By Dr. Becker
I talk a lot about feline stress here at MercolaHealthyPets.com because kitties are at special risk for illness and emotional and behavioral difficulties as a result of living a stressful existence.
The Stress Response
Stressful situations provoke a fight-or-flight response in all animals, including felines.
When ongoing, chronic stress is present, the fight-or-flight switch stays in the 'on' position, which eventually throws all body systems out of balance.
If you started your car, left it in park, depressed the gas pedal and revved the motor non-stop for an extended period of time, you can easily imagine the wear and tear this activity would cause to the engine.
A car is designed to move when the gas pedal is depressed, just as the body is designed to move when the fight-or-flight switch is activated.
What happens during a stressful event is that glucose is released from sites throughout the body, and blood carrying glucose and oxygen is diverted toward organs used during physical exertion like the heart, skeletal muscles and brain.
If this cycle occurs so often there is a constant release of glucose and chronic overworking of fight-or-flight organs, it's easy to predict the result.
Systemic inflammation is a result of chronic stress. A body that remains in a constant state of arousal, ready to fight or take flight at all times, will experience declining function and/or disease in some or all important systems including digestive and urinary, immunologic, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular.
Studies in humans have linked chronic stress to susceptibility to infection and cancer, as well as various metabolic syndromes, including diabetes. The physiologic changes that occur in older animals, including cats, are also seen as a result of chronic stress.
The same power the body possesses to fight or flee under stress, when given no outlet, will wear the body down and ultimately cause death. Thus the expression 'stress kills.'
The same kinds of stressors that affect you can affect your cat, including:
- Noisy environments
- Aggression among members of the household, including pets
- Poor-quality diet
- Competing with other pets at mealtime
- Social isolation
Since your cat can experience one or several of these stressors on a daily basis, it's important to have some tools at your disposal to help kitty cope and relax.
Human vs. Feline Stress Management Techniques
The goal of stress reduction is to return balance to the nervous system so the body can regain its equilibrium and perform restorative processes crucial to preventing the decline of major organs and systems.
The opposite of being stressed is being relaxed, which is why stress management techniques involve activities that promote relaxation. For humans, this usually involves an activity – meditating, taking a yoga class, doing some deep breathing, using guided imagery, engaging in physical exercise, etc.
For your cat it's a bit different. She needs an environment ideally adapted for a feline in order to enjoy a comfortable, serene lifestyle.
Sensory Stress Reduction
What you want to do for your kitty is to think about how she experiences her living situation through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
- Reducing visual stress. Your kitty appreciates variety in the lighting in his environment. Sometimes he wants to sit in the sunshine. Other times he prefers a dark spot to nap or hide out in.
Build variety into the lighting your cat is exposed to with items like boxes, play tunnels, perches in different spots, closet shelving -- even an empty cabinet he can safely access.
Boredom causes stress, so you might also want to consider kitty videos or a window perch where your cat can relax and keep an eye on neighborhood happenings or the bird feeder in your backyard.
- Reducing auditory stress. According to Dr. Narda Robinson, writing for Veterinary Practice News, a study published in 2011 concludes:
Expanding experimental evidence indicates that music modulates both cardiac and neurologic function, squelching stress through both biochemical and neuromodulatory means.
Slow classical music seems to relax most animals. By contrast, loud music, the noise of much of today's TV programming, and arguments among humans in the home elevate stress levels and promote a systemic inflammatory response.
- Reducing olfactory stress. Some smells that can cause stress for your feline include cigarette smoke, chemical cleaning products, cologne, air fresheners and scented candles. Air quality is critically important for cats.
Kitties are known to respond well to certain aromas, including fresh air, catnip, lavender, chamomile flowers, valerian root and pheromones. Experiment with a variety of these scents and see which ones your cat seems to like. If you discover she has a particular favorite, consider safely adding the scent to an area of your home your kitty hangs out in. Catnip can be purchased in a variety of forms – there are catnip toys, catnip mists, catnip flakes and pellets you can sprinkle around your home, and other catnip kitty accessories.
- Reducing diet-related stress. Feeding a diet specifically designed for your carnivorous cat is the best way to prevent nutritionally-related stress. Species-appropriate nutrition for your cat will include a diet rich in animal protein and moisture. Older kitties often need even higher levels of protein than youngsters to prevent a decline in lean body mass as they age.
Keeping up with your cat's dental health is also very important in preventing diet-related stress, as is hairball control. I also recommend consulting your holistic vet about beneficial dietary supplements, like digestive enzymes.
Insuring your cat gets some exercise will help with GI motility, as will regular massages.
- Reducing somatic stress. Speaking of kitty massage, it is also a good way to reduce all kinds of stress-related symptoms like anxiety, pain and depression.
Petting, cuddling and brushing your cat, as long as he's willing, will not only reduce his stress level but will strengthen the bond you share with your pet. If your cat doesn't like to be touched at all, especially if this is a recent development, I recommend you have him examined by your vet to rule out any painful condition that could be causing his refusal to be stroked or held.
Acupuncture and chiropractic can also relieve stress and support healthy immune function.
Cats living in stressful situations develop chronic illnesses and behavior problems that can make living with them a challenge. That's why for the love of your favorite feline, it's important to set her up for success in an environment that is enriched and as stress-free as possible.
The happier your kitty is, the happier you'll be.