Veterinarians share 13 surprising signs your pet could be stressed, and how to help them

Europa Press News / Getty ImagesIf your friendly cat keeps hiding, they might be stressed or scared.
  • Cats and dogs can experience stress and anxiety, but sometimes it’s tough to detect.
  • Excessive yawning and shedding are potential signs of stress in dogs.
  • Cats who have accidents outside of their litter box or who have a loss of appetite may be stressed out by their environment or fellow animals.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Keeping your pet well means being on the lookout for signs they might be uncomfortable or unhappy. And, like humans, animals can experience stress and anxiety.

Insider spoke with veterinarians to try and identify some of the most common signs of stress in cats and dogs, and how to help them feel better.

Here are the top signs your pet might be feeling stressed or anxious, plus what you can do about it.


Stressed pets may groom themselves excessively.

ShutterstockWhen a pet cleans themselves too much, they might experience skin irritation and fur loss.

Karie Anne Johnson, veterinarian and co-owner of VIP Vet Visit, told Insider that both dogs and cats will sometimes over-groom for due to stress or anxiety.

“Over-grooming is what’s known as a displacement behaviour – they don’t know what else to do to deal with stress, so they groom to calm themselves down,” said Johnson.

Johnson explained that dogs typically lick or chew on their front legs and cats will often pluck fur from their abdomen.

Over-grooming can cause skin infections due to irritation. After consulting with a vet to rule out any medical problems, you may consider buying a licking mat that will help redirect some of your pet’s urge to groom themselves.


Pets may show a “whale eye” when they’re nervous.

ShutterstockIf your pet is giving you a lot of side-eye, they might need some space.

Ever have a pet look at you sideways with only one eye? Known as a “whale eye” or side-eye, this expression is often a sign of discomfort.

“Their eyes get dilated and you can only see a sliver of the white of their eye as they look at you from the side. Whale eye is an indication that they are stressed or anxious,” Johnson told Insider.

If you notice your pet making this expression, Johnson advised that it’s a good idea to give them some space and remove any potential stressors from the environment, such as other pets or loud children.


Cats and dogs sometimes lick their lips and noses when they’re upset.

ShutterstockIf your cat is licking their nose and lips, they might be nervous.

Although pets often use their tongues to moisten their noses or explore the world around them, Johnson explained that excessive nose or lip licking can be a sign of distress.

“Pets will lick their nose or their lips when they are stressed, nervous, or anxious. Both cats and dogs do these behaviours normally, so stress-licking can be easily overlooked or misinterpreted,” said Johnson.

If your pet has enough water to drink and doesn’t have any irritation around its nose or mouth, excessive licking could be linked to stress. Check in with your vet to help pinpoint the cause.


Excessive shedding is one subtle sign of stress in dogs.

ShutterstockIf your pet is shedding excessively, they may have a health issue or be stressed.

Molly Farrell, veterinarian and owner of Dyer Animal Clinic in Indiana, told Insider that sudden and excessive shedding can be a symptom of stress in some dogs.

“Stress can cause dogs to develop flaky skin and can lead to sudden fur shedding. If the stressful situation was a one-time thing, the shedding of the fur would last for roughly three to four days,” said Farrell.

Combing your pet can help manage the shedding, though if your dog is experiencing chronic stress, the excessive shedding may continue. Always consult with your vet about any changes in your pet’s fur or skin.


If your dog is barking or whining more than usual, they could be stressed.

ShutterstockIf your dog won’t stop barking, they might be in distress.

Travis Arndt, veterinarian and director of the Animal Medical Centre of Mid-America, told Insider that a sudden increase in barking or whining can be a clue that your dog is feeling stressed.

“Vocalizing is a way that dogs communicate that they need something. When dogs whine or bark in excess, they may be experiencing stress,” said Arndt.

Though barking and whining may be annoying to human family members, Arndt said that it’s important to consult with a vet to rule out physical or emotional distress before attempting to train your dog to be quieter.


Yawning is a key sign of anxiety in dogs.

ShutterstockYawning could be a sign your dog is tired, but if they’re well-rested they might be showing they are stressed.

If your dog starts yawning when you know they are well-rested, it’s likely they’re feeling some amount of anxiety.

