At The Veterinary Centre we have seen a run of health problems in cats triggered, or worsened, by stress.
Unlike other pets, which are fairly demonstrative, cats tend to have a subtle emotional repertoire and will withdraw when feeling stressed.
Longer-term stress, such as being forced to live with another pet, a bullying tomcat, or changes in an owner’s work pattern, can induce physiological changes resulting in disease.
A cat’s ability to cope with stress will vary according to genetics and experiences. Even stress or poor nutrition suffered by the cat’s mother during pregnancy can affect its ability to cope. A lack of socialisation as a kitten or being raised in a non-home environment can also contribute.
The first signs are often behavioural changes. Being more withdrawn and hiding away, or seeking more attention, are hints. Some cats will go off food, while others will over-indulge. Unexplained or new aggression could indicate stress.
The most obvious changes are over-grooming and ‘inappropriate toileting’. Over-grooming cats develop bald areas or sore bits in the absence of parasites or allergies. Cats who strain to toilet, pass blood, or toilet outside the litter tray are often suffering from stress-related illness.
There are things we can do to reduce stress.
Cats feel much more secure when their environment is predictable so a regular routine is great.
Think about the number of cats you keep – some cats thrive on company, but many are more content as a singleton or with one companion. Sisters or mother-daughter pairs are often well-tolerated.
Cats don’t like to share. The most important resources are food and water bowls, litter trays, beds, hiding places, high perches, scratching posts and toys. A rule of thumb is ‘one per cat plus one’. This means that a household with five cats needs at least six litter trays.
As far as physical affection goes, always try to leave your cat wanting more. Let them initiate interaction and watch for signs that they might have had enough, such as the tail swish, flattened ears or dilated pupils.
Cats need opportunities to climb, as well as scratch, scent mark and play. This is particularly important if your cat lives indoors or has limited outdoor access.
We can’t expect to eliminate stress, but by considering some of these factors we can minimise the health problems. If you would like advice, please contact your vet.
By CAROLYN DANBURY, Vet