Managing a Cat's Stress due to Changes

As a veterinarian, cat lover, and cat owner, I, like many, would love to believe my cats would love my constant attention, but alas, cats, like us, need their space. Cats like a consistent environment and a consistent routine. When there is a change to their environment or routine, it can cause them stress and anxiety.

Part 2: Cats

In Part 1 of the blog post series, we discussed how recent changes due to COVID-19 have affected our canine companions and how to provide outlets to satisfy their needs. In Part 2, we address the needs of our feline friends.

There have been many recent changes to our cats’ lives, such as owners working from home, more contact/attention than before more or fewer people now residing in the house, kids staying home longer than normal, changes in their feeding routine, changes in their diet depending on the stock in the store, and sensing a change of emotions/stress within the household.

This stress can present in a number of different behaviours, with some of the more common ones listed below:

  • Inappropriate urination or defecation
  • Over-grooming, or pica (ingesting items that aren’t their normal food, often fabric)
  • Defensive or redirected aggression toward people or other animals
  • Hiding and/or increased sleeping, lack of playing
  • Decreased appetite and/or grooming
  • Extreme vigilance and heightened startle response
  • Increased facial rubbing and scratching on surfaces

*Please note that it is always important to discuss any changes you’ve noticed in your cat with your veterinarian to rule out an underlying concern. To ensure there is nothing medically wrong, your veterinarian will ask a complete history, conduct a physical exam and may want additional diagnostics such as bloodwork and/or urinalysis to rule out any UTI’s, metabolic diseases, skin diseases etc. Once your feline companion has been given a clean bill of physical health, you can narrow in on possible causes of stress.

Cats require a basic set of environmental needs that as owners, we should strive to meet (as per the AAFP/ISFM).

A Safe Place

Cats require their own sanctuary. A place they can get away to recharge or retreat when they feel threatened. This allows them to feel in control. It should be private and secure and also provide a resting place to relax. These spots could be raised, like on top of a cupboard, or hidden, like under a bed. Providing cat boxes or cat trees so they feel covered are good options. Providing a soft cat bed in a room that doesn’t have much foot traffic could provide a quiet sanctuary for particularly anxious cats.

Key resources

Food, water, litter boxes, scratching areas/play areas, resting spots. Each aspect in this list is in itself important, but it also provides multiple and separated options for each. This last point is important, especially when there is more than 1 cat in the household. The rule of thumb is for each resource, you should supply the same number of cats plus 1. So if you have 2 cats, you’ll need 3 food bowls, 3 water bowls, 3 litter pans, etc., all in separate areas. In times of stress, it's beneficial to look around your home to ensure you have the proper amount of these resources and that they are in the correct locations.

Opportunity to play and exhibit their natural predatory behaviour

This can include playing with toys, exploring new areas, hunting for food, and interactive play with owners. Providing a variety of toys that can stimulate cats is important for playtime. Toys that crinkle have catnip within them and are made from different materials and different shapes to offer more enrichment. Versus interactive play, which utilizes wand/fishing rod type of toys, providing movement. Try to move these toys in a manner that simulates prey! Exploring new areas could be as simple as a new cardboard box to hop in or a paper bag. Hiding kibble in either a puzzle feeder challenges our cats and rewards them with a treat! All of these options provide enrichment, but please ensure any of these toys, puzzles, boxes, etc., are free from anything they can ingest!**

Human-cat bonding

The amount and type of interaction will change from cat to cat, so allowing them to control this contact and approach you or leave when they feel necessary is important. Finding the type of interaction they enjoy, whether it’s a scratch under the chin or a full body pat, is important, as well as respecting your cats’ limits. Look for signs of enjoyment such as purring, chirruping, head bumping, facial rubbing, an upright tail, and soft eyes. This particular section is probably the one most affected by recent events. Family is around more often, making more contact with the cat, and their normal routine is most likely changed. Try and stick to normal working hours so cats have as close to normal morning and evening routines. Create a workstation away from your cat's normal resting areas so as not to disturb them. Look back to the three previous requirements to ensure they have been met during these unprecedented times.

Providing a scent-appropriate environment

Avoid strong smells such as perfumes and utilize enriching scents such as catnip. Cats also like to mark objects with their scent. Scratching posts are a great way to provide areas to mark in addition to scratching for enjoyment. There are also products that utilize synthetic pheromones (a chemical secreted to impact behaviour of the same species). Feliway utilizes pheromones to lessen the anxiety experienced by cats, and they come in a spray or diffuser. This is a great option for cats currently experiencing stress from current changes in their environment or routine.

Every cat is unique, and thus, different tactics might be required to find the right fit for your feline friend. Achieving each of the above environmental needs can help lessen any stress cats are currently experiencing due to recent changes. The most important aspects are to rule out any underlying medical conditions, ensure any of the enrichment tools used can’t be ingested, and allow your cat to choose the amount and type of interaction they can tolerate!

By: Dr. Laura Hartman