Celia Haddon - Cat Expert

Understanding animals through their behaviour


Tilly – feet and tail tucked away, dilated pupils, hunched position, head lowered, ears flattened sideways. No place to hide. She is stressed and fearful.



Stressed cats, suffering fear, anxiety or frustration, may start spraying (read Feline Territory Marking on this website). This page will help you deal with cats marking their territory. Stress also may play a part in feline cystitis. Try to work out what is stressing your cat and then deal with it. If you can also reduce the background stress and the less obvious signs of stress, this will often help reduce behaviours you don’t want. Different stressors add up to make a level which is difficult for a cat to live with.

Some stressed cats just become increasingly immobile – hiding if they have a place to hide or just sitting hunched up if there is no hiding place. They stop playing (Carlstead et al., 1993). They pretend to be sleeping but their bodies are tense (Casey & Bradshow 2007). Lack of appetite or will only eat at night, increased vigilance, unwilling to play. These cats need a safe haven within the household where they will be undisturbed.

If there something they fear outside, they will stop going out of doors or at least spend more time indoors. If there is something they fear within the house, they may start living upstairs or under the bed. Very stressed cats may stop grooming themselves, or overgroom leaving bare patches. They may eat or drink less especially if the bowls are in a worrying place, such as near the cat flap or near ambushing  by another cat (Stella et al. 2014). They may urinate inside the house for fear of going out. Some hold back from pee or poo because they have to go through enemy territory outside to relieve themselves or they are frightened of the litter tray or being ambushed on their way to it. They may scratch more in their territory (Casey, 2009).

Stressed cats may develop illnesses including idiopathic cystitis or FIC (Buffington 2002). As well as veterinary treatment, these cats need a stress reduction programme to help prevent further outbreaks of this painful condition ( Seawright et al., 2012). Concentrate on giving them a safe secure base, predictable routines, choice and control of their environment.

Some cats are naturally more stressed than others due to genetics. Others, if they have suffered stress in kittenhood or been separated from their mothers, may grow up to be naturally more stressy (Anderson & Teicher 2004).

1. Fear of other outside cats. Your cat may be suffering from competition, fighting and stand offs, from another cat in the neighbourhood. There may be a local despot cat that fights all other cats (Heath 2009). Your cat will feel anxious if there are cats coming through the cat flap, cats staring into windows or cats spraying on doorsteps etc. Your cat is likely to show signs of stress (see above) or spray near entry points, cat flaps, doors, and windows. Wash down the outside of the front/back door to clean up any

smells left by neighbour cats. Put down anti-theft matting or scrumpled wire netting so neighbouring cats can’t walk too close. Also place wire netting on any surface – roofs, walls etc – from which outside cats may be staring in. (Be careful about any device which might harm children or humans on a wall. Read the article on intruding cats for help with this issue). Or consider fencing in the garden.

Use a PetPorte or SureFlap cat flap to keep intruders out – check that the models are big enough if you have a large breed cat. Cover glass doors or windows with greenhouse paint or frosted cling film so outside cats can’t peer in. If the outside cats are troublesome at predictable times, close the cat flap during those times. Stick cardboard, or bathroom film, over the flap at these times to show your cat that it is closed and he is safe. Take cardboard off to signal that the flap is open. Or keep the cat flap closed all the time so that your cat feels safe, and his territory is clearly defined. This will mean letting him in and out by the door. Your cat must also have a litter tray, positioned well away from entry points in a secluded area where it cannot be overlooked. This way he will feel secure and he will not have to pass through enemy territory to toilet. See the article about cat intruders for more ideas.

2. Sight/scent/sound of cats/wildlife/dogs. Sometimes a cat is spooked by the mere sight, smell or sound of neighbouring cats/foxes/dogs. Cats hate being overlooked by animals on neighbouring walls, window sills, high gardens etc. One cat was spraying on the windowsill because a neighbouring cat was jumping onto the window box and peering in. In these cases the cat may spray near a window or a door which shows the sight or spend a lot of time sitting staring out in a worried fashion. Block off the sight of the potential threat by covering the lower panes of the window.

Bathroom window film from B&Q

Try greaseproof paper, or washable greenhouse paint, spray-on frosting, frosted or patterned window film (www.solarstat.co.uk or www.hainteriors.com or www.purlfrost.com , www.brume.co.uk/ or www.creationbaumann.com/landing_adhesivetextiles_en.html). And put some plant pots near the cat flap, so that your cat has a bit of cover when it first emerges into the garden.

3. Anxiety about companion cats. Sometimes a cat feels threatened by another cat in your household. This doesn’t mean that the cats are fighting, just that one of them feels under pressure, and this may be difficult for an owner to recognise (Levine, 2008). Eyeballing, ambushing, blocking pathways – these are the subtle ways cats bully each other.   Spray sites are likely to be where cats have to pass each other – hallways, corridors, stairways etc. Place a chair, cat tree, or some other furniture in places where cats pass each other so that the fearful cat can jump on to it to escape contact. The fearful cat needs a retreat – a hideaway which is high up rather than low down. Try putting a PetPorte or SureFlap cat flap operated off the microchip into the airing cupboard or spare room so that the bullied cat has a refuge (Levine 2008).

