While I hope you never have to see a cat that’s so scared or stressed it poops, it does happen. It’s not just cats that this happens to either, it’s a common response in fight or flight situations across many animals including us humans.
Why do cats poop and pee when scared? During times of extreme stress, a long list of physiological changes occur to optimize for fight or flight including the tightening of stomach muscles and relaxation of bowel control which can lead to cats getting so scared that they pee or poop.
While this isn’t the most glamorous subject, let’s look a little closer at why the feline fight or flight response might find it best to poop when scared or stressed.
Looking At Other Species
As we explain why cats poop when scared in the rest of this article, we’ll need to look at other species (including humans) for some understanding. While comparing rats and humans to cats isn’t perfect, I’m happy to say that I couldn’t find a study where cats were intentionally scared to the point that they defecate. There’s still a lot that can be learned from these comparisons.
For example, a 2008 paper titled the Psychological Effects of Combat found that during World War II, “a quarter of combat veterans admitted that they urinated in their pants in combat, and a quarter admitted that they defecated in their pants in combat.”
Again, while I’m not saying cats and humans are the same, many fundamental responses, like the fight or flight response, look very similar across many species.
Focusing On What’s Most Important
The idea of “focusing on what’s important” is putting it nicely but according to combat expert Geoff Thompson, “Digested food and drink is also seen as non-vital to fight or flight so [it] will be discarded.” The idea here is that a scared cat is removing any waste from their body since it won’t help in the coming fighting or fleeing situation.
Some even argue that removing waste in the form of poop or urine could give cats a slight weight or speed advantage. This doesn’t seem likely as a primary reason and more of a secondary affect of the flight or fight response.
A Deterrent For Predators
There’s also a strong argument to be made for stress, fear, and fighting pooping as a way to deter predators or threats. Many animals (especially prey animals) will defecate if they feel threatened by a predator. While this may just be an extension of the flight or fight response it could also be a way to deter the predator from pursuing them further. After all, that predator was probably looking for a tasty meal and the smell of an animal covered in their own poop might not be worth the trouble.
Remember, your cat is both predator and prey.
This idea is kinda like the defensive tactics of the skunk but on a much smaller scale. The skunk’s strategy is basically to gross you out (not the scientific term) and make any would-be predators think twice about turning the foul-smelling furry friend into dinner. Defecating and urinated during moments of extreme fear and stress could have a similar impact.
Your Cat’s Stinky Glands
Cat’s actually take this skunk idea a little further and will often do more than just poop when they’re scared. Your cat’s anal sacs are “two small pouches located on either side of the anus at approximately the four o’clock and eight o’clock positions.” When your cat gets scared or excited they can release a terrible smelling liquid inside.
And I can assure you, you’ll know it when you smell it as it’s a uniquely terrible smell.
Cats typically express these anal glands when they defecate but sometimes they’ll need to be manually expressed by a veterinarian and that’s where I’ve often experienced the smell. Normally, your cat’s wild cousins use the fluid inside their anal glands to mark their territory but scared cats will also release their anal glands, too.
This smell may just add to the overall deterrent strategy.
What About Urine?
Many cats will also pee when they’re scared and this is related to the same physiological fight or flight response that leads them to defecate. Again, I’d also argue that it has the added benefit of deterring any attacker or predator. If you’ve been peed on, pooped on, and sprayed with a terrible smelling liquid from an anal gland there’s a chance you’re going to look for a less feisty animal to mess with.
How To Calm A Scared Cat
Again, I hope you don’t have to encounter a cat that’s so scared they defecate. But if you do, one of the most important things you can do to calm them down is give them space. And as much as possible, allow them to act on their own terms.
For example, if your cat is hiding because a strange dog entered the home just let them keep hiding as long as their safe.
Here are a few other things to consider:
- Move slowly and quietly. Sudden movements or loud noises will only scare your cat more!
- Don’t corner your cat. Your cat will always want to see a clear path that they can use to exit. Don’t block doors and let them know they have an option to exit.
- Keep yourself calm. It can be frustrating to have a scared cat (and pooping) cat but don’t lose your cool!
- Give it time. You can’t rush a cat into feeling more comfortable and if your cat is so scared that they’ve pooped they’re going to need time to calm down.
While at first it might seem like a cat only phenomenon, releasing bowls is a normal part of the fight or flight response for many animals…including humans. Different cats will have different thresholds for when they reach the point of defecating but if you do an encounter a cat that responds to fear in this way it’s important to give them space.