Stress Factors for Cats or Dogs

Icon of a book About Stress for Cats or Dogs

Stress is defined as the symptom resulting from exposure to a situation or environment that is not normal for an animal. Stress can often be seen when animals are handled and/or transported. 

Stress affects animals in two ways: 

  • Psychologically: fear and anxiety resulting from restraint, handling, neglect or unfamiliar objects or environments 
  • Physically: hunger, thirst, fatigue, injury or thermal extremes 

A number of specific factors produce stress. These factors include: 

  • Temperature:
    • Effective ambient temperature: the combination of humidity, precipitation and heat radiation. 
    • Comfort zone: range in which an animal does not have to increase normal metabolic rate.
    • Lower critical temperature: animal shows symptoms of cold stress (i.e., increases feed intake, shivering). 
    • Upper critical temperature: animal show symptoms of heat stress (i.e., decrease feed intake, sweating). 
  • Poor ventilation: the movement of air through the environment. 
  • Overcrowding: overpopulation of animals in one area of an environment.
  • Transportation: trailer, truck or cage. 
  • Changed housing or facility: unfamiliar living space. 
  • Working equipment: unfamiliar facilities and equipment. 
  • Pests: flies, mosquitoes, lice and ticks that irritate physically and psychologically.
  • Human exposure: extent of familiarity or socialization with people. 

Symptoms of Stress

Animals often show common behaviours when they are experiencing stress. These behaviours include: 

  • Excessive vocalization
  • Attempting to run away
  • Lethargy
  • Decrease in, or lack of, appetite
  • Isolation
  • An elevated or increased respiratory rate
  • Dehydration
  • An elevated heart rate.

Dogs show specific behaviours when they experience stress. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Chewing and destruction 
  • Digging 
  • Involuntary urination 
  • Hyperactivity 
  • Growling and showing of teeth 
  • Tail between legs 
  • Shaking
  • Excessive panting in temperatures where it is inappropriate.

Cats show specific behaviours when they experience stress. Symptoms to watch for include: 

  • Chewing and scratching 
  • Excessive meowing 
  • Dilated pupils 
  • Hyperactivity 
  • Obsessive grooming and fluffing of hair.

When domestic animals are not able to engage in natural behaviours, they may become frustrated. This is true of cats housed in traditional kennel or shelter settings that offer few opportunities for meaningful interaction with the environment. 

Extroverted cats that suffer from frustration may show the following behaviours: 

  • Be moody (friendly one minute, aggressive the next) 
  • Seem to be friendly, trying to catch people passing by with their paw 
  • Be very vocal 
  • Engage in escape behaviour including pacing or pawing a cage closure 
  • Spray or eliminate outside the litter box (also associated with anxiety) 
  • Sit at the front of the cage, meowing continuously, with intensity increasing when you approach or depart 
  • Seek eye contact 
  • Continuously trying to open the cage 
  • Pace 
  • Shred or destroy cage items 
  • Turn all items upside down (can be a sign of frustration if the cat is not also trying to hide).

Introverted cats may choose to relieve their frustration with quiet, repetitive behaviours, such as: 

  • Overgrooming or focus licking on one area of the body, causing damage to the skin (this may also be a sign of a medical condition or a response to pain)
  • Self-mutilation (as above) 
  • Sucking, chewing or eating non-edible items (these behaviours may also occur with gastrointestinal disorders)
  • Focusing interest on one part of the cage.

Anyone who owns or works with cats has a responsibility to understand and respond to its natural instincts.

Factors That Help Prevent Stress

Heat: Provide shade, airflow (i.e. fans) and readily accessible water. Avoid exercise during hot, humid weather.

Cold: Provide adequate shelter from cold or wet conditions, good quality feed, and blankets if necessary. 

Ventilation: Ensure there is adequate ventilation and provide an outside area for animals when possible during the day. 

Overcrowding: Make sure there is room for each dog or cat to move easily, walk forward, turn around with ease, and lie down in a normal resting posture. There must also be sufficient space for each dog or cat to escape inter-aggression, and access water and feed. Time should be given to move animals from one place to the other to prevent crowding in pens and chutes. Never move animals in inclement weather conditions, as it can elicit further stress. 

Transportation: Transportation can cause stress in dogs. To reduce the stress of transport, many veterinarians provide strategies to reduce distress during transport. The American Animal Hospital Association recommends the following steps:

  • Socialize your pet to the carrier and to travelling. 
  • Keep the transport carrier out and accessible in the home. 
  • Create and maintain a positive association with the transport carrier by making it a comfortable resting, feeding or play location. 
  • When feasible, and if the cat or dog is neutral or favorably inclined to car travel, encourage owners to take the dog on periodic car rides paired with positive experiences. 
  • Place familiar clothing from a favourite person in the carrier on a routine basis and just prior to transport. 
  • Provide cover/hiding options in or over carrier (blanket draped over carrier) during transport.

Check out the Canine and Feline Life Stage Guides provided by the American Animal Hospital Association. 

Ensure a clean and safe mode of transportation that has adequate space allowance and ventilation for your pet. Provide potable water and food every 3 to 6 hours during transport and monitor behaviour. 

Housing or Facilities: Provide an environment that ensures comfort and safety, and minimizes exposure to disease, illness or injury. 

Pests: Provide pest control in the environment to prevent irritation by pests, and exposure to disease or illness. Ensure that living spaces are kept clean and well maintained through biosecurity protocols.

Take time and small steps to approach and work with an animal. Be patient and give the animal time to adjust to its environment and the people who will be working with them. 

Treatments for Stress 

  • Remove stress-producing factors from the animal’s living and working environments. 
  • Ensure that the physiological effects of stress are addressed by a veterinarian.
  • Increase opportunities to have behavioural needs met.

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