Also make sure there is one litter box per cat and one extra (Neilson 2003). Don’t just put a row of litter trays next to each other. Place them in different locations. Also have more than one bed per cat, and more than one feeding location and water location (Neilson 2003). Hiding places, such as boxes, should be supplied for nervous cats (Carlstead et al., 1993). The bullied cat must be able to get to food, water and beds without passing the bully. Install several scratching posts. Feed cats in separate locations or keep food down all the time. Reduce areas of competition. If there is one cat flap to the outside, consider installing a second one elsewhere so the bullied cat cannot be ambushed. Get a cat behaviourist to come and look at their relationship. Consider rehoming either the victim or the bully. Read Cats that don’t get on with each other for more details.

4. Too many cats. Cats are not as social as dogs or humans. Cats get very stressed if they are with too many other cats, especially if the cat population changes and there is not enough space, as they see it (Kessler and Turner 1999a, Kessler and Turner 1999b). Stress in multi-cat households often leads to spraying (Olm & Houpt 1988). It looks as if the cats get on OK, but they are merely tolerating each other. When something else goes wrong, their anxiety surfaces and subtle bullying begins. One suggestion is that a three bedroomed house should have only two cats. Sometimes it is the arrival of a newcomer which upsets the cat social scene. In this case, rehome the newcomer on the grounds of last in first out. With luck, the problem will then go away. Cats in multi-cat households sometimes vote with their paws and find another home with fewer cats (Riccomini 2012)

5. Loss of a cat or dog. The departed cat may have been a mediator in the household, spreading the group scent between cats that would otherwise dislike each other (Bower 2012). Without the mediator, the dislike comes to the fore. Consult Cats that don’t get on with each other. A departed dog may have been the protector chasing off neighbouring cats. Without their intervention the cat is now under stress from outside cats.

6. New dog or some other new pet (Olm & Houpt 1988)It’s frightening for cats, that are unused to dogs, to have to live with one. Rehome the dog if it chases them. Most cats are OK about rabbits, hamsters etc which after all are prey rather than predator but a very upfront house rabbit might worry them too.

7. New objects. These bring outside scents into the house which can worry cats. If your cat sprays on new objects, such as new furniture, Christmas tree, shopping bags etc, clean these items thoroughly and treat with Feliway. Shut away any further new items at first. Before giving the cat access, spray with Feliway. Also add your own scent to the item by rubbing on or leaving or draping on a dirty T-shirt or pyjamas smelling of you! The other possibility is that the cat is spraying the carrier bags because you are putting them down on the doorstep before opening your door – and you are putting them down where outside cats spray. So clean up any area where you put carrier bags down before entering the house.

8. Building works or decorators indoors or outdoors. Very close road works or major work in the garden is also stressful. Keep the cat away from the altered rooms till paint smells etc have died down. New paint alters the all-important(to your cat) scent profile of the house. If road works are just outside your house, keep the cat in a room furthest away. Spray Feliway or install a Feliway Diffuser in the newly decorated room . Consider putting the cat in a cattery while building work is going on.

9. Visitors or too many people. Visitors are intruders into the cat’s home territory. Occasionally cats will spray at Christmas etc. when there are visitors. Or if a cat dislikes a visitor in the spare bedroom (previously the cat’s territory) it may spray on the door there. Sometimes visitors smell of the dogs they have left at home or there are just too many or the wrong kind (from a cat point of view). Consider using the cattery if visitors are staying. In very busy households with noisy teenagers, make sure the cat has some privacy and can retreat to a quiet room.

10. Visitors with dogs. I don’t think it is fair on a cat, which is frightened of dogs, to have to bear a visiting dog in the house. Again, consider a cattery during the visit or persuade your visitors to use kennels nearby – they can take their dogs out for a walk. Or book them into a local B&B.

11. Cat sitters and boarding catteries. Sensitive cats can be upset when left behind with sitters, when their owners are on holiday and thus their routine is altered (Carlstead et al., 1993). Their core home territory feels no longer safe. The cat sitter may be seen as an intruder or the change of routine may upset the cats. Catteries are also stressful for them (Kessler & Turner 1997), but if you are lucky they will spray there but not when they get home!

12. Boredom and frustration. Indoor-only cats may get very frustrated if they don’t have enough to do. Cats without a cat flap that have to wait to be let in and out also get frustrated. This frustration is stressful for them. Read the article about indoor cats.

13. Attention seeking. Occasionally spraying becomes an attention getting device. The cat will look as you as he does it. In this case you probably need expert help! Indoor cats are probably more likely to do this than outside cats. Try to give the cat other focuses for its attention, not just you – more games, install a cat flap, and read How to have a happy indoor cat on this website.  In order to deal with attention seeking spraying, you have to ignore it. Look away. Say nothing. Go out of the room immediately.

