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Stress in Cats: Signs and Treatments

 As we near the end of 2020, it is easy to look back at the roller coaster of challenges, changes, and uncertainty the year has bought, often overshadowing the unexpected gains that come with spending more time at home. Personally, the COVID-crisis has meant that I have spent a lot more time at home with my children, my garden, as well as with Zazu my Bengal cat. 
Now I know that Zazu would never admit it, quite simply because he is a cat, but I think he too has enjoyed having his servants around more often to feed, play, feed, feed, entertain and feed him. I also think Zazu has also quite enjoyed the quiet serenity that has come with no at-home kids’ birthday parties, large family gatherings, local fireworks, and other not-so-cat-friendly events. So, what happens to our cats as we [humans] excitedly watch for the easing of more restrictions and replan all our catch-up events….
Cats are, to a certain extent, prone to stress. They are constantly assessing risk in their environment, looking specifically for signs of danger. Stress is a normal body response, which happens to try and keep your cat safe from a physical or mental threat, or environmental change. Short term (acute) stress can be a very normal response in cats, but longer-term, continuous (chronic) stress can play a significant role in the development of behavioural problems and stress-related diseases (inappropriate toileting, overgrooming, social withdrawal, changes in eating and demeanor, etc). 
Cats that are stressed because of changes to their home environment can react in many ways. Most commonly, we see three main behavioral stages in stress: avoidance, repulsion, and curiosity. 
  • Avoidance: as the name describes, these behaviours are used to try and stay safe by avoiding the stressor. 
    • Hiding
    • Fleeing
    • Tensed muscles
    • Dilated pupils (enlarged black part of the eye)
    • Ears turned back or flattened
    • Walking with back flat, tail down, and head down as close to the ground. 
    • Crawling, slinking away
    • Excessive and sudden grooming
    • Freezing
  • Repulsion: cats use these behaviours to stay safe by scaring a threat (…often the vet) away. 
  • Hissing
  • Growling
  • Swiping
  • Spitting
  • Scratching
  • Biting
  • Intense staring at the threat
  • Ears flattened and out to the side
  • Standing tall and out to the side to look bigger 
  • Curiosity: this is an information-gathering behaviour where the cat wants to learn more about a particular person, object, or threat. 
  • Fixation on the object
  • Ears up and pointing in the direction the cat is looking
  • Sniffing/fleshmann response (which is raising or curling of the lips to detect information such as pheromones).
  • Startling easily when focused intensely. 
  • Tail swishing
  • Stress is a significant component for most common cat behaviour problems as well as some common diseases. 
So, what can we do to help relieve or prevent stress in your cat/s? Here are some of my most common preliminary tips for cat owners:
  • Feliway: this is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, a pheromone that cats leave naturally when they feel safe and happy in their environment. Think about the happy cat who rubs their face on absolutely EVERYTHING! Feliway comes as a plug-in diffuser or spray that you can use in your home to try and reduce the signs of stress.
  • Zylkene: is an in-feed supplement that is derived from casein, a natural product from milk. It has been shown to promote relaxation in newborns after feeding. It is a capsule that can be given whole or broken open and mixed in feed. It can be purchased over the counter from our clinics.
  • Environmental: cats are constantly looking for risks in their environment. They are creatures of habit and adapt well to familiar routines and predictability. Creating daily routines can help to manage stress in the household. Also ensure adequate resources (food, water points, bedding, toys, litter trays, hiding spots, etc) are available for each cat. If you are expecting changes to this routine, such as visitors, allow your cat a quiet place to hide where they can access resources as required. Do not force them to interact if they don’t want to as this can contribute to stress. 
  • Veterinary visit: regular veterinary health checks allow us to check-in and see how your cat is going at home as well as assess their physical and mental health. In some cat’s stress can cause significant challenges to their mental and physical health and so further investigation and treatment may be required. Home visits can help to show our vets exactly what behaviours your cat is displaying, as well as helping us to implement the necessary changes that may be required to help reduce the stress. 
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Pets Health is a full service animal hospital with clinics located in Hilton and O’Halloran Hill. We are dedicated to helping you keep your best mate happy and healthy through each stage of their life with compassionate and reassuring veterinary care.

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O’Halloran Hill Vet Centre

123 Main South Road
O’Halloran Hill, SA 5158

Hilton Vet Centre

142 Sir Donald Bradman Drive
Hilton, SA 5033