Feb 12 2013

Creatures of Habit

Stress and change in environment can make healthy cats appear sick, study finds.

Pet owners who are concerned about their cats exhibiting signs of sickness, like throwing up or refusing to eat, should think carefully before they whisk them off to a veterinarian, a new study suggests. Chances are good that an otherwise healthy cat who suddenly starts exhibiting these and other symptoms isn’t actually sick, but responding to stressful changes in its surrounding environment.

“My recommendation is that people create enriched environments for their cats to eliminate the possibility of this happening in the first place,” said Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University and senior author of the study, released early this month. “If somebody goes on vacation and comes back and the cat is vomiting hairballs but looks healthy and normal in every other way, you might want to think, how am I going to prevent this from happening in the future?”

Veterinary clinician and study co-author Judi Stella spent a year establishing a colony for the cats — 12 healthy and 20 sick with feline interstitial cystitis, a chronic illness of the bladder — getting them on a routine schedule for eating, playing, sleeping and having their cages cleaned. The study was geared at exploring their illness, and she noticed that the cats with the chronic illness began to show signs of physical improvement — their coats were shinier, their eyes were clearer and they stopped vomiting.

It was surprising to Stella, who had assumed the chronically ill cats were always going to show the same symptoms. But then she took a week off from work and returned to even more startling changes.

The healthy cats demonstrated the same physical symptoms that the ill cats previously had — and the sick cats regressed to their past tendencies.

“We started thinking, ‘Wow, something is really going on here,’” Buffington said. “We started to track backwards to see what might have happened in the environment to make them sick.”

The team pinpointed that the change in caretakers had likely disrupted the cats’ routine and upset them emotionally, causing them to act on their stress physically.

“We didn’t think it would affect them that much at all,” Buffington explained.

“The cats had their same schedule, still in their cages — the only thing that was different was that they didn’t get out and see me, and that seemed to cause them to start throwing up and to stop eating,” Stella said.

“This also suggests that they all have unique ways of responding to stress in the environment. The cats that vomit when they are stressed only vomit. The cats that urinate outside the box only do that when they are stressed,” she continued.

Within a couple of days of Stella’s return, all of the healthy cats returned to normal.

Buffington said that owners who note a change in their healthy cats should first consider what alterations in their environment — a different type of food, a new location for the litter box, a different feeding schedule, a new caretaker while an owner is away — could be responsible for the sudden change.

Buffington says cat owners should do away with the misconception that coughing up hairballs is “normal” behavior.

“I agree that it’s common but I don’t agree that it’s normal,” Buffington said. “Just because you see something all the time doesn’t mean that it is normal. There is no evidence that cats in nature do this with any frequency at all.”

Owners of chronically ill cats can also take note of the success in the experiment’s “enriched environment,” which included routine care and feeding at the same time each, consistent placement of litter boxes, clean litter boxes and bedding, cat toys and classical music for one to two hours a day.

For more tips on creating a stress-free environment for your cats, visit the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s website.
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