Dealing with Stress and Anxiety
Stress and Behaviour
The best way to deal with stress is to find the cause and eliminate it. Sometimes this is not possible, but if you possibly can you should consult with someone who can help you to identify sources of stress and deal with them appropriately. I am very grateful to Katie B Wade, a newly-qualified animal behaviourist who came to me looking for a case study, and was thrown in at the deep end with my lot spraying around the house. She was very helpful indeed, and my cats are considerably more relaxed and calm than they were. I would recommend that if you are looking for a behaviourist you contact her: Katie is not just someone who has decided she is going to set up as a behaviourist: she is a qualified psychologist, and has also trained at a specialist animal behaviour centre, and has a professional qualification that many animal ‘behaviourists’ do not have. You can find out more about her work from her website, www.animalminds.co.uk, or email her at email@example.com. She works in and around Oxford and the surrounding counties mainly, but can help by phone or e-mail if you cannot travel.
Why are cats stressed?
Cats rarely respond well to conventional tranquillisers, as their nervous systems are not wired the way humans are. Even so, they are no less prone to stress and anxiety, even in the most apparently ideal situations. There are many causes of stress apart from general non-specific anxiety: bereavement, jealousy, introduction of another cat, loneliness, tension between cats in the household, tension caused by an aggressive cat outside the house invading territory, going to the vet, shock, hormonal changes, frustration during calling, shifts in heirarchy between humans or the feline population, moving house, redecoration, birth of a baby, rehabilitation of a feral cat, etc etc etc.
There can be many symptoms, ranging from the extremes of trembling with rapid eye-movement, through weight-loss, incessant vocalisation, the cat becoming possesive and unable to leave the owner alone, inappropriate urination or defecation, licking and biting at the back and tummy hair, sometimes badly enough to break the skin, urinating on the owner or on their belongings, attacking people or other cats when they had previously been calm and affectionate, or simply just appearing depressed.
The first course is to look for a clinical reason for this behaviour if there is no obvious reason for the stress. Hair-pulling is often the result of skin irritation caused by allergy to food, fleas or flea-treatments. Sudden unexplained aggression can sadly often be traced to a brain tumour. If there is no clinical reason for the stress behaviour, then the next course is to identify and remove or correct the cause of the stress: in extreme cases this means rehoming, which is upsetting for the owner, but always results in the cat being far happier than it was in the stressful environment. However, rehoming is a last resort for most of us, as we love our cats and the thought of parting with them is almost unthinkable. Sometimes we cannot pinpoint the cause of the problem, in which case we have to treat the symptoms as best we can.
Keeping a cat under stress, no matter what the cause, is cruel, so if the stress is caused by a long-term situation that isn't going to improve, you should not look to drugs to solve your problems. However, some stresses are short term, and some come from a 'vicious circle' situation that once broken could be resolved. Assuming the cause of the stress cannot be removed and could be handled by cycle-breaking, there are various options available.
Try this first. If you cat cannot or will not play, you may have discovered a physical problem such as arthritis, blindness or something more transitory that is upsetting the cat. The importance of keeping a cat interested in life is often underestimated. The key to a happy balanced life is to keep boredom at bay. This is particularly essential with cats who are not allowed to roam freely, more and more the case with pedigree cats as traffic and feline diseases encourage owners to keep their cats indoors with or without outdoor runs. If a cat is bored and under-stimulated it can develop any number of behavioural picas, including wool-eating, hair-pulling, aggression or other symptoms.
It is important to play WITH the cat, rather than just give it toys. Ideal for this are a whole range of 'fishing rod' toys, with a long rod with a cord and a toy on the end of the cord. This allows maximum cat activity with minimum human effort. Many cats bring these toys to their owners when they want attention and play. Added to this you can leave any number of small items on the floor for the cat to bat around. If you don't feel like paying for your toys, then a similar item can be constructed by tying ordinary string to a plant support stick. You can then tie a feather or paper bag to the end and the cat won't care if it was an expensive item from a cat show or not. Ping pong balls are excellent (if you don't have one, try the ball from a used roll-on deodorant—washed of course!), as are pipe-cleaner spiders, toy mice, catnip toys, screwed up paper bags, feathers and so on. Keep the cat interested by swapping the toys around. Gather then up and keep them in a bowl or wicker basket so that the cat has to get them out. Try hiding them on low shelves or around the house.
Most minor stress situations will clear up if the cat has this sort of stimulation and interest. Cats who are bad-tempered with each other may calm down if you inject a different interest into their lives, particularly if you can tire them out with chasing toys.
