Creating A Low-Stress Environment For Your Cat

By: Amy Plankenhorn, DVM

Have you ever looked at your cat and thought, “Boy, I’d like to have that life!  Sleeping all day with the other cats, nothing to do, food always available, somebody else to clean the toilet… what a great deal!”  But we’ve actually asked our indoor domestic cats to live a very different lifestyle from what their natural instincts tell them.

Cats in the wild are solitary hunters.  They have very heightened senses of smell and hearing, which enable them to locate prey and to protect themselves from threats.  While they can form social groups if enough resources are available, they typically hunt and eat alone. They may choose to sleep together, often in locations that allow them to monitor their environment. If they are faced with an unfamiliar or stressful situation, they often hide as a coping behavior.  They also avoid showing outward signs of pain and illness, since showing weakness makes them easier prey.

We are learning more and more that stress does exist in our indoor cat companions, what causes stress, and how it can manifest through medical problems.  A prime example is cystitis – a complex condition that causes frequent urination, straining to urinate, urinating outside the litter pan, bloody urine, and pain.  Recent research has found that some cats have altered levels of certain brain chemicals that would normally allow them to manage stress appropriately.  These chemicals can influence several of the systems in the body, but the bladder is particularly vulnerable.  While we can treat pain and discomfort in these cats, managing stress through modification of the environment is the key to long-term control of cystitis.  Stress can also cause problems such as increased symptoms of upper respiratory viruses, compulsive behaviors like over-grooming, and undesirable behaviors such as aggression, destructive behavior, and elimination outside the litter pan.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has recently released their guidelines on feline environmental needs.  They will have an owner-friendly handout with more details available soon, but the basic concept is that there are five pillars of a healthy, low-stress feline environment:

  1. Provide a safe place – a private, secure area, often in a raised location, that will allow a cat to withdraw from what it considers to be threatening or unfamiliar conditions.
  2. Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources – feeding, drinking, toileting, claw scratching, play, and resting/sleeping areas.  Cats do not normally eat, drink, or eliminate together. Providing multiple resources in different locations of the house allows cats privacy and reduces competition for resources.  Food, water and litter stations should also not be grouped next to each other, since cats would never “eat in the bathroom” in the wild.
  3. Provide the opportunity for play and predatory behavior – interactive play that simulates hunting and provides exercise helps prevent boredom, obesity, and frustration.  Hiding food, using puzzle feeders, and tossing food all allow a cat to do what comes naturally: work to obtain small frequent meals.
  4. Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction.  Many cats prefer high frequency, low intensity levels of contact with humans, so it is important to allow the cat to initiate and control the contact with humans and not force a cat to interact with people.
  5. Provide an environment that respects the importance of a cat’s sense of smell – avoid strong-smelling detergents and litters, use synthetic facial pheromone (Feliway) to reduce anxiety, and allow cats to mark surfaces with their facial scent glands (rubbing the face on a corner, for example).

Animal Hospital of North Asheville is committed to creating a low-stress veterinary visit for our cat patients, and is a Gold Standard Cat Friendly Practice.  There are several excellent resources available with further tips about helping to create a low-stress home environment for your cats.  A detailed paper outlining the AAFP’s environmental needs guidelines can be found at www.catvets.com, along with many other wonderful resources and brochures for cat owners.  Another excellent website is the Indoor Pet Initiative.  By understanding the needs of cats, we can give our cats the happiest, healthiest life possible.