STRESSED OUT KITTY
by Nancy Marano
Stress in our lives is as common as breathing. We have too much to do and too little time. Working mothers face the demands of home, job, and children. Maybe someone in your family has a chronic illness so you take on the caretaker role along with other duties. Perhaps you have a new baby or youíre going through a divorce or someone close to you dies. All of these common stressors pile up in our lives until they quite literally can make us sick. Immunodeficiency diseases, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes have all been linked to stress.
Do you ever think of your catís life in terms of stress, though? You watch your cat sleeping, eating, grooming, and sleeping again. It looks like a pretty enviable lifestyle. But cats can and do become stressed just as we do over things in their environment. These stressors can lead to feline behavior problems like aggression, inappropriate use of the litter box, or illnesses such as urinary tract infection.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), a professional organization of veterinarians dedicated to providing the best medical and surgical care for cats, is thinking about the stress in your catís life. They decided that itís time to issue feline behavior guidelines directed toward your catís behavioral health and well-being. This is the first time there have been any guidelines addressing your catís mental health.
According to Karen Overall, head of the Behavior Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and co-chair of the AAFP guidelines committee, many veterinarians simply havenít recognized that elimination disorders and urinary tract infections are often connected to anxiety brought on by stressors in the catís social environment. Cats are under-studied compared to dogs, which leads to a lack of knowledge about what makes cats tick.
ďCats definitely are not small dogs. They have their own problems. They are unique,Ē said Dr. Emily Walker, D.V.M., owner of the Albuquerque Cat Clinic, a feline-only veterinary practice. ďI think it is inappropriate to try to diagnose a cat in an environment where they are stressed by other patients, namely dogs. Stress in the veterinary environment affects test readings and sometimes creates difficulty in making an accurate diagnosis.Ē
Stress is a term used by veterinarians to describe changesómental and physicalóthat occur when a cat perceives a potential threat. The catís body prepares to either fight or flee the threat. If a cat remains stressed over a period of time, he will be in a chronic state of anxiety that can lead to behavioral changes and illness.
Recognizing and eliminating the stressors in your catís environment will help you relieve your catís anxiety before it reaches crisis level. Stressor detection can be difficult, though, because you might not even notice something that is a huge irritant to your cat. Some feline red flags are:
ß Illness. Disease can cause behavior change so you need to have your veterinarian give your cat a clean bill of health before you start looking for other causes of stress.
ß Outside stress that triggers a negative response. This might be a strange cat who sits on the windowsill outside or a dog in your yard. To your cat, this stranger is invading his territory, and thereís nothing he can do about it.
ß A change in the catís home environment. Have you moved the furniture lately, bought a new house, or changed the type of kitty litter you use?
ß Change in a catís daily routine. Have you changed his feeding time? Do you go to bed at a different time?
ß Strange scents. These can be animal or human.
ß Loud noises. Your catís hearing is at least five times sharper than yours so imagine what construction noise must sound like to him.
ß Overcrowding. Every cat needs personal space just as you do. This is particularly true in multicat households.
ß A bully cat. If you have several cats, one may bully another leading to a fear response and anxiety in the cat being bullied.
ß Dirty litter box. This is often the cause of inappropriate elimination.
ß Boredom in an environment that never changes.
Your veterinarian isnít just being snoopy if he asks about your personal life. Heís trying to help your cat.
ďI ask new patients to fill out a form that contains a section on any changes in their catís behavior. Have they noticed any change in the catís urination or defecation? Does the cat go outside? How many cats are in the household? If they indicate that there have been behavior changes, we look into that a lot more closely,Ē said Dr. Walker. ďI also want to know whatís going on in their lives. Have they moved to a new house? Have they been married or divorced recently? Have they had a baby? Any of those things could affect their cat.Ē
There are some simple, but effective, things you can do to help relieve your catís stress. Remove the stressor, if possible. Have daily sessions of grooming, massage, and interactive play with your cat. Be consistent in your routines. Leave a window partially open so your cat can smell things outside. Ideally the window or screened-in porch should have a place where the cat can watch all thatís happening outdoors and still be safe. Cats are intelligent, unique animals who need to have that intelligence stimulated.
You will benefit from the deepening bond created through increased interaction with your cat and, just as importantly, your cat will be contented and stress free.
Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.
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