“Yawning is one of the most overlooked signs of stress in a dog. It’s a displacement behaviour, meaning your pet is conflicted as to what to do and are anxious,” said Johnson.

Johnson added that another sign of stress that owners should watch out for is when a dog pants while yawning.


If your normally social cat has begun hiding beneath furniture or blankets, they could be stressed out.

ShutterstockIf your friendly cat is suddenly hiding, they might be stressed or scared.

Cats are evasive by nature and love to find places to curl up for long cat naps,” said Arndt. “But if your cat is suddenly hiding, it can be a sign that your cat is experiencing stress.”

Arndt advised that providing perches or cat trees can help, as cats often feel more comfortable when they are up high.Allowing your cat to have a safe room in your house where they can go to relax is also a good idea.

“Consider using a baby gate and cutting a small hole in the bottom, just large enough for your cat,” said Arndt. “This lets your cat escape stressors, such as a new pet that has just been brought into the home.


A dog who is trembling and pacing is highly distressed.

ShutterstockIf your dog is trembling, they may want to escape their current situation.

Shaking and pacing back and forth are signs that a dog is feeling extremely uncomfortable and seeking a way out of their current situation.

“Trembling and pacing are indicators of stress. It’s a fight-or-flight behaviour; The dog is looking for an escape route,” said Farrell.

If your dog is trembling and pacing, it’s important to immediately act to either remove the source of their anxiety or allow them to move away from whatever is causing them discomfort.


A stressed dog may have dilated pupils and flat ears.

ShutterstockWatching the facial features of a dog can give important clues about its state of mind.

“When observing a dog for stress, it is important to watch the ears and eyes. If the eyes are dilated and the ears are flattened, the dog is giving the initial signs of minor stress,” said Farrell.

If you notice these signs in your own dog, try and remove any potential stressors such as other pets, small children, or loud noises.

Talk to your vet if your dog seems unduly agitated by regular household activities or other animals.


Trained cats who begin to have accidents outside of the litter box may be experiencing stress.

iStockWhen a cat isn’t using their litter box, it could mean they’re stressed out by their environment or are experiencing a health issue.

“When a cat stops using the litter box or is inconsistent about using the litter box, it can be a sign that your cat is experiencing stress,” Arndt told Insider.

Instead of punishing your cat for having an accident, Arndt suggested making an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems.

You may also want to try increasing the number of litter boxes in your home or changing their location, since some cats may be uncomfortable sharing a litter box with another cat or using a box placed in a loud area.


Extremely agitated dogs may tuck their tails.

ShutterstockWhen dogs tuck their tails between their legs, they may need some space.

In situations where a dog feels threatened or very stressed, they may tuck their tail between their legs.

“An agitated dog may tuck its tail and look to hide behind anything that can put distance between it and the threat. This is extreme body posturing and happens when a dog is feeling extremely stressed,” Farrell told Insider.

It’s crucial to give a stressed dog its space, especially if they’re unfamiliar to you or you’re unsure about what is alarming them.


Cats who feel threatened may crouch and flatten their ears.

ShutterstockIf your cat’s ears are flattened, they may be feeling threatened.

One way that cats communicate stress is through body language, Farrell explained.

“A stressed cat may flatten their ears and get into a crouching position. In this position, they will wrap their tail close to their body and may flick the end of their tail as a warning,” said Farrell.

This compact position makes the cat’s body a smaller target and allows them to spring into an attack more easily.


Stress can cause a cat to eat less or not at all.

iStockIf your pet isn’t eating as much as usual, they may be stressed or they could have an underlying medical issue.

Arndt explained that one common cause of mealtime anxiety is other household pets.

“When multiple pets in the home eat and drink near each other, cats can feel scared or anxious,” said Arndt. “Simply moving the bowls to separate places can help a cat feel more relaxed and eat more.”

If your cat’s eating habits have changed drastically, it’s important to visit the veterinarian to rule out any medical problems.

Read More:

11 important things veterinarians want every cat owner to know

9 important things veterinarians want every dog owner to know

9 signs your dog doesn’t like you, even if you think they do

13 important things veterinarians wish all pet owners knew

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