Emotional Distress in Cats

Photo showing the top half of a cat's face with a hashtag #becatcurious

Article Reproduced with Kind Permission of International Cat Care. Illustrations by Lili Chin.

Cats have feelings, both positive and negative ones, ​a​nd those feelings matter to each and every cat. They also matter to us. ​At iCatCare, we believe to be truly cat friendly, we need to give equal consideration to both the physical health of a cat and also its mental wellbeing. We want to look after cats in a way that ensures they enjoy the life they lead and minimises the chances they may feel fear, anxiety, frustration, and pain. A knowledge of cat friendly behaviour can ensure our interactions with cats are positive, for more information see our infographic page on handling and interactions.

In order to minimise negative emotions in cats, we need to understand the behaviour of the species including what they need to live a fulfilling life as a cat, what the emotions mean for cats and what are the likely causes of them.

Fear and Anxiety

A cat feels anxious when it thinks there is a possible threat to its safety and security and it feels fear when that threat is no longer potential, but real.

Every cat is different due to its genetics and its life experiences but common sources of anxiety and fear for cats include encountering:

  • Unknown animals and people
  • New environments such as a new home, boarding cattery or veterinary clinic
  • Loud noises, strange sensations, sights and smells
Illustration showing a cat slinking away
Illustration showing a cat hiding

Illustration showing a cat flicking it's tongue over it's nose


A cat feels frustrated when it is unable to access something it wants and/or when it receives nothing or less reward than it was expecting.

Common sources of frustration for cats include the cat perceiving it:

  • cannot access certain parts of the home
  • it is unable to go outside when it is used to
  • cannot obtain food or the food it desires
  • is unable to actively defend its territory from intruders
  • has inadequate toileting facilities
  • is restrained and unable to free itself

We also need to be able to read their behaviour and body language to recognise how they are feeling at any particular time. If our cat detective skills tell us a cat is experiencing emotional distress, we need to activate that feline behaviour knowledge, and act. Such action may involve changes to the environment, changes to the way we interact with the cat and/or a trip to the vets to investigate any possible pain or illness.

Illustration showing a cat trying to reach a fish on a plate that is positioned up high
Illustration showing two cats in a confrontation

How do we maintain positive emotional states and promote mental wellbeing?

Understanding that cats use their behaviour and body language to maintain safety and to communicate, allows us to engage in mutual interactions with them, advocate for them and prevent distress.nn

Recognition of what a calm, relaxed and content cat looks like, and allowing cats to make choices is ideal (see our handling page). Contented cats choose to approach a person or situation or are calm in its presence. They have:

  • soft facial expressions
  • Loose relaxed body movements
  • The tail may be upright, with a gentle “question mark” curve at the top
  • The eyes may have a soft almond shape, with small slit-like pupils, and the cat may slowly blink
  • Calm cats’ ears are usually neutral or slightly forward, as are the whiskers
  • They may purr
  • Knead with their paws
  • Offer “social rolls” (this doesn’t mean they want belly rubs!)
  • Rub their heads or bodies against people, surfaces, cats (in their social group) or other animals.
  • If settled, the paws are often away from the body, and with the claws withdrawn, signifying relaxation.

Cats may be described as “high frequency, low intensity interactors”, so little and often is what they generally appreciate – whether that is play, social contact or handling.

Illustration showing a cat curled up asleep

Clare Hemington

Clare has worked in the field of cat behaviour for sixteen years. She is an accredited Cat Behaviourist and respected member of the COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers. Clare believes that understanding cat behaviour is key to their overall welfare. Through consultation and education her aim is to share information with owners that enables them to give their cat a life that is as happy as it possibly can be. Clare is also founder and owner of Honeysuckle cat toys. Toys made from Tatarian honeysuckle wood which provide wonderful natural enrichment for cats.

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