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Reasons for Sick-animal Behavior in Healthy Cats

March 29, 2011 | 19,997 views
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Cute Pet Kitten YawningResearchers at Ohio State University’s (OSU) College of Veterinary Medicine have made a fascinating discovery about what happens when an indoor cat’s normal routine is disrupted.

In a study of 12 healthy cats and 20 cats with interstitial cystitis (IC), it was determined healthy cats can behave as if they’re sick when their routine is altered. Study results also indicate that cats with IC experience significant symptom reduction in an enriched environment.

Sickness behaviors like refusal to eat, vomiting and litter box avoidance tripled in healthy cats whose routines were disturbed.

In the cats with IC, symptoms improved by 75 to 80 percent when they were fed at the same time each day, their litter boxes stayed in the same place, and regular playtime was encouraged.

According to Dr. Tony Buffington, a veterinary clinical sciences professor at OSU and one of the authors of the study:

"This became a study of enrichment as an approach to therapy for these syndromes because there is no good drug therapy in cats, or in people, for that matter, with this disorder. What we found, in other clinical studies and with this study, is that by enriching the environment, you can reduce IC cats' syndrome burden by about 75 or 80 percent."

This is also good information for pet owners and veterinarians. If an otherwise healthy cat starts refusing food, vomiting, urinating or defecating outside the litter box, it’s important to consider changes to the animal’s routine and environment during diagnosis.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

The results of the OSU study make an excellent argument for the importance of stress reduction, consistency and environmental enrichment in the lives of our pets.

Most of you owned by a cat already know Fluffy prefers not to leave the house and likes things just so in her living quarters. A trip to the vet or a delayed meal usually does not make for a pleasant, purring kitty.

The majority of cat lovers tend to attribute their pet’s behavior to the finicky, independent and often cantankerous nature of kitties.

But the OSU study sheds much needed light on the extent to which stress can affect the health of our sensitive feline companions.

Sick Cats Appeared Healthy; Healthy Cats Seemed Sick

The OSU study authors didn’t set out to learn about how changes in routine affect cats, or about sickness behavior in healthy cats.

Their initial research was more concerned with gaining a better understanding of feline interstitial cystitis, a chronic condition that causes recurrent bladder pain and the urgent, frequent need to urinate.

Cats with IC have inflamed bladders, and the minerals and debris caused by the inflammation can form crystals. Symptoms include frequent vomiting, pain while urinating, bloody urine and eliminating outside the box.

The 12 healthy and 20 IC cats in OSU’s Veterinary Medical Center were the responsibility of a doctoral candidate in veterinary preventive medicine by the name of Judi Stella. She spent months developing a stress-minimized environment for the 32 cats in her care.

Stella began to notice the cats with IC were looking healthier and had stopped vomiting and eliminating outside their litter boxes.

At the time it was assumed IC cats consistently display certain sickness behaviors, so Stella was quite surprised to witness sick cats acting healthy.

She continued as primary caretaker for the cats for about another year and a half, during which time things inevitably changed in the cats’ environment.

These relatively small variations in routine impacted how the cats behaved.

‘Unusual External Events’ Cause Stress in Cats

‘Unusual external event’ was the term used by researchers in the OSU study to describe a change in routine for the cats.

During the time Judi Stella was responsible for caring for the cats, the following unusual external events took place:

  • Stella went on vacation and the cats were cared for by substitute guardians (strangers)
  • Changes were made to the feeding schedule
  • Daily playtime and piped-in music were withdrawn
  • Cats were restrained intermittently

During periods when the cats’ routine remained consistent, there was no observable difference in the sickness behaviors of IC cats (0.7 behaviors) and the healthy cats (0.4 behaviors).

But during periods in which there were unusual external events, healthy cats exhibited 1.9 sickness behaviors (per week) and the sick cats had 2.0 behaviors.

This data clearly demonstrates both healthy and sick cats feel better with a minimum of external stress, and both groups exhibit sick animal behaviors when their routine is disrupted.

Other study findings were that older cats were more susceptible to sickness behaviors as well as GI symptoms and litter box avoidance. Also, since the IC cats showed dramatic improvement in symptoms with environmental enrichment alone, it suggests cats with this chronic condition don’t need either drugs or special diets as part of their therapy.

‘Unusual External Events’ = Loss of Control

Cats are supremely independent creatures. It is their nature to set their own schedules, exert maximum control over their environment, and depend on no other creature for survival.

When we bring felines indoors to fill the role of companion animals, they don’t lose the natural instinct to rule their environment. The more you can do to help your cat feel in control and not trapped in unknown or unfriendly territory, the less stress he will feel and the better his health and quality of life will be.

When you disrupt your pet’s routine, it translates to him as a loss of control over his very survival. As humans, a sense that we’ve lost control over some aspect of our lives often creates feelings of tremendous stress. The same is often true for your beloved kitty.

Other stressful events for your cat might include:

  • A new family member, either two or four-legged, or the sudden absence of a family member through death or divorce
  • Moving to a new home
  • A change in your schedule that has you coming and going at different times than your pet is used to
  • Loud parties
  • Neighbor cats close enough that your kitty can see, hear or smell them through a window or door
  • The stress of getting older

Enriching Your Indoor Kitty’s Environment

Judi Stella provided the OSU study cats with environmental enrichment in the following ways:

  • Routine care and feeding occurred at the same time every morning
  • Food bowls and litter boxes were kept in consistent locations
  • Litter boxes were kept clean; bedding was washed regularly
  • The cats were provided with hiding boxes and an assortment of appropriate cat toys
  • Classical music recordings were played in the lab for one to two hours each day
  • The cats were released from their cages for at least an hour every afternoon to interact, play with toys, and access climbing and scratching posts

You might also consider treat or food-dispensing toys designed specifically for cats, window perches and/or cat climbing furniture if you don’t have any, as well as kitty videos.

If your cat is very playful, spend some time with her each day in a game of fetch with remote toys, or using interactive toys to get her involved. I often use a laser pointer with my kitties during playtime.

Another extremely popular interactive cat toy is Da Bird.

I have had good success calming stressed out kitties with both Spirit Essences and OptiBalance cat and kitten formulas. When I know there will be an especially stressful event (a trip to the vet, for example) I also use Homeopathic Aconitum orally to help reduce cats’ emotional responses which can cause physiologic symptoms.

You might also consider the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) for animals.

Whatever tools you employ to keep consistency in your cat’s routine and enrich her environment, remember the goal is help your kitty feel in control and not trapped by circumstances that are unfamiliar or frightening to her.

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