14. New cat flap. The cat may fear intrusion by outside cats through the flap. Get rid of this or shut it down, if spraying started after installing it. Go back to what you were doing before the cat flap.

15. Electrical appliances and radiators. These may be sprayed on because when they heat up they emit odours that attract the cat. Warmed up items include radiators, kettles, cookers, toasters etc. Clean the area around. Try Feliway assuming that you can use these on a safe area of the electrical item. Do be careful of electric shocks! Repaint radiators with radiator paint available from DIY (very easy). Let them dry and paint smells diffuse before letting cat have access to them. You can buy safety covers for electric plugs here.

16. Human changes, changes in routine, or very busy homes. New routine, new partner, new baby (Olm & Houpt 1988, Carlstead et al., 1993). Cats like predictability. Even a job change can upset them if the new job makes you smell different – ie if you start working for a vet, you will smell horrible to cats. They also get stressed by human comings and goings, changes in food times, noise etc (Stella et al., 2011)

17. Anxiety about the litter tray. Make sure the litter trays are not overlooked by outside cats or used as ambushes. If in doubt add some more in a new place. Read the article Questions to ask if your cat stops using the litter tray.  Litter trays must be in the right locations, kept clean and there must be enough of them.

18. Mirrors, reflections, artificial scents, ultrasonic devices. Sensitive cats can be upset by their own reflection. They do not recognise themselves. Instead they think they see an intruder. Cover up the mirror. Mouse and Rat Repellers and other ultra sonic deterrent devices can badly upset cats. They are set at 30,000 to 60,000 Hz, above human hearing but well within cat hearing. Turn these off. Also turn off human scent plug-ins (not Feliway). These can make the home smell wrong to a cat thus causing anxiety and making spraying more likely. Overpowering scents from bleach and disinfectants are also stressful for cats, who may spray on them.

19. Noise and bright lights. Loud TVs, noisy rock music, children practising a music instrument, or just noisy children can upset a nervous cat. Find them a quiet dark place (in the spare room or a cupboard?) where they can relax or hide.

20. Hormones. Cats sometimes spray pregnant women in the first three months of pregnancy. Usually this stops later on in the pregnancy. If a companion animal – dog or cat – comes on heat the cat may also spray then. See if flooding the room with scent from a Feliway Diffuser helps or, better still, spay the animal (not the human!) on heat.

21. Medical problem in another cat. It’s just possible that a medical problem in the spraying cat’s companion cat may make it smell different and prompt spraying. So if the non-spraying cats include any oldies check for kidney disease etc. I have one case in which the companion (non-spraying) cat got kidney disease and this seems to have set off anxiety marking by its companion, possibly because the smell of the ill cat changed. Veterinary visits can make a cat smell of the clinic – a smell which all cats hate. So if one cat is coming back from the vet, the other may attack it or be frightened by its smell. Take both cats to the vet, including the well one.

22. Your loving behaviour – human harassment.  If you love cats, you probably want to pet them and cuddle them. But anxious cats may not like this, even if they don’t scratch or bite (Ramos et al., 2013, Turner, 1995). So be careful not to harass your cat. Let the cat choose how much affection it wants. Keep petting short and let the cat keep the distance it wants. Use the cat consent test to see if your cat wants more petting – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FVPtQcjKvs.

23. Moving house. This is as stressful to a cat as it is to the humans! Mitigate the stress by putting the cat into a boarding cattery for a day or more during the actual move. Flood the new house with Feliway Optimum.


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Buffington, T., (2002), ‘External and internal influences on disease risk in cats.’ Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 220, 994- 1002

Carlstead, K., Brown, J. L. & Strawn, W., (1993,  ‘Behavioral and physiological correlates of stress in laboratory cats’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 38, 143-158.

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Ramos,D., Reche-Junior A., Fragoso P.L., Palme R., Yanasse N.K., Gouvêa V.R. , Beck A. , & D.S.Mills D. S., (2013) ‘Are cats (Felis catus) from multi-cat households more stressed? Evidence from assessment of fecal glucocorticoid metabolite analysis, ‘ Physiology and Behavior, 122, 72-79
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Seawright, A., Murray, J. & Casey, R., (2012), ‘Randomised placebo-controlled trial of behaviour therapy in the treatment of feline idiopathic cystitis,’ APBC 2nd Annual Feline Conference Proceedings, 37-40

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Stella, J. L.,Croney, C., Buffington, C. A. T., (2014),’Environmental factors that affect the behavior and welfare of domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) housed in cages,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 160. 94-105

Turner, D. C. (1995) ‘The Human-Cat Relationship,’ in eds: Robinson, I., The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interaction. Benefits and responsibilities of pet ownership, Oxford, UK, Elsevier Science, 87-97

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