Stress and anxiety related cat behavioural problems and illnesses are occurring more frequently than ever before; this is mainly due to the ever increasing cat population that sees our cats that sees our cats living in multi cat households or being forced to share territories and live in close proximity with strange cats. Behavioural problems and illnesses are not only stressful to the cats, they can be very upsetting for owners and are one of the leading causes for cats being put up for adoption or euthanased.
Stress and anxiety may lead to unwanted behaviours such as urination and spraying in the home or stress-related illnesses such as idiopathic cystitis and over-grooming and some cats may excessively groom, sleep or eat as a means of self-soothing.
This problem usually occurs when a cat does not feel secure and relaxed in his or her own home and may be due to many things including
- Problems with other cats – both within the household or from neighbouring areas
- Changes to their usual routine
- Changes to the normal household routine – owner changed working hours, new baby, new pet, new neighbours, visitors, arguments, decor changes, building work etc.
- House move
- Illnesses; urinary problems, skin problems, stomach upsets and over-grooming are all commonly linked to stress and may exacerbate stress or, sometimes, stress can exacerbate the illness.
- Lack of mental stimulation (boredom), lack of exercise
If we can meet the environmental needs of our cats we can avoid the potential causes of stress and anxiety in their lives that can cause behavioural problems and impact on their physical and mental health.
In multi-cat households, where two or more cats live together, it is vitally important to know whether or not your cats are bonded and in the same social group. Cat behaviour can be very subtle and just because your cats are not actively fighting or hissing at each other, it does not necessarily mean that they are good friends. Sometimes cats living in the same household do not perceive each other to be in the same social group, but they may tolerate the presence of others in order to access a resource such as food or comfy resting areas.
Social groups can be complicated for example in a 3 cat household you may find that you have 1, 2 or no social groups at all!
Bonded cats within the same social group will
- Sleep curled/piled up together (or in very close proximity)
- Head bump and body rub each other
- Make greeting noises at each other
- Groom each other
- Play together
How you can help your cat(s) feel more secure
1. Create Safe Havens
We often overlook the need for cats to have safe havens or sanctuaries within the home. Your cat can use these places to hide away if frightened by something in the environment or just to relax out of reach of people and other animals in the home. In multi-cat households the availability of hiding places in all the different areas within the home is very important, because while they may often choose to be in there together, your cats may also need their own individual space at some point.
Your cats may already have their favourite go-to places, so you can make these more cosy and add something for them to hide behind, such as a piece of card or a cloth cover. Examples of good safe places include
- The top of a wardrobe or cupboard
- A high shelf/perch (putting a small lip on the shelf will make your cat feel more hidden)
- Space under a bed,
- A box with a bed in it behind the sofa or chair (you can also use a cat carrier).
- Secure a box to the top of a cat tower
- Cat Tunnel or similar
- A comfy bed/box in the shed or garage
When your cat is in the safe haven, he or she should be left completely undisturbed by everyone; no talking no touching, no enticing. When your cat is out and about you can talk to, stroke and interact with him or her.
Cats can really benefit from having a total sanctuary like this where they can escape from everything (we know many people do too) and it can be especially helpful for nervous or reactive cats. The thing to remember is that even after hundreds of years of domestication, cats are ultimately solitary animals and sometimes desperately need their own space – even from their loving owners.
2. Position Resources Carefully
The vital resources your cat needs include
- Litter trays
- Beds / Resting Areas
- Scratching posts
- Play Areas and Toys
Make sure that these resources are spread out and that food, water and litter trays are not near windows, doorways and cat flaps, particularly where another cat may be able to see or sneak up on your cat while he or she is using them. If there is no option but to put resources in these places, try to create a bit of camouflage for your cat in those areas using a curtain or frosted window coverings for example.
Cats prefer their water source and food sources to be separate from each other, so bear this is mind while you are planning where to put things.
In a multi-cat household make sure you provide resources for each social group as far away as possible from the other to reduce the risk of conflict and relationship breakdown. If you don’t have much space, think about using shelves, work surfaces or other slightly higher places to create separate feeding stations for your cat.
3. Provide Litter Trays
Litter trays can be invaluable resources for anxious and stressed cats as having to go outside to eliminate can add to their problem.
- For multi cat households it is recommended that you have one tray per cat plus one extra.
