Cats, Sickness, Stress, and the Environment

A fascinating study out of The Ohio State University was just published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2011;238:67–73). Here’s part of OSU’s press release about it:

EVEN HEALTHY CATS ACT SICK WHEN THEIR ROUTINE IS DISRUPTED

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A cat regularly vomiting hairballs or refusing to eat probably isn’t being finicky or otherwise “cat-like,” despite what conventional wisdom might say. There is a good chance that the cat is acting sick because of the stress caused by changes in its environment, new research suggests.

Healthy cats were just as likely as chronically ill cats to refuse food, vomit frequently, and leave waste outside their litter box in response to changes in their routine, according to the Ohio State University study. Veterinary clinicians refer to these acts as sickness behaviors.

The researchers documented sickness behaviors in healthy cats and in cats with feline interstitial cystitis, a chronic illness characterized by recurring discomfort or pain in the bladder and often both an urgent and frequent need to urinate.

When the cats experienced what were called “unusual external events,” such as a change in feeding schedule or caretaker, the healthy cats were just as likely to exhibit sickness behaviors as were the chronically ill cats. The two groups had the same number of sickness behaviors in response to unusual events, and both groups were at more than three times the risk of acting sick when their routines were disrupted.

Previous research has indicated that a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, known as IC, in cats is strongly associated with a number of other health problems. The fact that healthy cats exhibit some of those same problems in the face of stress suggests that veterinary clinicians should consider cats’ environmental conditions during assessments for health problems, researchers say.

“For veterinary clinicians, when you have a cat that’s not eating, is not using the litter box or has stuff coming up out of its mouth, the quality of the environment is another cause that needs to be addressed in coming up with a diagnosis,” said Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State and senior author of the study.

“We are cautious about extrapolating these findings to the average home, but we will say that anyone who has a pet accepts the responsibility of understanding their pet’s needs and providing them,” he added. “And what we’ve learned is that all cats need to have some consideration of environmental enrichment.”

This is really important information for all cat guardians. We’ve known all along that cats love routine and feel most secure when their environment stays the same as much as possible. But this study shows that even healthy cats can develop “sickness behaviors” such as hairball-hurling, finicky eating, and litterbox avoidance, just as readily as cats with actual gastrointestinal or urinary tract disease.

What can we do to help our cats handle the stresses that will inevitably arise? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Indoor enrichment. This is an up-and-coming concept that has previously been applied mainly to laboratory animals, particularly chimpanzees and other primates. Environmental enrichment may include: food-dispensing toys (Kong for dogs, SlimCat for kitties); sensory enrichment (such as a window perch for bird-watching, pet-directed videos, and cat furniture for climbing); and novel objects (like cardboard boxes or paper bags).

2. Play Therapy. Regular interactive play sessions have many benefits for your cat: not only stress relief, but also mental stimulation, satisfaction of hunter instincts, bonding,  increased self-confidence, exercise, and weight management. And it’s fun for both of you! Read more….

3. Flower Essences. These safe holistic remedies are excellent for reducing stress and adapting to change. Read more….

4. EFT: Emotional Freedom Techniques are free to learn, easy to do, and helpful for many stress-related issues, behavior problems, and health concerns. Read more….

You may also want to check out these sites for more information:

The Ohio State University Indoor Pet Initiative

Great practical advice at the Conscious Cat blog

Complete news article about the study at the New York Times

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