The Covid pandemic caused upheaval in the lives of cat caregivers; both at the beginning, during it and at the transition coming out of it. Each stage of the pandemic resulted in change to the lifestyles of cat owners. And any change to a domestic cat’s environment is likely to cause stress in the cat. To a change in the environment, you can add the stress experienced by the cat’s caregiver. People can infect their pets with stress because they are able to pick up the human companion’s emotions. It’s a double whammy scenario which is why the news media are talking about stressed pets at the moment.
Feline stress signs
We know that there are two pretty clear signs of stress in domestic cats: over-grooming and cystitis (bladder infection). Cats alleviate stress through grooming because it feels good. It helps to calm them down but they go too far because the purpose of grooming at that time is to relieve stress not to improve the condition of their coat. In more extreme cases, a cat might spray urine on vertical surfaces in the home to make it more friendly to them.
And, as expected, over-grooming is of those parts of the coat which are more easily accessible; the belly and the insides of their hind legs. If your cat has a hairless belly due to over-grooming you can be certain that your cat is stressed and you can be equally certain that it is due to a change in their lives brought about by human changes, stress in their human caregiver, or an un-assessed cat-to-cat interaction problem.
Dr. Rory Cowlam is a celebrity vet who works in Dulwich, London. He is the author of The Secret Life of a Vet and an RSPCA ambassador. He’s written a good article for the Daily Mail newspaper online about cat owners ‘infecting’ their cats with stress.
An interesting aspect of his article is that there are some examples of how this can happen. Madison Rogers, a Cats Protection senior advocacy officer said that she felt guilty and sad that her cat, Moodles, became stressed. Rogers said that the changes in her life because of the pandemic had been picked up by Moodles. I’ve picked up a little tip in that story because her vet gave her pheromone wipes. When you pet your cat, you can use the wipes on her cheeks. Rogers says that you can see them work and her cat now grooms normally whereas before she was over grooming in that classic way.
My research on Feliway wipes, which are alternative to the Feliway diffusers which are far more commonplace, tells me that they should not be used directly on a cat according to their instructions. This, then, contradicts what Rogers’ vet told her to use them on her cat’s cheeks. Pheromone wipes should be used on surfaces which are commonly used by a domestic cat. Specifically, if a stressed cat is urine marking, the Feliway wipes should be used on the surfaces that are being sprayed. It makes the home more friendly to a cat. They use artificial, generic pheromones which are effective for your regular domestic cat.
“I realise now the burden of stress had gone through the roof”
The story of Julia Bramble, 56, I think is a good one because it highlights how the pandemic impacted this family’s life in creating a more stressful environment. Her cat, Smudge, a black-and-white, develop cystitis. Julia had become stressed because of the many changes that the pandemic imposed on her including the return of two of her older children to the family home during lockdown. Julia felt pressure about whether she could afford to buy enough food.
And, of course, she had to do homeschooling. She was worried about the children and whether they would graduate and how it will affect their end of term shows. And she is a governor at the school which also added stress to her life. She didn’t realise that humans can pass on their anxiety to their pets and she felt bad about it.
Her veterinarian prescribed antibiotics for the cystitis together with anti-inflammatories and pain relief. She created a space for her cat on the landing with a new scratching post. She bought a water fountain to try and encourage your cat to drink more but he didn’t use it. Her cat is back to normal but it’s a classic scenario where a lot of changes took place in the family home causing stress in the cat’s caretaker which was passed onto her cat.
Stability in the environment is important to a domestic cat. Routines create certainties which leads to predictability for a domestic cat. This is what they like. A boring, repetitive human lifestyle is a good one for the domestic cat.
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