Cat Stress And Welfare

The degree of stress suffered by a cat can be a measure of the welfare of that cat. As it is cat caretakers who create the environment that dictates a cat's level of stress or relaxation, the amount of stress in a cat could also be a measure of our cat caretaking skills.

Just moved! Photo debcha (Flickr)
However,  cat stress is an individual thing and dependent on cat personality. There are bold, dominant cats and shy subordinate cats. The former is less likely to be stressed. There are a wide range of potential stressors in the domestic cat environment such as lack of socialisation and confinement in an area that is too small for the cat to express innate drives.

Stressed cats will tend to hide (see picture). We see this when we move home. A house move puts our cat into a strange environment. We get stressed too.

Purring is not a an accurate measure of stress or relaxation as it occurs under a wide range of circumstances.

A cat that is very vigilant and who sleeps poorly as a consequence could be said to be under stress probably due to cats being forced together and/or one cat being a dominant aggressor. Overgrooming and cystitis are two examples of behavior and health that can be caused by stress.

A cat's behavior and posture signals his or her level of stress at any given time. Below is a picture that shows the two extremes and below that is a "composite behavioral scale for quantifying stress". My thanks to the book The Welfare of Cats for this.

Here is a summarized description of behavior, posture and appearance of the cat set against a score (1-10). This test was devised with caged cats so there is reference to a cage.
  1. Completely relaxed, cat laid out on back sometimes, pupils normal, ears pricked forward, possibly purring. You might see the slow blink that a visitor described. Tail extended and held upwards with whiskers forward or normal. Chin may be resting on a surface.
  2. More aware than at level 1 but relaxed with ears forward and normal (midway position between forward and back), purring, meowing possibly, slow blink and whiskers forward or normal.
  3. Belly may be exposed. Ears forward or pricked. Legs may be stretched out and paws turned in.
  4. Cat may sit away from the direction of the front of the cage. Whiskers and ears normal or forward.
  5. Eyes slightly dilated. Cat may meow and look around. Head moves around. Body a little tense.
  6. Eyes dilated. Ears flattened slightly and back or forward on cat's head. Posture is tense. Plaintive meows. Actively exploring and trying to escape cage.
  7. Posture is stiff. Cat focuses on observing person. Plaintive meows. Ears back. Pupils dilated and cat may try to escape.
  8. Pupils dilated or very dilated. Prowling or motionless. Yowl. Ears flattened a bit and back on head. Body crouched. Tail close to body.
  9. Pupils very dilated. Body crouched and close to ground. Breathing fast. Shaking perhaps. Cat at rear of cage. Quiet or very vocal. Hiss perhaps. Whiskers back.
  10. Full-on defence. Hair, body and head flattened. Pupils very dilated. Warning hiss or and spit. Back in cage. Sits on all fours. Rage. Fast breathing.

Associated: Cat personality questionnaire (PDF file will download)

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