Knowledgeable cat caretakers will prick up their ears, look bright eyed and bushy tailed and a say, yes, of course stress affects a cat.
On two occasions I have personally seen how stress can affect a cat. However, I have this feeling that not enough focus is placed on minimizing cat stress and its effects on cat health.
Perhaps the average cat caretaker – I am not sure – more or less assumes that if they are looking after their cat well there is no reason why their cat should be stressed.
This is probably true at a basic level but cats have different personalities and are affected by events and circumstances very differently. Also cat’s can’t communicate with us that they are stressed. The first you’ll probably know is when your cat is ill. Stress should be factored into diagnosis and treatments for feline illnesses.
The two instances when I have seen stress cause illness in my cats are:
- Cystitis brought on by my absence while at work coupled with a dry food diet and
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in the form of overgrooming brought on by the presence of stray cats coming into the home through the cat flap (cat door).
In both instances, removal of the stress factor produced clear benefits. It can take time for the benefits to show. With respect to idiopathic cystitis (cystitis of unknown cause), in a study, stress was found to have an impact on “bladder permeability”. I am unable to define “bladder permeability” but the point is that bladder function is altered by initial stress.
Cats that have been infected with feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) caused by the feline herpes virus are usually chronic carriers (long term carriers). During times of stress for whatever reason including emotional stress the immune system breaks down and the virus is shed through secretions from the mouth.
In general, stress lowers a cat’s immunity to disease. The cat is more prone to contract diseases such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). Environmental stresses are also a factor in cats being infected by the feline leukemia virus. Environmental stress can take the form of overcrowding and poor sanitation. These are hazards in multi-cat households managed by a person who is not coping well.
The Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue people say the following in relation to one of their cats (Baron) advertised on Flickr
..Because of the stress of living at the shelter, he has chronic eye inflammation…
Stress in people can increase the rate of the spread of cancer. Apparently stress also increases cancer rates in people. It is reasonable to assume that cats can be similarly affected.
It is well known that stress can cause inappropriate urination. Persian cats are quite delicate emotionally, it is said, and have higher incidences of poor litter use.
Feline acne can also be stress-related. Although feline acne can also be due to the sort of feeding bowl being used. Ceramic, glass or metal is best and plastic bowls are the worst.
The important thing about stress is that as it weakens the cat’s immune system the cat is more exposed to infection by all manner of viruses and bacteria. It isn’t just a case of stress causing a certain disease. Stress is a foundation for poorer health.
As mentioned it can be difficult to notice stress in a cat. My personal experiences are good examples of a direct link between stress and illness but often it is much less clear cut.
A concerned cat caretaker should be sensitive to what might be stressful to a cat. I have always felt that a calm, relatively noise free and warm environment that is dominated by routines is a good starting point to minimize stress.
The possibility of generating a stressful environment is heightened in multi-cat households. Cats have adapted to be social animals but they need some personal space and their may be hierarchical problems of a dominant and submissive cat. Submissive cats are likely to feel stressed. Flash points are litter trays and feeding areas.
The bottom-line with regards to cat stress is to ensure that the environment allows the cat to fully express his natural drives and desires.