JUST LIKE US, cats can suffer from an overload of stress. How much is too much will depend on a number of factors: the stress `immunization’ that the cat received as a kitten, the coping strategies that the cat has learned as a result of this process, and the duration and nature of the stressor.
What do cats find stressful?
Interestingly, nearly all the triggers which will cause or exacerbate stress in cats are environmental. These environmental triggers can result in the cat having an emotional reaction which can affect behavior and, eventually, their health too.
In my experience, the most common stressors for cats are those which appear to threaten their resources, particularly the inner security of their homes. The threat of another cat coming into their `den’, a new baby in the home, a puppy, or even builders, can trigger off an immense psychological reaction in some sensitive cats, which can be hard to rectify, particularly if the `threat’ is permanent.
How do they demonstrate this?
Unlike humans, cats are unable to show their emotional state through language or facial expression. Instead, they reveal their feelings in ways which can be distressing, if not distasteful, to their human owners.
In the short-term, cats under pressure or feeling anxious may show their feelings by increasing activities which usually make them feel more secure. Some cats may cling to you more, or may rub the furniture or their owners more frequently. Cats which are facing trauma outside may choose to stay indoors more, while those facing stress in the home may spend prolonged periods outside.
In the absence of relief from the stress, cats may increase their marking behavior dramatically. Scratching, spraying urine, and middening (deliberately depositing feces somewhere noticeable!) may be an attempt to regain the security that they once had in the home, while leaving home altogether may appear to be the only option for cats which can no longer face the interior of the `den’.
Occasionally, in our behavior practice, we see cats which are so overcome by anxiety or stress that they simply give up attempting to fight it or flee from it, and become passive and unresponsive. This extreme kind of learned helplessness is thankfully rare, but can mean that the cat no longer washes itself, loses interest in food and remains almost motionless for long periods of time. In certain respects, this could be likened to the symptoms of severe clinical depression in humans, where any kind of behavior is suppressed and unrewarding.
Long term, stress has been shown to increase the risks of illness and disease. Animals and people which are suffering from chronic, irresolvable stress may start to have immune breakdown as the body struggles to cope with being under constant threat. Interestingly, infections and digestive complaints are common in stressed individuals, and seem to form a vicious cycle of illness, fatigue and a consequential inability to deal with the emotional problem that caused the clinical weakness in the first place.
What can we do to prevent this stress?
Many examples of human and other species’ behavior suggests that animals which have many chances to experience and resolve low-level stress when young, manage stressful situations far better as adults. This is because the individual has become slightly desensitized to the effects of stress during those early weeks and has learned coping strategies which can then be applied to other similar situations in later life. The stage that cats learn to handle stress without undue anxiety is very early indeed — between two and seven weeks of age. This means that an unstimulating, unchallenging environment will leave a kitten with very few emotional defense mechanisms — no matter how well he or she was cared for at the time. Ideally, all kittens should be thoroughly handled by as many different people as possible during these critical weeks. Altering their environment to allow kittens to learn for themselves is also essential, as those kittens which have had a chance to become familiar with all the chaotic sights, sounds and smells of a domestic home will have a huge head-start. Allowing kittens to meet and mix with friendly dogs, children, and all manner of people will act as `stress immunization’ in order to protect them later in life.
How can you tell if your cat is suffering from a stress overload?
Sudden behavioral changes should always be reported to your vet, as they may indicate that there is a clinical problem which needs investigation.
However, once this possibility has been rejected, the next part of the detective work is to look for signs of potential stress. Ask yourself when the cat started to behave differently. Did this coincide with an unusual occurrence in the home? For some over-attached cats, even a brief absence from their owner can be traumatic. This can make holiday times a nightmare, as the presence of a stranger in the home (no matter how kind!) to feed and care for them just does not help.
What can you do to alleviate this stress?
Of course, the easy answer is to identify the cause of the stress and remove it! However, this can often be easier than it sounds. Offering more resources, as well as safe hiding places away from permanent stressors, such as babies and dogs can often work well, as can removing the cat from the environment while temporary stressors, such as building work, are present. Ironically, for the over-attached cat, a good cattery may be a far better option than being cared for at home during holidays. This is probably because the total change has a lesser overall impact on the cat than the very obvious absence of the owner.
Overall, awareness is the key. Those who enjoy close, attentive relationships with their cats often spot the early stages of the effects of stress, and can prevent them from escalating towards distress, before long-lasting damage has been done.