- Make sure trays are placed in quiet, secluded areas in your home and not in busy places like the kitchen or hallway; if you can’t put the tray in a secluded area, put it behind some sort of screen i.e. a piece of cardboard or a curtain (who wants to go to the toilet with an audience?)
- Trays should be as big as possible, preferably 1.5 times the length of your cat from nose to base of tail. For older, ill, or injured cats that may have trouble squatting, a tray with higher sides, but a lower entrance may be necessary and in these cases converted plastic storage boxes or large seed trays may be helpful.
- The tray should contain a depth of at least 3cm of cat litter in them. If your cat is having any urinary tract-related problems, then he or she may require deeper litter.
- Remember that cat litter is marketed at owners rather than cats and your cats may not appreciate strong smelling de-odorizing cat litter!
- Don’t use tray liners, they can get caught up in your cat’s claws while they are raking the litter.
- Trays should be scooped out at least once daily (more frequently for cats with urinary problems) and topped up with litter as necessary. Covered trays may also need to be scooped more frequently as they will hold odours inside, which can be quite unpleasant for cats.
- Litter trays should be thoroughly cleaned every 1-2 weeks using soap and hot water (avoid using strong smelling soaps, strong chemicals or ammonia based products).
4. Make Time For Play And Hunting Games
Play and mental stimulation is sometimes overlooked once our cats reach adulthood and boredom can intensify usually normal behaviours that could potentially lead to problems such as obesity, destructiveness and over grooming.
- Remember that cats prefer short but frequent bursts of activity so keep your play sessions to around 3-5 minutes.
- Make sure that your cat gets the opportunity to win games by catching the ‘prey’ otherwise you will end up with a very frustrated kitty!
- Individual play can be with small toys and balls. While interaction with the owner can involve the use of fishing rod type and moveable toys.
- Using cat food dispenser systems, games or making your own can be a great way of providing mental stimulation – Several toilet roll inners stuck together on a board with dry food placed into the tubes works well in both an upright or flat position.
- Encourage food foraging by placing food parcels around the house in packages, boxes or on ‘cat shelves’.
- Cardboard boxes can provide lots of entertainment for cats; try cutting some different sized holes in them, body sized and paw sized for extra entertainment. Scrunched up newspaper in the bottom of a box with a few pieces of dried food or treats can also be fun.
- High shelves and cat towers are fun to play with and can also give cats a sense of security when they are up high.
- Scratching posts/places are really important for cats (especially indoor cats and those that don’t go far when outside), they provide a place to mark territory and sharpen claws and give cats an opportunity for a proper stretch of their limbs, muscles and spine. Cats often like a variety of scratching places, so try to include a vertical and horizontal surface. Remember to ensure that upright scratching posts are secure and won’t topple as the cat is using it and that they are tall/long enough to allow the cat to stretch out fully.
- In multi cat homes, create a play area for your cats that contains things to play in and around, for example fabric or cardboard tubes, boxes, cat towers, bags etc. as this will often prevent quarrels.
- Cats of different social groups may need an area to be able to play individually and with the owner.
- Rotate toys regularly to keep interest levels high
When using food and treats with toys, it is important to remember to reduce your cat’s daily food allowance for his or her main meal appropriately to avoid obesity.
5. Secure Your Cat Flap
It is really important to ensure that other cats in the neighbourhood are not coming into your home and causing further upset and stress to your cats. Investing in a microchip-reading cat flap is a really sensible idea to prevent this.
6. Use Feline Pheromones
The use of pheromone diffusers can really help stressed cats. At Castle Vets we recommend FELIWAY® for cats that are being bothered by Strange cats and are generally unsettled in the home and FELIWAY® FRIENDS for multi cat homes, as it is proven to help reduce tension and conflicts between cats in multi-cat households. Both of these products can be used together, however, it is no good just plugging them in and assuming they will do the job! Unless you make some or all of the recommended environmental changes mentioned above, your cat will very likely still be anxious and stressed.
I am a qualified and registered Veterinary Nurse with over 20 years experience working with small animals.
i currently work for Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre in Reading, which is a large, single center, small animal veterinary practice.
The recently rebuilt premises now includes a separate but integrated cat clinic, outstanding in-patient wards and operating theatres, spacious comfortable waiting areas, 9 consulting rooms for both veterinary surgeon and veterinary nurse consultations, diagnostics room with x-ray, ultrasound and endoscopy equipment and a well equipped laboratory.