Why Healthy Cats Sometimes Act Sick


While he was completing his final year of veterinary school, Dr. Tony Buffington started noticing a relationship between stressful events or environments and evidence of certain “sickness behaviors” in cats. He happened upon a paper in the journal Feline Practice that detailed an increase in the number of cats suffering urinary tract disease symptoms in the San Fernando Valley, Calif., area during the aftermath of the quake. The paper theorized that the stress of the quake and subsequent aftershocks played a role in the symptoms.

Cats Stressed Sick

Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University, recently led a team that observed a group of healthy cats and a group of chronically ill cats under controlled, enriched environments. The ill cats had a condition called feline interstitial cystitis, which is characterized by recurring discomfort or pain in the bladder, and an urgent and frequent need to urinate. The researchers occasionally took cats out of their environments, or otherwise disrupted their schedule. As the authors reported in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the periods of prolonged enrichment eased the symptoms of the sick cats. During the brief periods of disruption, however, the healthy cats were just as likely as the sick cats to exhibit sickness behaviors.

Buffington says the findings provide two unique insights. One is confirmation that fairly simple environmental changes can lead to physical symptoms in healthy cats. “Happy cats are healthy cats, and their environment plays a role in that,” he says. “From the point of view of being a good pet owner, wise owners know what an enriched environment is and create it for their animals. That way, their animal stays healthy longer. There’s now good evidence for this.”

Second is the fact that the enriched environments took what were essentially lost causes and more or less cured them. “What surprised me most is that the affected cats were donated to us because they had such severe symptoms that they were going to be euthanized,” says Buffington. “But by changing their environment, we were able to resolve those symptoms. They were not completely cured, but by the end of six months their sickness behaviors were indistinguishable from those of healthy cats.”

How to Make an Enriched Environment

Creating one of these enriched environments is not terribly complicated, according to Dr. E’Lise Christensen Bell, an animal behaviorist at NYC Veterinary Specialists. In fact, many cat owners may only require a few additional steps from their current situation. She suggests doing the following:

  • Keep the day structured so that approximately the same feeding, play session, petting session, and litter box cleaning times are in place. Regularity of schedule is crucial.
  • Set up games and hunting activities for your cat throughout the day, such as rotating food-dispensing toys daily, hiding toys in boxes for your cat to find, setting up bird feeders outside for your cat to view, conducting training sessions and more.
  • Make sure your cat has easy access to hiding areas, such as small boxes or elevated, soft-surface resting spots.

Buffington notes that not all cats are going to respond the same. Some are more adaptable than others to unpredictable environments. He’s also sensitive to cat owners who may feel they are being told they’re not good caretakers, and stresses that veterinary professionals are themselves in the process of learning the importance of his team’s findings. “We veterinary professionals have assumed the authority to tell you that you should keep your cats inside, so we also shoulder the responsibility to tell people how to do it right,” he explains. “Having the right evidence-based advice is the best preventative healthcare you can do.”

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