Cat Behavior 101,  Holidays,  Vet 101

Storms, Visitors and Changes in Routine = Stress In Cats

If you love cats, sharing makes us purrrr :-)

On behalf of Cat Wisdom 101 we wish everyone a Thanksgiving full of purrs and a little bonus gift on a twist from Monopoly. We are thankful for you, dear reader. May you and your loved ones (with and without fur) enjoy peace, love joy, and abundance.

holiday-thanksgiving-get out of jail card-cats-quote-kindness

When Sandy struck so many of us in the New York area, I naturally reached out to everyone I know to see how they fared. Our frequent Vet 101 guest blogger Dr. Letrisa Miller was in the middle of surgery when the storm hit. She kindly shares how the storm impacted her cats and has valuable tips for our readers. More than ever, I invite everyone to create more awareness of their cat’s environment. Think like a cat. If it’s noisy to you, it’s far noisier to a cat with their sensitive hearing.

Just a few days after superstorm Sandy, my clinic cat Bella started urinating on the floor and hiding in the closet. On close inspection, the urine had blood in it. What was going on?

The answer is both simple and complicated. Bella has a disorder, common among indoor cats, called feline lower urinary tract disease, or interstitial cystitis. Symptoms include urinary tract pain, blood in the urine and, often, urinating outside of the litter box. The trigger of the symptoms? Stress.

As the storm approached, I was much more concerned about my cats’ safety than about stress, but in retrospect I probably should have been a bit more concerned about how Bella was seeing and hearing the weather. The branches that broke off the tree just outside her window and the sound of the gusting winds must have been frightening for her.

I’m not sure what I could have done to decrease her stress other than spending more time with her and moving her to a room that had no windows. Even then, I suspect she still would have had a more than healthy dose of stress.

Bella is feeling fine now, but her experience started me thinking about the things that stress our indoor cats. As you have probably guessed, events that are stressful for people tend to be stressful for cats too. Things like storms, visitors, and changes in routine. All of these tend to happen around the holidays.

Why do our cats find these things stressful? One reason is that we find them stressful, and our cats are very attuned to us. When we are tense, our cats don’t necessarily know why, but they do know that something is upsetting us. Many cats seem to take our problems onto themselves and to worry about us. How many of us have been comforted in a dark hour by our cat? I am always amazed that these animals that hate being wet will allow people to cry on them!

Cats are often stereotyped as aloof, but really they aren’t aloof at all; they just tend to internalize their stress, signaling it in ways that are less obvious than nail biting, sleeplessness, or the other ways human beings tend to show stress.

In cats a sign of stress might be a change in play or eating habits or the onset of interstitial cystitis and urination outside the litter box. Unfortunately, the latter reaction often causes further stress for their human companions, and things just get worse from there.

When we have guests in our house or move to a new place (a common experience for many in the wake of Sandy), our cats just get plain scared. Imagine being the size of a cat and having large animals (unknown humans) clomping around in your space! I think I would go into hiding too! Meeting new people is difficult for cats, and often we don’t show much sympathy for how small and vulnerable they might feel.

Moving to a new place can be even more upsetting, particularly for older female cats. Kittens are adventurous, but once a cat reaches the age of three or so years old, it starts having set territories. Female cats are often intensely territorial and have small territories. Male cats tend to have less-well-defined, larger territories. Stepping outside their territory is unthinkable to many older cats, so when they are forced to move, they might have difficulty coping. This is one reason that older cats have a harder time with visiting the veterinarian unless they go very often.

  • When you have guests in your home, give your cats extra support. For example, provide a space that is all their own. If you have to move your cats, make sure they have something that smells like home or at least like you. They are likely to be scared and to need extra gentle, quiet handling.
  • Some cats get overexcited, nervous and frightened and can’t seem to stay still until every crevice of a new space is explored. Others hide and won’t come out of a closet or out from under a bed.
  • However they react, give your cats the space to feel comfortable, but be there to offer your familiar petting when they want or need it. Talk quietly to the hiding cat, but don’t force it out of its “safe” spot.
  • The older a cat gets, the more important routine becomes. (Sounds like a lot of people, too, doesn’t it?) Events such as storms, guests in the house, holiday schedules, and moving to a new location all mean changes in our daily routine.
  • Cats that are sensitive to stress may have illnesses at these times; for example, interstitial cystitis or a flare up of sneezing and conjunctivitis. Cats that have kidney insufficiency may develop a urinary tract infection because they aren’t venturing to their litter box as regularly as they should be.
  • Some cats will stop eating, and some will overeat. Some of the reactions cats have to stress can be life-threatening, so any change that lasts more than a day or two should be checked out by your vet.

