Behaviourist, Sarah Whitehead, explores the benefits of
and problems caused by 'stress'
LIKE US, cats can suffer from an overload of stress. How
much is too much will depend on a number of factors: the stress
`immunisation' that the cat received as a kitten, the coping
strategies that the cat has learned as a result of this process,
and the duration and nature of the stressor.
do cats find stressful?
nearly all the triggers which will cause or exacerbate stress
in cats are environmental. These environmental triggers can
result in the cat having an emotional reaction which can affect
behaviour and, eventually, their health too.
my experience, the most common stressors for cats are those
which appear to threaten their resources, particularly the
inner security of their homes. The threat of another cat coming
into their `den', a new baby in the home, a puppy, or even
builders, can trigger off an immense psychological reaction
in some sensitive cats, which can be hard to rectify, particularly
if the `threat' is permanent.
do they demonstrate this?
humans, cats are unable to show their emotional state through
language or facial expression. Instead, they reveal their
feelings in ways which can be distressing, if not distasteful,
to their human owners.
the short-term, cats under pressure or feeling anxious may
show their feelings by increasing activities which usually
make them feel more secure. Some cats may become more clingy,
for example, or may rub the furniture or their owners more
frequently. Cats which are facing trauma outside may choose
to stay indoors more, while those facing stress in the home
may spend prolonged periods outside.
the absence of relief from the stress, cats may increase their
marking behaviour dramatically. Scratching, spraying urine,
and middening (deliberately depositing faeces somewhere noticeable!)
may be an attempt to regain the security that they once had
in the home, while leaving home altogether may appear to be
the only option for cats which can no longer face the interior
of the `den'.
in our behaviour practice, we see cats which are so overcome
by anxiety or stress that they simply give up attempting to
fight it or flee from it, and become passive and unresponsive.
This extreme kind of learned helplessness is thankfully rare,
but can mean that the cat no longer washes itself, loses interest
in food and remains almost motionless for long periods of
time. In certain respects, this could be likened to the symptoms
of severe clinical depression in humans, where any kind of
behaviour is suppressed and unrewarding.
term, stress has been shown to increase the risks of illness
and disease. Animals and people which are suffering from chronic,
irresolvable stress may start to have immune breakdown as
the body struggles to cope with being under constant threat.
Interestingly, infections and digestive complaints are common
in stressed individuals, and seem to form a vicious cycle
of illness, fatigue and a consequential inability to deal
with the emotional problem that caused the clinical weakness
in the first place.
can we do to prevent this stress?
examples of human and other species' behaviour suggests that
animals which have many chances to experience and resolve
low-level stress when young, manage stressful situations far
better as adults. This is because the individual has become
slightly desensitised to the effects of stress during those
early weeks and has learned coping strategies which can then
be applied to other similar situations in later life. The
stage that cats learn to handle stress without undue anxiety
is very early indeed — between two and seven weeks of age.
This means that an unstimulating, unchallenging environment
will leave a kitten with very few emotional defence mechanisms
— no matter how well he or she was cared for at the time.
Ideally, all kittens should be thoroughly handled by as many
different people as possible during these critical weeks.
Altering their environment to allow kittens to learn for themselves
is also essential, as those kittens which have had a chance
to become familiar with all the chaotic sights, sounds and
smells of a domestic home will have a huge head-start. Allowing
kittens to meet and mix with friendly dogs, children, and
all manner of people will act as `stress immunisation' in
order to protect them later in life.
can you tell if your cat is suffering from a stress over-load?
behavioural changes should always be reported to your vet,
as they may indicate that there is a clinical problem which
once this possibility has been rejected, the next part of
the detective work is to look for signs of potential stress.
Ask yourself when the cat started to behave differently. Did
this coincide with an unusual occurrence in the home? For
some over-attached cats, even a brief absence from their owner
can be traumatic. This can make holiday times a nightmare,
as the presence of a stranger in the home (no matter how kind!)
to feed and care for them just does not help.
can you do to alleviate this stress?
course, the easy answer is to identify the cause of the stress
and remove it! However, this can often be easier than it sounds.
Magnetic cat flaps can help to reduce the risk of other cats'
threats on the inner sanctum of the home, although some owners
may be better off removing the flap altogether and acting
as a `body guard' to their cat by manually letting them in
and out. Offering more resources, as well as safe hiding places
away from permanent stressors, such as babies and dogs can
often work well, as can removing the cat from the environment
while temporary stressors, such as building work, are present.
Ironically, for the over-attached cat, a good cattery may
be a far better option than being cared for at home during
holidays. This is probably because the total change has a
lesser overall impact on the cat than the very obvious absence
of the owner.
awareness is the key. Those who enjoy close, attentive relationships
with their cats often spot the early stages of the effects
of stress, and can prevent them from escalating towards distress,
before long-lasting damage has been done.