Pandora Syndrome, a myriad of physiological manifestations of stress, presenting as disease and inappropriate behavior. 

This is a huge and common issue. If you have lived with cats, you may have experienced this. Urination or defecation in the wrong places, “hairballs”, hiding, aggression, … often are the result of cats internalizing stress. It turns out, they are really good at hiding stress, Too good, in fact.  The good news is that we know much more about what may be stressing our cats, and there are many ways to prevent it. I hope this will be as eye opening and helpful for you as it has been for me, and my patients.

Cats protect themselves by hiding weakness, pain, or illness.  Environmental enrichment and modifications are often subtle, but effective. Thus, it is better to step back, evaluate your cat’s surroundings and make some proactive adjustments.

This applies to single or multiple cat homes.  First, it is important to remember that cats, in the wild, are solitary hunters, who eat 10-20 small prey daily.  The act of hunting doesn’t always lead to a kill, but cats innately hunt, and prefer familiar territories to do so. If your cat likes puzzle feeders, they are a great way to simulate the hunt while searching for food you have hidden throughout the home.

Cats select with whom to affiliate, by grooming or rubbing against each other. In a single cat household, you may be that affiliate.  They prefer petting of their head, cheek and chin to that of the abdomen or other areas of the body. When they rub their face they mark their scent as well as showing affection. They are also depositing pheromones through cheek and paw pad marking. Encouraging cheek marking, say on wall corners, may help.  Feliway pheromone plugs ins are synthetic pheromones, mimicking natural cat scents, that help foster a calm environment. I recommend one plug in per room that the cat frequents. At least every 3 months, replace them.

Also, try not to wash the cat’s natural oils off wall and furniture. This will divert them from urine marking.  If your cats are urine marking, try providing a secure, stable scratching surface placed at the location to encourage them to scratch instead of urinate in that area.

This should help increase their sense of security and comfort in their environment.  To that end, avoid using strongly scented cleaners, detergents, or scented litters that may disrupt their sensory perception.  You might also place footwear or shopping bags at the home entrance to avoid introducing external smells throughout the home. Try washing a cat’s bedding on a rotating basis, avoiding all things being washed of scent at once.

Feeling safe:

Even if you have cats that get along well, it is still ideal to provide multiple places for them to access easily, for private time.  This gives them a perceived sense of control.  They need their own area to eat, drink, use a litter box, rest and sleep, with elevated perches. This access to vertical space allows them to monitor their environment, escape stress or bullying, and avoid seeing others. Cardboard boxes placed on their side, are a good way to achieve perceived solitude. A perch should be wide and long enough to allow the cat to fully stretch.  Hammocks allow height and hiding.  Kittens and senior cats may prefer lower boxes, shelves and perches. Most prefer visibility of the outdoors. Others may be agitated if outdoor cats antagonize them through a window. Know and quietly observe your cat for hints at his reactions to outdoor activity .

Ideal are rooms with more than one entry to avoid another cat blocking it.  No escape route is a perfect stressful setting for a fight.

Some cats prefer drinking from a recirculating water fountain.  Others prefer wide bowls. Learn what your cats like.

Cat communication:

It is generally easier for adult cats to accept kittens, instead of other adult cats. Related cats are more likely to get along, which is important if faced with siblings in need of adoption.

They posture with facial expressions, vocalizations, and ear movement. In multi-cat homes, social groups may arise. Marking behaviors are more evident with multiple cats.  They may mutually groom, tail wrap, rest or sleep near or with each other, and play.

Per cat in the home, strive to have: 2 resting areas, 2 feeding areas, and 2 toileting areas. Separate food and water from each other, to avoid competition. Food bowls should be at least 18 inches from a wall, to allow a cat to face out into his surroundings.


Pseudo-predatory play may be encouraged with feeding puzzles. This is a physical and mental form of stimulation and will help them eat smaller meals more slowly, helping prevent obesity. You may also scatter-feed dry food, or toss it for them to chase.

Rods with a feather or fur mimic flying prey, or ground prey.  It is a great way to interact with your cats. Reward them with a treat after.

Large, soft toys are often safer than small, multipart toys, such as those with bells.  Rotate access to toys to prevent boredom. Keep them in several locations, as opposed to one giant box in one room.

In a multi-cat household, try to play individually with cats at separate times and locations.  Kittens generally have a greater need for inter-cat play at a greater intensity and for longer periods of time.   Strive for consistency in play and timing of that play, to create familiarity and, again, reduce stress. Don’t force the issue, but slowly and gently approach them at first, allowing them to initiate and choose the level of play early on in your relationship. With time, once a healthy interaction is established, it will be a predictable and pleasant bonding experience for both of you.

How to know when it’s working:

Cats can sublety be telling you they are relaxed and willing to interact.  Look for:

Slow blinking, purring and chirping.

Facial or head butting on your hand or body, or attempts to climb onto your lap.

Kneading while on your lap.

Staying close to you while you move about the home.

A relaxed roll onto their side, exposing their belly.  Try to resist rubbing their belly unless they really seem to want you to do so and respond favorably.

This blog is not intended to be an overwhelming list of TO DO’s. It is, instead, intended to be a guide of things to consider as you look more closely at your home and cat. Use it as a roadmap to create an even happier, relaxing cat friendly environment.

Dr. Dawn

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