Happy cats mean happy human caregivers. Stressed cats lead to unhappy humans; cats who become ill or maladjusted from stress may experience emotionally difficult and/or prematurely ended lives from disease or euthanasia.
Many human stressors affect cats similarly. Incessant noise, hostility, food insecurity or poor quality and social isolation can all negatively affect well being. While human stressors such as workplace conflict, financial decline or natural disasters may be unavoidable and trickle down to cause cats further discomfort, several everyday feline sources of stress can respond to inexpensive, readily available coping strategies.1 Knowing how, when, and where stress takes its toll on the body allows concerned caregivers to design tailored interventions and eliminate environmental contributors to stress.
Prolonged psychological stress causes illness as innate protective reflexes designed to remove us from danger become left in the “on” position. Chronically activated “fight or flight” responses delivered by sympathetic nervous system excitation disrupt physiologic equilibrium, i.e., homeostasis.
Thus, the same metabolic processes that propel us to seek safe shelter in the face of an oncoming tornado also give us escort to the grave if urges to fight or flee never cease.
Threatening situations incite glucose mobilization from storage sites for impending utilization. Coordinated autonomic networks that oversee vascular tone divert blood away from those organs relatively uninvolved with physical exertion (i.e., skin and digestive tract) and toward the heart, skeletal muscles and brain in order to meet their need for metabolic fuel, i.e., glucose and oxygen.2
Unrelenting sympathetic activation promotes perpetual mobilization of glucose. This pushes reparative measures in the periphery possibly beyond their limit, deteriorating healthy tissues to a state of relative atrophy in the face of nutrient inadequacy.
Sympathetic overdrive also predisposes the organism to a system-wide state of inflammation. A sustained state of arousal coaxes cardiovascular, digestive, urinary, immunologic, and musculoskeletal systems into decline, disrepair or impaired host defense against infection and cancer.3-5 Epidemiologic studies in humans are now linking chronic stress to various metabolic syndromes, including diabetes mellitus.6
Many changes observed in aging animals, including cats, overlap with those that result from chronic stress.7-10
What can be done? Measures that influence autonomic tone through neuromodulation (i.e., restoring nervous system balance) can support restorative processes, potentially forestalling chronic decline.11 While relaxing methods for cats are not as diverse as those for humans (e.g., meditation, tai chi and guided imagery),12 many low-cost strategies exist. Cat caregivers can be encouraged to consider their feline companions’ experiences of their world and take steps to reduce stress entering their body through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and somatic sensation.
Reducing Stress Through Senses
Cats enjoy a variety of lighting, and may throughout the day seek anything from bright sunlight to dark hiding places. Hiding boxes, play tunnels, out-of-the-way cat trees and shelving all allow cats to modulate their light and social intake as needed.
Some cats enjoy species-appropriate videos; others rely on a window perch with a view of entertaining outside activities to limit the stress that comes with boredom.13
Bright lights left on all the time, such as in emergency settings, add to offensive noise and incessant activity—not what a traumatized, frightened and painful patient needs. Disturbed circadian rhythms from continual bright lights further amplify stress.14 Good sleep quality with sufficient deep sleep is vital to fight inflammation and pain. It is difficult to get adequate sleep in the midst of mayhem, be it external or internal.
Music has a long history of healing. Ancient Greek physicians included music in their prescriptions to lower stress, facilitate sleep and reduce pain. Contemporary investigations of music for health demonstrate its value for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to survivors of myocardial infarction to chronic pain patients.
Although slow, classical music relaxes most species, noxious noise in comparison (such as loud and/or non-classical music, sounds from the television, and familial arguments) serve to elevate stress and further incite the inflammatory cascade. Expanding experimental evidence indicates that music modulates both cardiac and neurologic function, squelching stress through both biochemical and neuromodulatory means.15
Cats respond favorably to inhalants including pheromones, catnip, valerian root, chamomile flowers, lavender and fresh air.
In the case of lavender, research on dogs indicated that olfactory exposure to ambient lavender aromatherapy reduced anxiety not only in the dogs but also their human caregivers.16 While lavender and other aromatic agents have not been tested rigorously on cats, casual observations of certain cats interacting with various plants provides ample anecdotal insights of their inclination to indulge in inhaling various aromas. The behavioral sequelae they exhibit soon thereafter relax and amuse the human observer, lowering her stress, too.
