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:


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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8 comments for “Cats, Sickness, Stress, and the Environment

  1. jhofve77
    July 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    If he seems sick, please take him to a veterinarian.

  2. tiana
    July 5, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I found a energetic kitten out side my home he is a stray so i. Adopted him and took him in as ihave always done since i was a child he seems sick and i dt know what to do for him

  3. jhofve77
    May 31, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    The rendering industry claims that there are animal by-products in “everything but cement.” I suspect that interesting smells or flavors from by-products may be the main attraction, since it’s not uncommon for cats to do this. If the cat is eating dry food, I’d certainly recommend adding (or preferably changing to) canned or other moist, high-protein diet; although once the behavior is habitual, it may not go away.

  4. Teryl
    May 31, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    A friend’s cat chews plastic bags & other plastics. Is there a specific nutrition or vitamin or mineral the cat is missing that would contribute to the cat eating plastic? Thank you.

  5. jhofve77
    May 14, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Depends on what you mean by pampered. If it means being fed too many treats (leading to obesity, a major contributor to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, etc.), or being on a precise schedule for food, play, and so on, then anything that throws off that schedule will cause stress. Increased stress = suppressed immune system = more susceptibility to disease. I believe it’s better to have a cat who is flexible and capable of a healthy response to change, than one who freaks out at every little thing! To accomplish that, the cat needs to be exposed to challenges in a moderated way…which may be the definition of “not” pampered!

  6. Pampered Cat Care
    May 14, 2011 at 4:40 am

    Do you think pampered cats are more likely to catch diseases? Some people think so but I can’t see the basis for it. I would think pampered pets may in fact have better health. What do you think?

  7. jhofve77
    March 12, 2011 at 5:41 am

    If you get a good quality oil made for pets, like Nordic Naturals, just follow the directions on the bottle. Do not give a human product to cats.

  8. Joann
    March 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Could you tell me how much cod liver oil to give my kitties? I don’t want to overdose them or anything.

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