Avoiding Stress Triggers for Cats
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Cats do not like change and are more prone to stress and anxiety than one might think. Cats tend to hide these feelings well, but they can come out as behavior issues such as inappropriate elimination (not using the litter box), aggression, and/or overgrooming. We want to do everything we can to be sure our cats are living happy, healthy, stress-free lives. There are some things that we often do inadvertently that can contribute to a cat’s anxiety, so these are just a few tips to help make for a more peaceful life for your kitty.
1. Do not punish your cat. Punishment is never effective since swatting and hitting your cat only teaches it to fear your approach. Also, if you do not catch your cat “in the act” when you are trying to correct behavior, your cat will have no idea why he/she is in trouble. Animals do not correlate past actions with your interactions with them – they can only learn to behavior more appropriately if the correction (using only positive techniques) occurs immediately and consistently at the start of the behavior. Also, telling your cat “no” during bad behavior only interrupts the behavior and does not help him/her learn good behavior. Instead, you want to stop the negative behavior and immediately show your cat what you want it to do. You also want to be sure to reward your cat for appropriate behaviors whenever you notice them. Cats are very curious and agile – so give yours places to go and things to do, and keep potentially dangerous items picked up and put away. The less appropriate stimulation the environment provides, the more likely your cat will get into trouble. Be sure to set aside at least 30 minutes a day for play time with your cat (chasing a laser, playing fetch, letting him/her pounce at a toy or feather you are dangling or dragging, etc.) and provide environmental enrichment through window perches, food puzzles, or playing “find the food bowl” by changing up the location of the food dish so your kitty has to hunt for it.
2. Do not assume your cat knows English. It may seem like a simple statement, since we all know that our pets are non-verbal, but animals are very smart and can learn word associations if taught; however, they do not inherently understand what humans are saying – they must be trained. Animals communicate using body language and are very good at figuring us out based on our body language and tone of our voice. Most people do not think to teach their cats to sit or to do anything else on cue. Most people would be surprised at how easy it can be to train a cat to perform specific behaviors on cue and it is also helpful at times to pair hand gestures with your verbal commands. Just be sure not to assume your cat understands what you are saying without teaching it what you want it to do first – that will only lead to frustration for both of you!
3. Do not grab your cat’s head to tousle its hair or try to pet in areas or for lengths of time that your cat does not tolerate. In cat colonies, most interactions between cats just involve rubbing faces so keep this in mind when interacting with your cat. Your cat may enjoy being gently scratched around the chin or ears, but certainly does not enjoy having their head (or any other part of their body) grabbed and rubbed. Some cats will tolerate long strokes from head to tail, but most do not enjoy this as much as a chin rub and won’t enjoy it for long if they do allow it. Most cats get irritated by an extended period of repetitive stroking because this is not what comes naturally to them from when they were interacting with other cats in the wild. Also, most cats are very protective of their belly and do not enjoy having it rubbed. As with any animal, there are exceptions to every rule but pay attention to your cat’s body language (such as starting to twitch the end of their tail or flatten their ears) and know when they have had enough. Also, try to avoid hugging your cat because cats like to be able to move and escape situations. Therefore, when we hold them tightly, they may become stressed – anticipating that something bad is going to happen or worrying that if something negative does happen they will not be able to retreat.
4. Never neglect your cat’s litter box. Nobody likes to use a dirty toilet – especially your cat. Just imagine not flushing your own toilet for three or four days! Ideally, the litter box should be scooped every time you notice waste. Otherwise, they should be scooped at least twice daily. They also need to be completely emptied and cleaned with diluted bleach (just be sure to rinse with lots of water after cleaning it) every week. In addition to keeping the litter box clean, regular scooping also allows you to identify early signs of illness such as diarrhea, constipation, or excessive or lack of urination. The other rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than you have cats and to be sure to have them in convenient locations. You want to have a litter box on every level of the house that your cats have access to and pick a quiet spot. Do not pick a spot for the litter box that works best for you, but think about it from your cat’s perspective. A cat that has to negotiate humans of all ages, other pets, stairs, or loud appliances might feel like the journey us a suicide mission every time it needs to eliminate. Also, you may favor a covered litter box but most cats prefer a lid-free litter box.
5. Do not play with your cat by wiggling your fingers or toes! This type of play may seem innocent enough at first, but your cat will begin to think this is an acceptable way to play and may start attacking your hands and feet – biting and scratching them. You have to remember that cats naturally grab prey using their teeth and claws so they won’t think anything of continuing to use their mouth and/or claws on you if you have introduced this as a game. If your cat starts to attack your extremities or starts to bite or claw at you, ignore your cat all together (stop all interaction) and find an appropriate chew toy to offer your cat so he/she knows that hands and feet are for loving – not biting!
6. Do not leave your cat home alone with a jumbo – sized portion of food and one litter box while you go on vacation for a long weekend. It is true that cats are much more self-reliant than dogs, but for cats that eat quickly, this can be stressful because they will have no food left by the end of the weekend. Cats can become deathly ill if they don’t eat every day, so if you are going to be gone more than a day invest in a automated feeder that is on a timer. This can also be helpful in avoiding overweight cats because you can program in exactly how much food your cat should be getting each day. Also, a self-cleaning litter box may be a reasonable option if you travel a good bit, but don’t rely on it all the time. It is important that you pay attention to the frequency and quality of your pet’s eliminations so you can identify any changes that could indicate stress-induced health problems such as cystitis, constipation, and diarrhea.
7. Do not use strong-smelling cleansers, deodorizers, and products containing alcohol. Cats’ noses are sensitive, and these scents can be offensive to them. Be careful about the use of these products in your home or on your person. Some cats may even find the smell of hair spray, perfume, or cologne unpleasant.
8. Do not add new cats to your home without an introduction period. When an unrelated cat appears and tries to join a related group, it is in the cats’ nature to attack and force the outsider to leave. Without a proper period of controlled, gradual introduction, the chance of aggression between cats and stress increases. You want to first get the cats used to the smell of each other by rubbing each cat down with a piece of clothing to swap scents. Next it is good to have a controlled way that they can see each other and paw at each other without having full-body contact – this is best done by securing a door slightly open with a cat on each side. This allows them to see each other and start to interact while still being able to retreat if things get too intense. You want to work your way up to having both cats in the same room and it is best if you can have a harness on each cat so you can stop any interaction that gets too aggressive. As your cats warm up to each other you can have more relaxed, supervised play sessions. Once you notice your cats grooming each other or snuggling up, you can be fairly confident they have established a good relationship. Just be sure not to pay all your attention to your new addition, making your current cat (or any other pets) jealous and more likely to lash out.