No bills, no responsibilities, endless hours spent batting toys beneath the furniture, napping in soft sherpa beds and watching birds flit around the feeder outside the living room window.

From a human perspective, the life of a pampered house cat looks pretty sweet. So it can be startling to learn that our cats’ lives might not be as stress-free as we imagine. 

Everything from our household cleaning habits to the way we interact with our feline companions can be a source of anxiety for them. 

While “one stressor may not mean a lot, a bunch stacked up can make for a very unhappy cat,” says Danielle Bays, senior analyst for cat protection and policy at the Humane Society of the United States. And since cats lack the facial expressiveness of dogs and tend to display their likes and dislikes in subtle ways, it’s easy to miss the clues. 

Cats can be silent sufferers. They can hide their stress until it kind of explodes into something that’s obvious to people.

Mikel Delgado, Feline Minds Cat Behavior Consulting

“Cats can be silent sufferers,” says Mikel Delgado, founder of Feline Minds Cat Behavior Consulting. “They can hide their stress until it kind of explodes into something that’s obvious to people.” So if their humans “don’t recognize the subtle signs of stress,” she adds, “well, they definitely recognize when their cat pees on their bed. But sometimes there have been signs all along.”

Along with triggering problem behaviors, chronic stress affects your cat’s quality of life and can even lead to illness. The good news is that simple changes can go a long way to making your pet’s life as carefree as you always imagined it to be. 

Illustration of candles and a burning incense stick
Candles: Photoplotnikov/; incense: Iv__design

Scents and sounds. When it comes to evaluating their living spaces, humans are very visual while cats, with their much sharper noses and ears, are more concerned with odors and noise. This means that smells and sounds you find appealing—or barely notice—can be overwhelming to your feline friends.

Incense, fragrance plug-ins, essential oils and scented candles can be irritating to cats, and they can interfere with the one smell cats universally adore: their own. Cats use scent glands in their cheeks, flanks and paw pads to leave their personal scent on objects in their environment, making them feel at home and secure. “So if we’re constantly trying to cover or erase those smells, they can’t feel like they live there,” Delgado says. “It’s like moving into someone’s apartment as a roommate and it’s already filled with all their stuff.”

Just like any roommate situation, compromise is often the solution. Don’t wash all your cat beds on the same day, and avoid heavily scented detergents and cleaning products. If you can’t give up your mountain glade sprays and sandalwood candles, if blasting rock or rap is your thing or your teenager is learning to play the drums, set aside spaces where your kitties can escape these annoyances. This could be a spare room that is free of artificial scents and beeping electronics, where you use a noise buffer, such as a fan, white noise machine, soft classical music or tunes designed for the feline ear, Delgado says. (Avoid playing the radio or news, adds certified cat behavior consultant Tabitha Kucera, who recommends the Through a Cat’s Ear CD and the Pet Acoustics’ Pet Tunes Feline system, a speaker unit preloaded with calming cat tunes.)

Illustration of a litter box and scooper.
Rachel Stern

The all-important bathroom. Imagine how stressed you’d feel if your toilet was broken, and you get an idea of how your litter box setup affects your cats’ emotional well-being, Delgado says. “It’s so important for cats to have a litter box they enjoy using.”

That means scooping at least once a day and providing appropriately sized litter boxes in areas where your cats feel safe, a sufficient number (at least one for every cat in the house plus one more) and an appealing litter. Most cats, Delgado says, prefer large open boxes and an unscented litter with a sandy texture. 

If you’re unsure about your cats’ preferences, provide multiple options and let them choose, Delgado says. This isn’t a matter for compromise, she adds: If they don’t like the self-cleaning litter box or the fresh-scent litter, “it has to go.”

Illustration of a cat showing different parts of its body with "Yes" "No" or "Sometimes" based on cats preferences.

Considerate handling. If your roommate picked you up and showered you with impromptu hugs and full-body squeezes regardless of your mood, you might feel a bit anxious and cranky. Individual cats differ in how much they appreciate human forms of affection, and it’s important to respect your cats’ boundaries. Kucera advocates using a “considerate approach” in which cats initiate and control when and how they’re touched. “If they go up to you and physically lean into your hand or body, that’s giving you consent to pet them.” Keep in mind that most cats aren’t fans of long extended strokes, she adds, and prefer being scratched on their head, neck and shoulders; pay attention to body language to decipher your kitties’ preferences.

Of course, there will be times when you have to handle your cats for practical reasons, such as trimming their nails, administering medications or visiting the vet. Through training and gentle handling, you can reduce the stress of these encounters for both you and your pets. This can mean regularly tossing treats into an open carrier to create positive associations with their “transport container” and using treats and praise to gradually acclimate your cats to having their paws handled. Even if your cats are healthy youngsters now, one day they’re going to be seniors, says Delgado, who prepares her cats for the time when they may need medications by giving them empty gel caps “wrapped in something delicious so they get used to eating that as a treat.” 

Illustration of a scratching post
Rachel Stern

Stress busters. You may not be able to eliminate every source of stress from your cats’ environment, but you can help them develop coping skills to better handle life’s inevitable knocks. “Cats thrive off routine, enrichment and exercise,” Delgado says. Think food puzzles to engage minds and bodies, vertical space for climbing and surveying their domain, scratching posts, safe outdoor access (like a catio), window perches and interactive play. “Play is an important part of relieving stress,” Delgado says. “It helps cats release those feel-good hormones.”

Providing cats with physical and mental stimulation “isn’t extra—it’s essential,” she adds. “It’s just as important as food and water.”

Get tips on detecting signs of stress in cats. Learn More

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