Offensive and inescapable odors such as cigarette smoke, air fresheners, aromatherapy candles, handlers’ perfume, and concentrated cleaning products pollute a cat’s environment and possibly induce olfactory misery.
Taste and Food
As cats age, their maintenance energy requirements change as age takes a toll on fat and protein digestion.17 In contrast to popular dogma, older cats may require higher protein levels to counteract the progressive loss of lean body mass that occurs as they age.18 Loss of strength through atrophied muscles could further deteriorate an already delicate structure and induce excessive joint strain, accentuating stress and pain.
Targets to tackle stress in cats thus involve a well-balanced, high-quality diet that delivers needed nutrients. Healthy teeth and gums, adequate fiber (e.g., grass) intake and probiotics help to assure that the process of consuming food and transporting digestate through the intestines are not in themselves stress-inducing. Massage and regular exercise encourage appropriate gastrointestinal motility.
Massage, brushing/combing, exercise, warmth/sun when desired, cool when welcomed, freedom from ambush by other cats when eating or voiding together serve to allow a cat comfort and stress reduction.
Even something as simple as a three-minute back rub, at least in humans, can produce significant elevations in mood and relaxation.19
Massage, in general, reduces anxiety, pain, stress, depression, myofascial tension and blood pressure.20-22 Moderate pressure massage augments parasympathetic tone and thereby has the capacity to influence neuroendocrine function, immune parameters, and stress.23, 24
While little research on massage for cats exists at present, similarity in neurophysiologic effects across species from soft tissue therapy, as well as empirical observations of massage in cats suggests carryover of effects. Encouraging the client to take time to cuddle and brush a receptive cat can elicit benefits for both members of the cat-human dyad. If a cat resents brushing or stroking, this could indicate somatic or referred visceral pain and warrant further exploration for instigating causes and more involved treatment such as acupuncture, laser therapy, and/or medication(s).
Acupuncture, like massage, attenuates stress and stimulates healthful immune function.25
To conclude, when one considers the frequency with which chronic illness and behavioral issues such as inappropriate elimination jeopardize feline futures, taking a multifaceted approach to stress and anxiety can extinguish the stressors that feed human frustrations with felines.26 Getting the cat-human bond back to a healthy level restores the homeostasis in the household, where once again, happy cat means happy human.
Dr. Robinson, Dipl. ABMA, FAAMA, oversees complementary veterinary education at Colorado State University.
3. Vida G, Pena G, Kanashiro A, et al. Beta2-adrenoreceptors of regulatory lymphocytes are essential for vagal neuromodulation of the innate immune system. The FASEB Journal. Fj.11-191007. Published online August 12, 2011.
4. Thiry E, Addie D, Belak S, et al. Feline herpesvirus infection. ABCD guidelines on prevention and management. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2009;11:547-555.
5. Miyamoto T, Carrero JJ, and Stenvinkel P. Inflammation as a risk factor and target for therapy in chronic kidney disease. Curr Opin Nephrol Hypertens. 2011 Aug 5 [Epub ahead of print].
8. De Kloet ER, Vreugdenhil E, Oitzl MS, et al. Brain corticosteroid receptor balance in health and disease. Endocrine Reviews. 1998;19(3):269-301.
9. Landsberg G, Denenberg S, and Araujo J. Cognitive dysfunction in cats. A syndrome we used to dismiss as ‘old age’. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2010;12:837-848.
10. Stenvinkel P. Inflammation as a target for improving health in chronic kidney disease. F1000 Medicine Reports. 2010;2:88. Doi:10.3410/M2-88.
12. Harvard Medical School. Using music to tune the heart. Harvard Heart Letter. November 2009, p. 4. Available at www.health.harvard.edu.
21. Jane S-W. Effects of massage on pain, mood status, relaxation, and sleep in Taiwanese patients with metastatic bone pain: a randomized clinical trial. Pain. 2011 [Epub ahead of print].
22. Keir ST. Effect of massage therapy on stress levels and quality of life in brain tumor patients. Support Care Cancer. 2011;19:711-715.
24. Krohn M, Listing M, Tjahjono G, et al. Depression, mood, stress, and Th1/Th2 immune balance in primary breast cancer patients undergoing classical massage therapy. Support Care Cancer. 2011;19:1303-1311.