If you read my (Perry Jameson) column last week about my cat Ollie’s inappropriate urination, you will recall that stress can be a factor in this behavior. On the surface, a cat’s life is pretty appealing to me, with little apparent stress. I would get fed on a regular schedule, dry food with a topping of canned food, I could sleep when and wherever I want, and there is no one else to take care of and no job.
Cats, however, are not little people, and their needs are different than ours. In the almost 30 years of practice I have come to realize that stress is an important factor in feline diseases. It may cause some diseases and make control of others more difficult.
An odd metabolic factor about cats is if they stop eating for any reason, the body begins to use fat stores as fuel. These fat stores are sent to the liver to be broken down to supply nutrients. Unfortunately, the liver sometimes becomes overwhelmed and is unable to process this fat as quickly as necessary, leading to a build-up of fat in the liver, which interferes with normal liver function.
The primary therapy is getting calories back into the cat; this usually requires a feeding tube. Most cats will respond over the next month and start eating again.
If I cannot identify a physical cause for the anorexia, such as a broken tooth or kidney disease, I will question the parents about an environmental cause as cats do not like change. Have you moved recently, acquired a new roommate, any new pets, has anything changed at home? In my experience, about half the time something has changed that has stressed the cat.
Fortunately, most cats will tolerate changes without developing hepatic lipidosis or developing urinary issues. This does not mean, however, they are not stressed. There are steps we can all take to reduce their stress in our homes.
Cats need a place they can escape to and be alone. Some cats need this more than others, but they all should have a quiet, private, safe place to escape to. A raised location is desirable as they can get out of any dog’s reach. Our cats love the shelf in our bedroom closet. It is dark, elevated and away from family activities. You should have enough areas, such as perches, that every cat has a place to hide.
Make sure every cat’s basic needs are provided in a stress-free manner. They should have easy access to food, water, litter box, scratching posts, and rest/sleeping areas without feeling threatened by other cats, pets or even children.
Cats have a strong predatory instinct and this is unfortunately why those outdoors will catch birds and small rodents. This is why many of their play activities involve chasing and capturing an object. Most cat toys cater to this need, such as laser lights, feathers on strings, and balls with bells inside. When he was younger, Ollie would go get socks out of his laundry hamper and bat them around the floor. He then vocalizes until I come and inspect his “kill.”
Cats need human interaction. The degree will vary from cat to cat, but it is important to allow this to occur on their terms. Some cats will want to be picked up and carried around. My cat, Festivus, used to love when I put him on my shoulder and went around doing my chores. Inky, however, lived under my bed for the first few years of her life. She still does not like to be picked up, but now if I am sitting quietly, she will come and snuggle beside me. When I move, she immediately is gone.
I think of this more with dogs than cats, but cats have a strong sense of smell, too. This is why they rub up against your leg or on the wall. They are leaving their scent, marking this location as theirs. By leaving some of their marked areas alone, you will enhance their environment thus reducing stress. You may notice that when a cat returns home from the veterinarian, the other cats may not be accepting of them immediately. They notice that the smell of this cat is different.
I strongly feel that by reducing stress in our cats we can reduce some diseases in them, especially behavioral problems. By using some of these suggestions you can enhance your cat’s life.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.