If all else fails, two drugs are known to be useful with stressed cats:
Ovarid. This is commonly used with cats who are pulling their stomach hair out. Hair pulling on this part of the body is most often hormonal and seen in females more than males. Ovarid is a hormone treatment with a depressive emotional side-effect, and can stop the bahviour completely. It has side-effects of weight-gain and depression and, in entire cats is believed to be a contributory factor in pyometra. A case study is given below under 'Diet'.
Piriton. Antihistamine (oral). This has a similar effect to Valium in humans, calming and relaxing a stressed animal. A percentage of cats show no reaction at all to it. Like Valium it can be addictive and the long-term effects are unknown. Cats being weaned off it have shown extreme stress and aggressive behaviour over a considerable period. It's use has been banned by the GCCF at shows. Under a single dose of Piriton the cat is clearly drugged: sluggish and with slowed reactions. Once the drug wears off its original behaviour returns. There is some evidence to suggest that long-term use leads to a buildup of resistance to the drug, so that increasing amount need to be used. The only cases where I have seen this used with cats have been inappropriate: A serious personality disorder was masked with the drug until the cat could be homed, and the owner then had the nightmare of dealing with a cat going through withdrawal. The vet recognised that it had been drugged with Piriton for a long period. In another situation a breeder was giving a dose of Piriton to her cats when they were put on show.
For the owner who wishes to avoid side-effects, or who is looking for something that will provide a longer-term and gentler effect, there are a wide variety of herbal and homeopathic remedies, most of which are startlingly effective. The following is a brief survey.
Bach Flower Remedies: Rescue Remedy
Presentation: clear alcohol-based liquid in a small dropper bottle
Administration: in water, on skin or in mouth. Flower remedies are easy to work with as they have clearly defined uses that are easy for the novice to understand and work with.
Results: no instantly visible results, though clear effects can be seen after about 2 weeks of administration. In extreme stress, the correct remedy can be seen to have immediate effect
Uses: This is used routinely by almost all those involved in rescue, where cats are distressed by a change of environment and often also by bereavement. It is also extremely useful with feral rescue. If you can pin down the cause, a single remedy such as that for Jealousy can be even more effective. However, if the cause of the stress continues, the flower remedy will only be effective for a short time. Some breeders administer Walnut (which guards against change) to kittens going to their new homes.
Case study: A cat caught and beaten by a youth escaped and returned home, but jammed herself behind a cupboard for 36 hours in absolute terror. Nothing the owner did could reassure the cat; she would be pulled struggling wildly from the gap, but would rush back to her hiding place the instant she was released. She was pulled out and dosed with Star of Bethlehem for shock and fear, and within 10 minutes was back to normal. [This is the most dramatic result I have ever seen, usually it is less spectacular!]
Presentation: brown mother-tincture liquid in dropper bottle. Available from Dorwest Veterinary Herbs, or made up by a herbalist. Ingredients 25% Mistletoe, 25% Valerian, 50% Vervain; as mother tincture.
Administration: a) orally either directly in the mouth, dabbed on the nose, or placed on the coat to be licked. b) by smell only, placed on tissue or bedding near the cat. NB mother tincture is very strong and in an alcohol base, so only tiny quantities are used.
Results: instant calming from the smell, very dramatic effect. Like catnip, this preparation has no effect on a small percentage of cats (though I've yet to meet one). Panic reactions cause a racing heart, which in turn increases the sense of panic. Mistletoe slows the heart rate, and this is probably the major factor in the calming effects seen.
Uses: Urgent and instant need situations: sudden shock; the need to administer a pill with a difficult or panicy cat; a visit to the vet that could not be anticipated; car journeys with cats who hate the car, fright, fear etc.
Case study 1: An elderly cat who lived in a convent used to become very distressed whenever they had a retreat, crying and shouting all day. One dose of VC was given in the morning, and the cat would behave completely normally all day.
Case study 2: A kitten who wouldn't settle at a show and yowling for his owner was given a drop of this on his nose. He immediately calmed and went to sleep, and was quite happy for the rest of the show. It is worth noting here that the GCCF has now banned the use of Valerian Compound at shows as a 'behaviour-altering drug'. Any cat distressed enough to need it should not be at the show, though when a cat is being shown for the first time its reaction to the show environment cannot be predicted so it is useful to have as a standby.