(Yes, trips to the vet’s office can be yet another stressful event for your cat. You can help make vet trips less stressful by gradually acclimating your cat to being in a carrier and riding in a car, using pheromone spray or wipes in their carriers, covering the carrier when outside, and by choosing a veterinarian who truly enjoys treating cats. I’m sure I’m biased, but I also strongly believe feline-exclusive practices offer a less stressful environment for most cats.)

Most cats adapt quickly to changes, but those that develop health problems should be helped. Urinary tract illness is very painful and at minimum should be treated with pain medication. Decreased eating can lead to fatty liver disease, so don’t ignore the full food bowl. Always be alert to changes in behavior in your cat during times that have an element for stress for you or your cat. Cats are very subtle beings and it is easy to overlook warning signs of illness.

Many parallels exist between stress in humans and cats. While the two species show signs of stress differently, similar stressors seem to contribute to our loads.

  • Don’t forget that the visiting in-laws or grandchildren can be just as stressful for your feline companion as for the humans in the household. Watch for signs that your kitty needs some extra TLC and prepare before hand so that you can minimize Fluffy’s anxiety.

I often see critically ill cats coming from homes that have experienced recent major upheavals. Unfortunately, the people involved often heap even more stress on by blaming themselves for the illness at hand. Usually we can’t control the major stressors in our lives, but we can be aware that they can effect our cats as well as us. Perhaps veterinarians should develop a preventive medicine strategy for stressed households. Something to ponder.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a stress-free holiday season, for the sake of you and your cat! I wish warmth and electricity for those who experienced Sandy, and I am very thankful that I have both. Have a happy (by which I mean stress-free) Thanksgiving!

Letrisa Miller, MS, DVM
Connecticut Feline Medicine and Surgery, LLC
95 Avery St., Manchester, CT 06042


  • Teri and the cats of Curlz and Swirlz

    Great post! My Brighton has FIC, and while his only episode was in June 2010, he is on a special diet, and some nutriceuticals that help the bladder and he is doing great…but I sure keep an eye on him and what he is up to in the litter box… and hope you got some turkey as a treat on Turkey Day!

  • Connie Marie

    I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. This day we have much to be thankful for. At Midnight we were woken by the smell of smoke and the sound of sirens! Our neighbors place, we share a wall, caught fire in the kitchen. The flames were horrendous and the smoke was worse, I had 2 cats in the past with the urinary tract disease, so I kept them in my room and only left to make sure we would be safe. When I got back the whole place was filled with smoke, so I opened my window and everyone piled on top of me!! They knew they were safe! My son checked on our upstairs friend on oxygen, got the firefighters to help desmoke our place and hers. Her kittie hid, but came out later to be with her. So to everyone, Happy Thanksgiving, be thoughtful of what good you have in your life and watch your female cats for stress!!

  • Cheysuli

    We had a wind storm the night before last and Ichiro was right back up to his old tricks of meowing all night. Oddly, I was enough to keep him company and satisfied even though the Woman was sort of wishing for an excuse to go snooze in the bonus room with him because it’s often quieter!

  • Julia Williams

    That’s a very helpful post. It is important to “think like a cat” and consider how things will affect them.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you, and I apologize for being so lax at commenting lately.

  • Skeeter and Izzy

    Happy Thanksgiving to all! Thank you Doc for another wonderful insight into our feline friends and their ailments. We have a friend that has just had one of her female kitties have a spell of interstitial cystitis. We are going to pass this info along to her.
    Thank you Layla for all the wonderful info on your blog. Luvs and purrs Skeeter and Izzy >^..^<

  • Pam Kimmell

    Happy Thanksgiving Layla… of the things we’re thankful for is our blogging friends. We learn much from each other don’t we? This was a wonderful and informative post (but then again they ALL are!).

    Love and hugs, Pam and Sam

  • Sparkle

    Thanks for this post! I get stressed easily (especially at the vet clinic – even an all-feline practice didn’t help!), so I totally related.

    BTW, Binga could totally use one of those “get out of jail free cards.” All year round.

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