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Stress in cats, really?

  • September 8, 2016 6:08 PM EDT

    Stress. We live with stress every day. What we often don’t consider is that our cats are also exposed to a variety of stressful stimuli daily. This exposure to stress can have a negative impact on cats’ welfare and trigger behavioral changes.

    Stress can come in the form of physical stressors, social stressors related to interactions with individuals in the same species and stressors related to handling by humans. The duration of the stress will determine its classification as either acute or chronic. How well each cat can predict and control these stressful stimuli is important. If the stressful input is intense or long lasting, it can have a negative impact on that individual’s welfare. The unfortunate consequences to these situations are that stress-related problems are a too common cause of relinquishment and euthanasia of cats (and dogs). The human-animal bond suffers too plus there is growing evidence to support a relationship between stress and disease. The behavioral changes most reported to be related to stress are some elimination disorders plus aggressive (redirected aggression) behaviors or compulsive (over-grooming) behaviors.

    A number of the main causes of stress in cats include environmental changes, a barren environment (lack of enrichment), a poor human-cat relationship, inter-cat conflict, and lack of control and predictability to a cat’s surroundings.

    Such stressors are very likely to lead to reduced food intake. Stress-induced anorexia can lead to the cat developing a potentially serious medical condition. Stress can lead to suppression of the immune system and development of a new infection or reactivation of a previous infection, e.g. feline herpesvirus. Some other conditions associated with stress are a variety of gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea or vomiting. The development of feline interstitial cystitis (FIC) the most common diagnosis of lower urinary tract disease in cats can also be present. Different skin diseases can be triggered by stress. This is a partial list of the behavioral and disease changes that can be triggered by stressful stimuli.

    What can be done to decrease stress for our cat companions? Remove the stressful stimuli if at all possible or expose the cat to stressful stimuli in a pleasant context and in a gradual manner. With inter-cat conflict, reintroduction could be done using three phases: olfactory habituation, visual habituation, and direct contact habituation. Use of a synthetic analogue of a facial pheromone can also be introduced.

    Environmental enrichment as employed should be gradual and progressive, plus not be static. The main features are:

    • Provision of a safe area where the cat feels comfortable and has all the important resources. 
    • Provide puzzle feeders and hide food in several places since cats spend a large percentage of their time foraging. Change toys at regular intervals to maintain a cat’s interest. 
    • Provide a vertical or a three-dimensional space (shelves, cat trees or platforms) as cats use vertical space as a vantage point and as a hiding area.
    • The litter tray, the resting area and the feed bowl should be kept separate. 
    • Cats are strongly motivated to scratch, therefore providing a suitable substrate for scratching is important.

    Interactions between cats and stimuli should be overall positive. Punishment by owners should be altogether avoided. Cats should be able to feel they have control of their surroundings, especially for those cats currently experiencing stress.

    Reference: Stress in owned cats: behavioural changes and welfare implications. J Feline Med Surg. 2016 Aug;18(8):577-86.