Scullcap and Valerian tablets
Presentation: small round sugar-coated tablets. Available from Dorwest Veterinary Herbs
Administration: orally (unfortunately)
Results: usually not obvious for 4-5 days, increasing over about two weeks.
Uses: used by some breeders to deal with queens who become very stressed when on heat. Also helpful in breaking minor stress cycles caused by dominance and assertion within groups, particularly during the introduction of a new cat. All cats are dosed and the dominance is worked out at a lower level. Also useful with possessive cats who become anxious if separated from the owner. This is most useful in the process of cycle-breaking. It can be used long-term, and if the problem recurs it can be reintroduced without lessening of effect.
Case study: Growing tension between a group of cats following the neutering of a dominant queen was becoming a problem with fights breaking out and some inappropriate urinating. The cats were all put on a course of S&V, and kept separate except when their interaction could be carefully supervised. Within 10 days the situation had normalized, though occasional outbreaks of aggression continued for the next 6 months, dealt with by short courses of S&V until the hormones in the neutered queen had 'run out'.
Presentation: living plant, dried leaves, ground up dried leaves, often in a 'toy'
Administration: by smell. Can be sprinkled on food, introduced in a toy, or simply sprinkled on bedding or around the house.
Results: usually euphoria within minutes of contact. A small percentage of cats show no reaction at all, another group may become 'manic' rather than euphoric
Uses: Any stress situation. Catnip is also an appetite stimulant.
Case study: A cat on heat in a household of other entire and neutered females was causing fighting, chasing and some neurotic appetite loss. Catnip was sprinkled in the bottom of a very large plastic tub, and the cat put in the tub. She rolled all over the catnip, rubbing her face and shoulders in it. After about 10 mins she got out, went to her food and ate, then found a warm patch to sleep in. This 'treat' was repeated daily until the heat ended, and no further fighting ocurred. Other cats in the household were also given a turn in the tub, and to some extent rubbing in the smell of the aggressive cat may also have helped to calm the atmosphere.
Feliway spray or diffuser
Presentation: spray bottle
Administration: sprayed on areas of the house where cats meet or where inappropriate defacation/spraying is taking place. Another product, Felifriend, is also marketed for spraying on the hands before handling an unknown cat. I have no information on the product, but it seems to be the same as Feliway.
Results: should be immediate
Uses: Only useful in very low-level stress situations of conflict between cats in the household. This emulates feline pheromones which are supposed to calm the cats. However, any serious anxiety will cause the secretion of more powerful pheromones by the cats involved, thus masking anything from the Feliway. Some owners report good results but most seem to see no effect whatsoever. Although offered by vets for any stress situation, this product only seems to be useful in countering spraying.
Case study: Two male neutered adult cats were rehomed to their breeder for an extended period but were not integrated in the household as they were not staying permanently. They were able to live in a guest-house in her garden, but when let out to play in the garden they came up to the house where her five other cats lived, and sprayed against the door and adjacent walls. If Feliway was sprayed at these points it prevented further spraying, but it had to be renewed daily.
Presentation: usually essential oils used a drop at a time.
Administration: oils can be burned, dispersed as steam when added to boiling water, or dropped on bedding. Results: should be immediate. Generally each aroma has a list of uses, so it is not difficult for the novice to work out which one(s) to use.
Uses: Lavender is said to be soothing and is used by many people on the bedding in their travelling baskets. The GCCF has banned the use of aromatherapy oils at shows.
Case study: although I have used Lavender, particularly around birthing queens, I have not seen a specific effect, but the cats have not been significantly distressed. Various people use it on travelling blankets.
Presentation: small pills, granules, or in alcohol suspension
Administration: pills need to be delivered to the cat without coming into contact with the hands (they can be crushed and are tasteless). Liquid remedies can be dropped directly into the mouth or onto the skin. Unfortunately delivery in food destroys the efficacy of the remedy, as its effect is cancelled out by anything with a strong taste or smell. Not easy to use for the novice because of the wide range of information that must be considered before the correct remedy can be found.
Uses: the use of homeopathic remedies relies on the correct identification of both the source of the stress and also the feelings arising from it. If incorrectly interpreted the wrong homeopathic remedy can worsen the situation, though fortunately discontinuing the remedy stops any adverse reaction. If the 'symptoms' can be correctly identified, there are a host of specific remedies that would be prescribed for each individual situation. The best course is to consult a homeopathic text and preferably also a homeopathic practitioner. Fortunately homeopathic remedies seem to work the same way with humans and felines, so there is a wealth of literature to help in choice, though this is a difficult repertory to use and in some ways there is too much information to allow a novice to work with it easily. Administration is not straightforward, but as long as the user understands how to dose, this is not difficult.
