Stressed Cats Are Sick Cats
January 27, 2011
Cat owners are sick of dealing with sick cats. In fact, millions of cats are euthanized or turned over to shelters every year due to chronic illness. The most common of these illnesses is Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD). FLUTD causes cats to urinate outside the litter box. They pee on beds, clothes, furniture and rugs. Not too many people can put up with this problem for very long, so these cats are often relinquished or euthanized.
A group at the Ohio State University set out to prove that many of these cat’s illnesses were caused or exacerbated by stress. If they could show that illness was made worse by stress, then many cats could be saved if we simply helped eliminate their stress. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published the results earlier this month.
Thirty two cats were entered in the study. Some were healthy, but the sick ones, who had been diagnosed with a form of FLUTD, were in the study because their owners were ready to euthanize them. And here is what they found. Healthy cats showed signs of illness when they were stressed and cats with disease got healthier when their stress levels were reduced.
So, what constitutes stress in our pampered house cats? To answer this you have to take into consideration that cats are not a pack species. They do not live in large groups. Family groups hang out together around meal and watering places, but they have large areas to roam and be alone. Let’s also consider that, evolutionarily, cat’s two primary predators are larger carnivores and primates. But we ask them to live in limited quarters with other cats, dogs and humans! No wonder some cats have trouble.
In the study cats were set up in enriched environments that provided as stress-free an environment as possible. They had a consistent caregiver, feeding and play times. Their litter boxes were kept immaculately clean and scary noises were avoided. The researchers even noted that they had to be careful if they were having a bad day because they didn’t want the cats to sense their own stress. When the routines were altered, causing stress, cats were three times more likely to vomit, urinate or defecated outside the litter box and eat less. Symptoms like these receded when the stressor was removed.
Here are some tips to help reduce stress in your cat’s lives:
- Do not use forceful punishment – ever! Reprimands only work if you catch your cat “in the act”. Punishment that follows an action by more than a few seconds won’t stop him from doing it again, and may even cause him to be afraid of you or the surroundings. If you do catch your cat making a mistake, it is better to create a distraction by making a loud noise or throwing something (NOT at the cat!) that will attract its attention, but not toward you.
- Provide a room or other space she can call her own, complete with food and water, a bed , a litter box, a scratching/climbing post, a window to look out of, and some toys.
- Place food and the litter boxes away from appliances and air ducts that could come on unexpectedly, and locate them such that another animal cannot sneak up on the cat while she uses them. To keep them appealing to the cat, food and water should be fresh, and the litter box “scooped” every day.
- Give your cat several things that he/she is allowed to scratch up. Cats need both vertical and horizontal scratching surfaces. Cat trees are great for this. Praise your cat profusely when you see him/her use it to let him/her know that this is his/hers to use.
- Provide places to climb and look out of windows. Again, cat trees are great for this.
- Cats seem to prefer to feel like they are in control of their surroundings, and to choose the changes they want to make. When you make changes (food, litter, toys, etc.), offer them in a separate container next to the familiar one so your cat can decide whether or not to change.
- Be sure to see your veterinarian regularly. In addition to providing preventative health care through regular check-ups, they also can help you troubleshoot any issues before they become problems.
For more information, check out Ohio State’s Indoor Pet Initiative http://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/