Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 2, 2023 by Crystal Uys
What in the world could possibly stress out a cat? They have their every need met by their faithful human servants and are blessed with the freedom to do whatever they want with their days, whether it’s sleeping on the sofa, sunbathing in a windowsill, or playing with their favorite toys. To us, with our hectic schedules, deadlines and worries, it may seem an enviable life.
But the fact is, a lot of things can stress your feline companion and even make him ill. For example, most cats like their familiar routines, so anything out of the ordinary, whether it’s another new cat, a move, home remodeling, or even a change in the position of household furnishings, can cause them to feel stressed. In addition to changes in the environment, your cat can also be negatively affected by your own stress.
Cats and their humans often mirror each others’ physical and emotional states. Felines are sensitive creatures, and they can easily take on their humans’ problems. Because of the bond shared between cats and their families, energetic imbalances may also be shared, and illness can result.
Connected by more than love
A study conducted at The Ohio State University demonstrated the connection between external stress and illness in cats. The study looked at 32 cats over a period of 77 days. Twelve were healthy and 20 had feline interstitial cystitis. During the study, researchers created a consistent environment for the cats. The cats were housed in large enclosures that offered an enriched environment consisting of elevated resting boards, cardboard hiding boxes, bedding and toys. They had daily playtime outside their enclosures, both with other cats and their human caretakers, and were treated to classical music in the mornings and afternoons.
When the cats experienced what were called “unusual external events”, however, such as a change in feeding schedule or caretaker, the healthy cats in the study were just as likely to exhibit sickness behaviors such as vomiting or eliminating outside the litter box as were the chronically ill cats. Both groups responded to unusual events with the same number of sickness behaviors, and both also had more than three times the risk of acting sick when their routines were disrupted. The researchers also found they had to manage their own stress levels when they were around the cats. “I had to be careful if I was having a bad day so it didn’t rub off on the cats,” says Judi Stella, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher at Purdue University, who participated in the study.
Veterinarians find that sick cats may live with stressed out guardians
Holistic veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney has seen this same phenomenon in some of his clients and their cats. “Cats will sometimes show signs of illness after there’s been a loss of another animal or human family member in the household,” he says. “Idiopathic FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease with unknown physical causes) is a prime example. Frequently, the cat is stressed, and the owner is stressed.” Dr. Mahaney has found that these clients, while often not aware of the connection between their stress and their cats’, are receptive to feedback and understand that helping their kitties recover involves managing their own stress.
Veterinarian Dr. Jenny Beard has seen the same thing in cats with interstitial cystitis living with guardians who are going through stressful times. “The same neurotransmitters involved in stress responses in the brain can affect the nerves to other organs,” she says. “In these cases, cats’ bladders become inflamed and painful.”
Dr. Beard believes that cats will also pick up on their guardians’ distress over an existing illness in their felines. She frequently sees this in chronically or terminally ill cats. Dr. Beard will talk to these cat parents about how important it is to spend time simply “being” with their cats, enjoying their company, and letting the worry go. She has had personal experience with this. “I feel strongly that managing my stress and worry during Squishycat’s last two years of living with cancer, and just allowing us to ‘be’ together, helped boost her immune system and remain healthy much longer than her prognosis predicted,” she says.
Manage your cat’s stress – and your own
To start with, look at any environmental changes that might be stressing your cat, and do what you can to remove or minimize them. When making any changes or introducing something new to the household, do it as gradually as you can. Provide plenty of toys, and spend daily time playing with your cat – this is a great stress reliever for both of you, and can also help your cat cope if he’s grieving a loss. If you need to travel, consider having a friend, family member or pet sitter come to your home to care for your cat rather than subjecting her to the stress of boarding.
Managing your cat’s stress may not be enough if you don’t bring your own stress under control. Look at what’s causing your own stress, and see if you can do something to reduce or at least make it more tolerable. Practice stress management techniques such as getting regular exercise, eating healthy foods, making time for yourself, starting a meditation practice, doing deep breathing exercises, etc.
Stress is a fact of life, and can’t always be avoided. But there is a lot you can do to make life less stressful for your feline charges, and for yourself. Not only will it improve
your own well-being and state of mind, but it’ll help your cat feel better as well. It’s a win-win situation!
This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Feline Wellness Magazine and is reprinted with permission
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.