Integrated Pet Vet column: Stress causes behavior and health problems in cats

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet

Long-term stress can have detrimental effects on health and quality of life because stress affects almost every part of the body. Short periods of a stress response, on the other hand, can be beneficial for dealing with a crisis.

Hormones released from the adrenal gland and stimulation of parts of the nervous system are responsible for responses like an increased heart rate, improved blood flow to muscles, and increased breathing. The stress response is intended to be short-term so the individual can quickly manage challenges then recover.

Long-term or chronic stress has detrimental effects that can lead to behavioral problems and stress-related diseases. Numerous factors play a role in an individual’s ability to cope with stress, including both genetic and environmental factors.

Development of the stress response starts before the kitten is born and can be affected by the mother’s quality of nutrition and amount of stress that occurs during pregnancy. Kittens born to a stressed mother with poor nutrition are prone to developing stress and have poor coping abilities that lead to common behavior problems. This can be compounded if there is a lack of proper socialization to the household environment and contact with people and other animals at an early stage of life.

Indications that a cat is stressed include hiding, elimination issues like not using the litter box, loss of appetite or overeating, vomiting hair and/or bile, low activity, aggression, or overgrooming. While there may be medical problems underlying these behavior changes, chronic stress can be the initiating cause, and addressing stress inducers can be an important part of successful management.

For example, a cat that eliminates outside the litter box could have an infection in the urinary bladder or could have osteoarthritis pain that prevents appropriate use of the litter box. However, chronic stress from any source, including pain, can lead to inflammatory conditions in the urinary bladder by weakening the protective glycosaminoglycan (GAG) layer. The GAG layer protects the lining of the urinary bladder from the irritating effects of urine. A weakened GAG layer is associated with release of substance P, which is associated with pain, anxiety and depression in humans.

Stress impacts the digestive system, resulting in slowing of contractions in the stomach and small intestine while stimulating contractions of the colon. Individuals that are sensitive to stress have an exaggerated response that can lead to a host of digestive problems including inflammatory bowel disease.

Chronic stress can disrupt the normal immune response leading to inability to effectively mount an appropriate immune response, allowing latent infections to activate (see “The sneezing cat,” Post Independent March 23, 2018). This disruption can also result in ongoing inflammation (see “Chronic inflammation can negatively impact health,” Post Independent September 25, 2016). Adrenal gland response to inflammation is important for controlling inflammation. Interestingly, cats with chronic urinary bladder disorders have been shown to have weak adrenal responses and smaller than normal adrenal gland size.

Management of disease problems associated with chronic stress in cats requires not only dealing directly with the disease itself, but also managing the factors that contribute to chronic stress.

Assessment of the home environment for stressors and ways to avoid the stressors is important. Cats should be provided unrestricted access to resting areas that are free from other cats, dogs, small children or loud noises. Food should be high quality, competition between cats should be avoided, and simulation of predatory behaviors using food puzzle toys can be helpful. Litter boxes with appropriate litter should be large enough to easily accommodate the cat and should be located in a location that feels safe to the cat. Cleaning should be done daily. Opportunities to scratch and have play behaviors are important.

Some foods and supplements containing L-tryptophan and milk casein can be beneficial. Probiotics can play a role in normalizing the stress response. Products like Rescue Remedy and Feliway may reduce the reactivity to stress. Adaptogen herbs and supplements that support improved adrenal function can assist in achieving appropriate stress responses.

Contact your veterinarian if you have questions regarding stress in your cat.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

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