The phrase “scaredy cat” didn’t just appear out of thin air — cats are famous for being easily startled. While jumping at the sight of a cucumber may be a little silly, knowing when your cat is nervous, stressed or scared takes a watchful eye. To help you pick up on some of the more subtle cues that your kitty might be stressed, we consulted Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, an animal behaviorist and contributing author of Decoding Your Cat, who explains what to look for and her best advice for helping them relax.
Cats will naturally seek out low, hidden places or perches up high when they feel unsafe or scared, like when you’re vacuuming or if new people come over. “Usually, when they are scared or stressed, their go-to is to hide or become immobile,” Ballantyne told The Dodo. While occasional hiding is normal, if you still don’t see your cat hours after they made a break for it, it could be a sign that they are sick, not just scared. “The majority of the day is a lot,” she said.
To make them more comfortable, Ballantyne suggests having plenty of places for them to perch or hide in high and low locations, and leaving out a catnip toy or treats. Also, never coax or force a cat out of their hiding spot when they’re afraid: You can actually cause more stress that way!
A cuddly kitten purring in your lap is a pretty clear-cut sign that your pet is content and happy. However, if your cat is purring at a weird time, like when they go to the vet or when they aren’t being affectionate with you, it’s sometimes a cue that they need something. “Cats purr when nursing, so it might be a care-soliciting vocalization,” Ballantyne said. “It doesn’t always indicate that they’re relaxed.” Because kittens use purrs to let their moms know they need milk or warmth, they may do it to their pet parent to signal something similar. Check their food and water bowls, and give them a little extra attention — they might be feeling lonely.
Scroll cat photos on the internet and you’re bound to see some kittens “loafing” in silly circumstances (i.e., when they sit with their legs and tail tucked in, like a small loaf of cuteness). And while this “loaf” position is a relatively common position for them to hang out in, Ballantyne advises that you shouldn’t misread this body language as your cat telling you they’re comfortable. She said that a cat tucked up tight with their tail alongside their body is usually nervous — even more so if their pupils are wide or their ears are pulled back. In those situations, give your kitty a little space, and consider a calming aid if you notice your cat tensing up often.
Cat meows are like a secret language they only share with their pet parents, and it’s a habit they develop when they’re trying to tell you something. “Meowing is a learned attention-seeking behavior,” Ballantyne said, meaning that it’s normal — but only in moderation. Humans accidentally reinforce this behavior by doing things like feeding a yelling cat at 4 a.m. If you find your cat is talking a lot, and it’s not because they are seeking food or your attention, get them to a vet. Ballantyne said that a lot of excess chatter can be an early sign of a problem, especially if it develops suddenly.
A change in your cat’s bathroom behavior is a common signal that there’s an issue. If you find your cat suddenly stops using their litter box, and you’re finding urine on horizontal, flat, smooth surfaces, it is a clue that something is wrong with the litter box itself, Ballantyne said. It’s either too dirty, or in a spot that scares them. Set up an additional one, and clean it regularly.
If you find that their urine is on a vertical surface, like the wall or your furniture, that’s a sign of marking, and usually means stress from a change in their environment. Pay attention to their bathroom habits when you bring home a new pet, or check if there’s a feral cat hanging around outside. In these situations, Ballantyne again suggests setting up an additional litter box, near their usual hiding spots, or in a room where they can get some privacy.
It’s a common misconception that cats throw up a lot, Ballantyne said. While hairballs are relatively normal, if you’re finding several, you may want to take them to a groomer or do a bit more brushing at home so there’s less hair when they groom themselves. Vomit, though, can mean stress — either from their food bowl being in an off-putting location, switching the food you’re feeding them or by a sudden change, like if you just started going back to work after a long time at home.
To avoid a cat eating too quickly, make sure they have plenty of access to food and water in multiple locations around the house. Puzzle feeders can also encourage your cat to slow down, as eating too fast is a common cause of throwing up. When you do need to leave or know there will be a stressful situation for your cat, calming aids can help, as can challenging toys and high-value catnip treats to distract them. These help your kitty associate “negative” situations (i.e., you leaving for the day) with positive outcomes (a new toy to play with!) and will help keep them calmer during stressful transitions.
Knowing when your cat is scared or stressed is the first step to making them more comfortable at home — even when they have to face unenjoyable situations. (Looking at you, vacuum cleaner.)
Written by Christie Rotondo. Christie is a senior editor at The Dodo and currently lives in New Jersey with her two cats. She knows you have plenty of jokes about that and she does not care.