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Why Healthy Cats Sometimes Act Sick

By Elijah Merrill
Pet Health Articles
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.”

Elijah Merrill is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times
Magazine and Discover.