Secret life of the feline stress-head - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Secret life of the feline stress-head

ROBIN FEARON reports on presentations by Rachel Casey at this year’s BSAVA congress in which she said that it is fundamental to the treatment of cats to understand what stresses them

STRESS is the telling factor in so many areas of modern life that it hardly seems surprising that cats suffer from it too.

Rachel Casey sees many feline behaviour problems as senior lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare at the Bristol veterinary school, but in two BSAVA congress lectures she revealed that those problems say just as much about human habits.

“Aggression towards humans and inappropriate urination or spraying are the ones that get the most attention,” she says. “The reason is that they impact most on people’s lifestyles. People do not like it if their cat attacks them or pees on the carpet, but they are not necessarily the most common feline behaviour problems.”

That is a problem of perception, she insisted, over two sessions: The Secret Life of Cats and Human-directed Feline Aggression. In fact, behaviours such as hiding or avoiding other cats or people are more common and may be more problematic from the feline perspective.

“The numbers are quite eyeopening and highlight the importance of veterinary initiatives in trying to educate cat owners,” says Rachel. “We also need to increase professional awareness and education, especially through vet schools, to provide as much input and knowledge there about what makes cats tick. It is fundamental to treatment to understand what stresses them.”

Behavioural medicine has a growing base in general practice but the links between behaviour and disease treatment could be better understood. “It is surprising how many speakers discuss the importance of stress in disease management such as cardiomyopathy or coughing. There is now talk of identifying stressors for cats and adapting their environment to make sure they cope better with disease.”

Ownership trends also need to be assessed more closely for their impact on feline behaviour, insists Rachel. “The increase in multi-cat households needs to be mirrored by awareness on how to manage them. If you keep cats that do not get along it can be a welfare issue.”

Cat ownership has long been thought of as the easy option by many pet owners. Easier to manage and less time-demanding than dogs, they slot in so well with working couples that many now own two or three. “People like to have several cats and while that may not be a problem in some households it may be a big issue in others,” says Rachel.

Subtle indicators

“You may see behaviour problems like urine spraying, chasing and aggression, but you can also see much more subtle indicators where cats are inhibited in their activities, show other signs of stress or have stress contribute to disease problems.”

Aggression may only be the most overt form of problem behaviour, but it is a common and troublesome one in family homes. “There are broadly two types of aggression: one is fearrelated and the other arises because people engage in inappropriate play with cats when they are young, resulting in predatory behaviour to parts of the [human] body. Both are surprisingly common, but we see relatively few cats that bite hard and hospitalise people.”

Cats who are frightened of human contact will more often scratch and even jump out and ambush their owners before running away. “It is a kind of misdirected play behaviour that they learn when they are young, but these behaviours are easily prevented by good advice when people first come to the practice with their kitten,” adds Rachel.

Unfortunately cats are not helped by their essential nature. They are much less naturally expressive than dogs and do not quickly change expression to display emotions, she says, so the tell-tale signs that a problem is developing are harder to pick up.

“There are subtle signs like pupil dilation, the ears pointing back a little and the face becoming more tense. As the face tenses, then the angle of the whiskers changes. The body can become more tense and hunched,” explains Rachel. “Any indication that the cat is tensing up shows that it is not happy with a situation. We then need to back off and try a different strategy.”

Intriguingly, along with other researchers in the field, Rachel has started to look at personality characteristics, to reveal underlying traits informing the way they behave. “The trouble with personality is that it is a mish-mash of things,” she says. “If you look at a cat and think it has a unique personality, the inherent temperamental characteristics are part of that, but on top of that the cat learns all the time.

“When you look at a cat’s behaviour it is a combination of these characteristics and what it has learned about people and other cats, plus how it has learned to cope with its environment.”

Clinicians can best help owners whose cats are developing confused or “multiple motivations” by referring to a qualified, accredited and, most importantly says Rachel, experienced behaviourist. Thankfully, problems can be nipped in the bud at first opinion. “If kittens are anxious, are starting to hiss or play with fingers and jump on feet, giving advice at that point is really valuable because you can prevent problems from getting much more serious.

“Tell owners not to wiggle fingers or feet under the duvet, because they are the kinds of things that start body-directed play behaviours later in life,” she concludes. “They should also tell them to socialise kittens and make sure they have adequate experience of people when they are small. That way they are much less likely to be fearful of people later.”

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