Is Your Cat Stressed?
by Tracey Biscontini

Picture your cat soaking in a bubble bath with an ice pack on its head after a long, stressful day. Ridiculous? Perhaps. After all, cats are notorious for their dislike of water. But cats do get stressed out and, unlike their human caretakers, cannot simply indulge in one of life's simple pleasures to reduce their anxiety. So how can we help them?

First we must answer the question, "What is stress?" Doctors have pondered the answer to this question for years. It is generally agreed upon that stress occurs when an individual is forced to adapt to a difficult or unpleasant circumstance, and in the process places certain demands on the body that result in a series of physical and behavioral changes.

Fight or Flight
The most common physiological change in known as the "fight or flight" response. When a stressful situation is perceived, the body reacts immediately. A part of the adrenal glands called the medulla manufactures a chemical called the adrenaline which causes the pulse to quicken, blood pressure to rise, muscles to tense, and senses to happen-all in preparation to either flee or fight. If the fight never occurs but the reaction continues, another part of the adrenal gland called the cortex begins to secrete hormones called corticosteriods. These hormones affect, among other systems, the body's immune system and metabolism. In proper amounts, these corticosteriods help the body respond to stress. But if the levels remain too high for too long they can cause unhealthy reactions such as gastric upset, decreased immunity to disease and stunted growth.

Stress Alert
What causes a cat to become stressed out? Like people, cats have many different personalities, so the causes can vary from cat to cat. Dr. Ilana Reisner, a resident veterinarian in behavioral medicine at Cornell University, says shy cats that lack self-confidence are more likely to be affected by stress than outgoing, boisterous cats. Cats are creatures of habit; they thrive on routine, and a change of any kind may induce stress.

The absence or addition of household members, human or otherwise, is a common cause of feline stress. Visiting house guests, or the arrival of a new baby or pet, may bother your cat. Some cats are traumatized by the death or departure of a human caretaker or pet. If another family member is upset for whatever reason, or perhaps dislikes or punishes the cat, stress may result. Other cats, even exclusively indoor ones, may react when a human or furred interloper simply walks across the front lawn.

A change in the environment can also trigger stress. Changing the litter or moving the litter box to a new location might appear minor to you, but may be devastating to your cat. Rearranging or acquiring new furniture or drapes, boarding the cat, a trip to the groomer, moving to a new home-even washing a favorite toy or blanket, thereby removing the scent-any of these (and a plethora of other things) can mean trouble. Even boredom is stressful to some cats.

A Delicate Balance
Since it's difficult for a cat to explain that the new custom drapes have it scared spitless, or that the scent of the fabric gives it a migraine, how are you to know a cat is suffering from stress? To understand what your cat is telling you, pay attention to its behavior.

Just as an upset child might run and hide, scream and throw a tantrum, or even break a favorite toy, a stressed cat may relieve its turmoil with a variety of behaviors. For instance, some cats will show their displeasure with a family member who reprimanded them by urinating on that person's bed; others will stop using the litter box. In either case, you're bound to notice. Such behaviors are normal, and allow the cat to eradicate its anxiety and return to an even keel. Therefore, a one-time lapse in good behavior does not necessarily mean the cat is suffering from ongoing stress.

On the other hand, the behaviors cats manifest as a result of stress are extremely varied, and depend on the individual cat. Blatant signs like uncharacteristic aggression of shyness, or more subtle symptoms like tail chasing, hiding or any type of repetitive, nonproductive behavior could be stress related.

The best way to recognize danger signs is to be familiar with your cat's normal behavior-any persistent change from the norm should alert you to a problem. If a cat is under stress and isn't helped, it could develop a stress-related illness.

Health At Risk
When a cat becomes stressed and the level of corticosteriods, cortisol in particular, remains high for a prolonged period of time., the cat's immunity decreases making it more susceptible to serious diseases. Some of these diseases are predestined, meaning they are already in the cat's system, but are latent, or hidden. Latent diseases tend to come to life during times of stress.

Dr. Reisner says some cats carry a latent upper respiratory virus. When the cat is boarded and comes home sneezing with an upper respiratory infection, people assume that the cat picked up the infection at the kennel. This isn't always true. The stress of being boarded may have triggered the latent virus.

Stress causes other health problems too. Research has shown that stress seems to play a roll in whether or not some cats develop lower urinary tract disease (LUTD). Psychogenic alopecia and psychogenic dermatitis are fur loss conditions caused by the cat excessively licking or grooming itself. Such behavior ordinarily has a physical cause, like fleas but is occasionally linked to stress. Whatever the cause, organic or psychological, once adopted, the licking behavior may continue as a bad habit, and eventually lead to self-mutilation.

Stress can also be an inciting factor for the deadly feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), because it hinders the cat's ability to fight off such debilitating diseases.

The Diagnostic Dilemma
Stress is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are so varied, and can indicate any number of organic diseases. Whenever a cat's normal behaviors change, your veterinarian is in the best position to determine whether the symptoms are a result of physical causes (such as an allergy or a bladder infection), are stress related, or are a combination of the two.

You should keep of record of the events that cause you concern, including when and where they occurred, and give your veterinarian a detailed description of the cat's normal behavior. If an organic illness can be diagnosed and successfully treated, the behavior problems might subside. Other times, the cat's physical illness is a result of stress, and both the illness and the stress must be addressed. When the physical illness cannot be found, the source of the stress causing the inappropriate behavior must be identified.

Identifying The Source
Remember, you cat likes routine, so think hard: What has changed to throw Kitty into a tizzy? Does Fluffy spray your bedspread whenever you use the new vacuum cleaner? Didn't Tiger's sudden aggression begin about the time the new wallpaper went up? Or is it the rhinestone collar that Tuffy got for Christmas that's making him hide? By identifying the culprit, it's hoped the cause of the stress can be eliminated.

Crisis Management
Sometimes it's difficult to identify what's causes the cat distress. Even when the reason is obvious, eliminating the problem may not be easy, or even possible. While it may be simple enough to go back to the old type of litter, a new baby cannot be returned, no matter how much the cat might wish it. If removing the stressor isn't possible or doesn't work, your veterinarian may have to temporarily prescribe anti-anxiety medication to calm the cat.

Spending quality time with your cat may help it adjust to stressful situations. Keep in mind, however, that different cats have different needs. Dr. Reisner says, "Some cats may be content to just alongside youwhile others might like a daily massage or need played with more. She stresses the importance of all people in household playing catand sharing feeding chores. points out that if one person is perceived by as being disapproving unloving become stressed.

If your cat is particular anxious, you might want to refrain from adopting additional animals. A new puppy or kitten might push an already stressed-out cat over the edge. While it's not necessary to remove existing animals from the household, don't adopt any new ones.

Another approach is to consult with an animal psychologist or behaviorist. These professionals are experts at identifying the sources of stress and finding creative solutions to solving animal behavior problems. Many are even willing to do telephone consultations. Such therapists may use behavior modification to change a cat's perception of stress through a series of counter-conditioning exercises. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a reputable professional.

In spite of the complications that can arise as a result of too much stress, it is important to note that not all stress is bad. In fact, it is stress that enables cats and humans alike to cope with the changes that the place in everyday life.

Of course, it's still best to preclude excessive stress in your cat's life whenever possible. Talk to your veterinarian if you anticipate a situation that might be stressful to your cat, such a move or a new baby. He or she will be able to offer some helpful advice to reduce your cat's anxiety and, therefore, avoid jeopardizing its health.

And you'll save on bubble bath too.

Source:  Pawspectives a e-newsletter