to enter the urine from the inflamed bladder lining. If we do see our cats going for a wee it is often noted that they initially go more frequently, or at least try to, but start to pass smaller and smaller volumes of urine. 

If a male cat is straining to urinate and passing nothing or greatly reduced volumes, this is an emergency and you should contact your veterinary practice immediately. 

Causes and risk factors: there is no easy answer for what causes cystitis in cats. It is a multi-factorial illness, meaning it is often the accumulation of several risk factors. Some of these include: being overweight, being fed solely dry food, not drinking enough, being unable or unwilling to urinate, having urinary crystals or having unusually dilute urine, which increases the risk of urinary infections (for example, in cats with kidney disease or diabetes). 

Some cats may suffer just one episode but more commonly we have individuals who are known to suffer with recurrent bouts of cystitis. The final straw tends to be a stressful event in the cat’s life. Some of these might be quite obvious, such as moving to a new house or a baby in the family. Others are a little more unusual; here are just a couple of examples from my own patients:

Putting the Christmas tree up

It snowed and the cat refused to go outside

New partner staying over

New furniture arriving 

Other cats coming in through the cat flap


Grooming is normal and grooming less can be a sign of ill health, but grooming too much is also cause for concern. This may vary from cats who suddenly and intensely groom one area to cats who strip off large areas of fur and damage the skin underneath. 

There are lots of reasons cats might lick themselves more, for example, if they are itchy due to parasites, allergies, or other skin diseases. Sometimes though we see cats who are licking almost constantly despite their skin looking totally normal, and without other signs of being itchy, such as scratching or rubbing. The most common areas are the lower abdomen and groin. 

If your cat’s skin is inflamed, sticky, roughened or scabby you must see your veterinary surgeon. 

It is common for cats who overgroom to end up in a chicken and egg situation. They are now showing signs of skin disease such as raised red areas which are infected, but they are also stressed. Are they stressed because they are uncomfortable and unwell, or has their stress caused overgrooming and led to secondary skin infections? It is often extremely hard to tell. Therefore, many cats who overgroom benefit from a two-pronged approach: treat the skin issues and address stress. 

How can you help?

Address any medical concerns such as cystitis, overgrooming or signs of pain. If you aren’t sure if your cat is displaying signs of any of these then book a chat with one of the team. 

Address any relationship issues between pets – you may need to seek professional help with this.  

Provide high-up resting areas where cats can see what is going on but keep out the way and ideally out of sight. 

Give them things to do! Use toys, food puzzles and enrichments such as scratching posts.

Provide outdoor cats with as much choice as possible about when to go in and out. If you don’t have a cat flap, consider having an outdoor kennel for them to use and leaving a door or window open when you are home. 

Have litter trays, even if your cat has a cat flap. 

Keep litter trays clean, in quiet locations and provide at least 1 per cat plus an extra. 

Ensure your cat has enough time to itself. It is totally normal for them to spend a lot of the day snoozing. 

Try Feliway plug-ins. These are diffusers which emit synthetic pheromones replicating those naturally produced by cats. There are various types available for different situations; Feliway Classic, for example, uses a copy of the pheromones found on your cat’s cheeks and paws which leave ‘safe place, happy cat’ messages on things they touch, such as when your cat rubs around your legs! Having these produced in the home can make your cat feel more secure and relaxed. Check out our online pharmacy for more details.