Unstacking Triggers: Reducing Stress to Resolve Behavior Issues

Behavior issues in cats are often rooted in stress. What does this mean? Something, or more likely things, are causing the cat to feel unsafe, frustrated, uncomfortable, painful, annoyed, or bored. Stress reduction may be necessary to resolve behavior problems. It may also be recommended by your veterinarian for health reasons. Why can tackling stress in one area help another? And how do you start reducing stress in your cat’s life?

It’s Not One Thing

Rarely is a behavior problem only about a single factor. Though one trigger may set the ball rolling, there are often other sources causing stress to build up and contributing to the main issue appearing when it does. This is why behavior can appear sudden, random, or inconsistent. It is called “trigger stacking” – when the stress from multiple sources adds up to the point of causing a behavior issue. 

In this graphic, you can see how an owner may struggle to identify why their cat is peeing on the bed. It’s no one reason, but a combination of stressors. 

Graph showing how different stressors cause a cat's stress level to rise by different amounts. None alone reaching the stress level that causes the cat to pee on the bed. However different combinations can add up to that level and cause the behavior. This makes it difficult to identify a single reason for the behavior.

When you can’t identify one single cause or the behavior appears random, you’ll want to reduce stress in as many areas as possible. Luckily there are many ways to do this without complicated training plans. 

Steps to Reduce Stress

Check with Your Vet

Cats are masters at hiding pain and physical discomfort. But not feeling well can definitely impact their behavior. If your cat seems stressed or is displaying behavior problems, get a vet check to make sure there isn’t anything physical going on. Share your concerns with your vet so they know to look deeper than a basic exam. Ask about how they assess for pain and what the next steps would be if they don’t find anything but the stress or behavior continues. Finally, if your cat does have medical concerns, even if they are minor, take the steps to address them so your cat can be their best self. 

Set Up Your Home

Consider your home setup to maximize your cat’s comfort. This doesn’t mean turning your house entirely over to your cat, but you can decrease stress with some considerations. In particular, make sure your cat has options for getting off the ground and for hiding from view. Every cat is different in what they like and use, but most cats benefit from these two things. Options mean more than one place for each, though they can be in different rooms. This page has more information on home setup. 

Another important consideration for home setup is giving your cat space and time to rest. While it might seem like all some cats do is sleep, if you have an active household, your cat’s rest may be frequently interrupted. Estimates vary, but most cats sleep 10-13 hours a day, in short bursts, with some needing as much as 20 hours. If this sleep is constantly being interrupted or if your cat doesn’t feel safe resting during the day, stress levels will rise. Make sure your cat has areas where they can go to have some quiet time. 

Finally, check in with the litter box. Could there be improvements that make it more comfortable for your cat? Check out this post for more about the “perfect” litter box.

Use Play and Enrichment

Physical and mental exercise, opportunities to express natural cat behaviors, and ways to engage the senses are key to stress reduction in cats. Many ideas can be integrated into a daily routine, sometimes with only small changes to what you’re doing now. Feeding from food puzzles can be straightforward for many households. Adding interactive play sessions with your cat is stress reducing and can target many behavior concerns, particularly when done in a routine way. Additional enrichment activities can be provided for a cat to engage in on their own. 

Add Pheromones

Some cats benefit from calming pheromones in their environment. You can learn more here.

Addressing Other Stressors

While you might not directly connect one to another, stress from many sources can contribute to a behavior problem. If you know there’s an issue in an area, you may need to work on that first, before expecting to see progress on your main concern.

Common stressors can include:

  • Seeing outdoor cats from indoors or having contact with them while outside
  • Being nervous or fearful of a human family member
  • Having conflict with another pet in the home

If you’re having issues with your indoor-outdoor cat, you may need to transition them to indoor only to resolve the issue. Stress caused by seeing outdoor cats from inside can be reduced with frosted window film, closed blinds, or humane deterrents in the yard. 

For other concerns, consider consulting a behavior professional to guide you.

Medical Revisited

Medical factors are so often an overlooked part of the puzzle that it’s worth repeating! Continue the conversation with your vet as you work on your cat’s behavior. Along with treating medical conditions, your vet may be able to guide you through diet changes, supplements, or medications that can support your goals. You might also speak with a behavior-specific vet, such as a Veterinary Behaviorist.

Unstack the Triggers, Resolve the Issue

So many cat behavior problems are due to “stress”, that big amorphous problem. You might not have to get more specific though. When the little things add up to a big problem, stress reduction will be your friend. Prevent a stack of stressful triggers and the issue can disappear. 

If you need help unstacking your cat’s trigger, reducing stress, or otherwise working through a behavior challenge, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.