Case study: No feline case-study available to this writer, though several instances of stress in humans has been seen to respond well to the correct remedy, though this was prescribed by a homeopathic psychiatric practitioner.
I have not tried this myself, nor investigated it, but it is likely to be extremely beneficial if you have a cat who is prepared to be handled and is not hyperactive.
IVAS (International Veterinary Acupuncture Society)
P.O. Box 2074
Nederland, CO 80466-2074
Contact Person: Donna
This is an extremely effective treatment in cases of sudden changes of behaviour or mood. I had a cat who suddenly started to attack the other cats as if they were being aggressive to him, even though they were not. A single visit from a McTimoney Chiropractor cured him - it seemed his Atlas bone had got knocked out of alignment - he was quite literally 'off his rocker'. A secondary symptom of his need for this treatment was a tremor throughout his body when lying in certain curled positions.
Presentation: almost all commercial cat foods contain additives: flavour enhancers, smell enhancers, colourings, preservatives, addictive chemicals. Some chemicals are also added to produce good coat condition in a short time, but without taking account of the long-term side-effects of the chemicals. Additives may be listed on the packaging, but items added by the supplier of the ingredients do not have to be listed by the final manufacturer. Even some 'natural' foods may be buying preserved ingredients from third-party suppliers.
Administration: finding a good source of 'natural' foods can be difficult, but a number of companies now specialise in producing 'natural' pet foods, particularly in using vitamins to preserve rather than chemicals. The shelf-life of naturally-preserved food is generally shorter, so food sold in very large bags will almost always use artificial preservatives. Care should be taken if attempting to feed a home-made natural diet: not all human-grade foods are additive-free, and also cats require specific vitamins and minerals that are destroyed by cooking, particularly Taurine, and a home-made diet can be dangerous if prepared without sufficient knowledge of nutritional needs. Many cats refuse to eat natural diets after being fed long-term on foods such as Whiskas with a high additive and addictive content. However, the new diet can be mixed with the old in increasing quantities, and eventually hunger will win out over stubbornness.
Uses: usually long-term conditions, but any inexplicable behaviour change may be due to a change in diet, or a change in the ingredients put into the food by the manufacturer: emotional instability, hyperactivity, general nervousness, unpredictable and apparently causeless aggression, general bad-temper, unexplained behaviour, inappropriate defacation. Also a host of physical problems including epilepsy, skin complaints, arthritis, etc., etc.
Case study 1: Readers may recall a very recent test case undertaken by ITV and shown in detail on the 'Tonight' Programme on 28 April 2003. A family with two very aggressive and hyperactive twin boys fed one only on additive-free foods for two weeks, while the other remained on his usual diet. The parents found that the atmosphere in the house changed dramatically to the extent that even if the child eating his usual diet physically attacked the other child, the child fed on additive-free foods did not react. The mother of the children said that diet for the whole family would be changed for good, and commented that the house was so much calmer and happier with even one of the boys quiet and 'normal' that she could hardly believe how she coped before.
Case study 2: A Burmese who had come through quarantine, but whose companion had died while in quarantine was rehomed to a very quiet and sympathetic environment (a convent) but nevertheless constantly tore the hair from her back and tummy to the extent that the skin bled. The stress was treated with kindness, very low doses of Ovarid, and also a completely natural diet. The owner reported that all three lines of attack seemed to contribute to the success of rehabilitating the cat, and that she was notably more disturbed when fed on 'normal' food as opposed to additive-free food.
Not many people consider that certain types of music can be extremely soothing to animals as well as humans, particularly music with a regular slow rhythmic pulse, limited dynamic range, and vocal rather than instrumental performance.
Case study 1: A group of kittens were on the rampage and getting out of control. The owner put on a CD of the Tallis Scholars singing renaissance music. The choir sings at an unusually high pitch, and the music was very sedate and regular in both rhythm and volume, with no sudden changes in texture or speed. The kittens instantly stopped playing, lay down with eyes wide open listening to the music, and then went to sleep.
Case study 2: Many cattery owners use radios to keep cats company when they cannot be with them in person. This is a very common practice with studs as well. One stud owner tuned her radio to Radio 4, thinking that voices would be more company than music. However the stud boy yowled and shouted and was clearly not happy. As soon as the station was changed to music he calmed considerably. It was found that Radio 3 and pop music programmes were far less acceptable to the stud boy than Classic FM!