October 2022

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog sponsored by Royal Canin, Dr. Chris Pachel, DACVB, CABC reviews environmental changes for cat owners that can help improve our feline patients health! We may never think about stress in our feline patients, but it is essential. Learn what common environmental stressors exist for cats.

Please note the opinions in this blog are the expressed opinion of the author and not directly endorsed by VETgirl.

Environmental Changes for Cat Owners: Decoding Signs of Urinary Issues

By Dr. Chris Pachel, DACVB, CABC

We may never think about stress in our feline patients, but it is essential. As a veterinary professional and cat owner, do you know what common environmental stressors are for cats?

Identifying sources of stress:
It often feels like we don’t have time in the exam room to talk about behavioral issues, and as a result, we may not be aware of the stress that our feline patients are experiencing. It may be helpful to pause and think about how cats interact in nature in comparison to a domestic environment. Things like kids, dogs, multi-cat households, or people may be social stressors. Environmental stressors may include narrow hallways and doorways, physical constraints, or limited access to important resources such as food, water, or elimination locations.

Why is stress important to manage?
The presence of stressors requires cats to respond, to maintain their physical and emotional safety. When these stressors are present over time, we see a shift from acute to chronic stress, with signs of inflammation and the potential for abnormalities in multiple body systems including the skin or gut, but especially within the lower urinary tract. When cats experience lower urinary tract inflammation, one of the concerns, especially for male cats, is the risk of obstruction. In addition, inflammation may cause discomfort, irritability, and increased frequency of urination. If even partial obstruction occurs, immediate life-saving interventions may be needed.

What are signs of stress in cats?
Pet owners could see behaviors like hiding or changes in social interaction. A cat might be described as irritable or cranky, or any number of labels that pet owners might put on their behavior. Owners may also see an increase in scratching or other behaviors as a manifestation of stress. There may be tension between cats in a household, or owners may see changes in sleep-wake patterns where the cats are less likely to relax and sleep throughout periods of daytime activity, and then chooses to be active when they feel less vulnerable or stressed in that environment. These are changes that pet owners might notice, even if they’re not sure exactly what the behaviors mean. By asking questions during the history and physical exam about new or different behaviors, we will be able to identify potential factors linked to stress and urinary tract inflammation.

stressed cat

When it comes to lower urinary tract signs (FLUTD and FIC), pet owners tend to focus on specific warning signs, but overlook others thinking they are normal. Clients should be monitoring for any deviation in the frequency and volume of urination, or for any body language or vocalization changes associated with urination. Cats may approach the box and then move away without eliminating, or step in and paw the litter, but then walk away without posturing. Some of the more obvious changes, like evidence of hematuria or any changes in odor or coloration, are signs all cat owners should be looking for. Every cat is unique and may show different signs, so it helps to stay vigilant.

What are common causes of stress in cats?
When living in a natural environment, colony life allows cats to move about freely. They can control their social distance from one another, and they can control their access to resources based on where they chose to live. Those options are less available to domestic cats when living within our walls and doors with restricted movement and reduced access to natural environments. It becomes easy to understand that limited actual or perceived availability of resources like food, water, safe resting places, and access to toileting locations can create stress. And this is before we even get to some of the social tension that may exist within these households! When cats who may not have a perfectly jelled relationship need to interact with one another, the impact of stress is even more profound.

Cats naturally engage in a hunting sequence many times per day, and food acquisition and eating are very interactive processes for them. When we feed cats in a bowl twice a day, this doesn’t provide an outlet for natural expression of behaviors and this can cause stress. We need to make sure we are not only providing nutrition but are meeting their social and physical needs by asking about meal frequency and the way in which food is provided. These questions provide us with a bit more insight into ways that we add some dimension to their enrichment schedule on a daily basis!

How do we troubleshoot these issues?
A cat tensing up in the presence of another, avoiding other cats in the household, or seeing one exiting locations or hiding in response to being approached by a housemate can be indications of stress, no matter how benign the interactions appear. This makes it necessary for us veterinary professionals to examine these situations by asking questions and exploring further.

Perhaps most importantly, cats benefit from the perception of plentiful resources such as food, not necessarily by feeding them more food but rather by distributing their food to locations throughout the home. This creates foraging opportunities and mimics a natural feeding routine with small frequent meals throughout the day. We can counsel owners to increase the availability of sleeping places by providing single cat-sized elevated perches or by putting a blanket over an end table to give a safe hideaway for a stressed cat to seek out a space of their own. We need to look at the unique needs of each cat and never presume we are sure of their preferences until offering some resource suggestions. From there, help clients observe their cat’s body language and demeanor. If they see positive changes, fantastic! They now know that these resources or environmental changes mattered to this cat. That will then allow them to incorporate that into their routine ongoing.

When it comes to the riskier obstructions, we do know that males are at an increased risk of blockage. However, never rule out the impact for others thinking, “you’re a young healthy female cat; therefore, I don’t need to worry about the impact of stress on urinary health.” Every cat deserves our consideration.

We also need to remember that the urinary tract is part of the whole animal, and we can see changes in other systems too. Questions about other health changes (occurrences of vomiting, stool consistency, defecation frequency, elimination location choices, etc.) should also be asked as these can be associated with elevated levels of stress.

Questions like, “How does your cat get along with other cats in the home?”, or asking if they are seeing anything “concerning” assumes a level of understanding of cat behavior that owners may not have. Asking owners to describe interactions (rather than asking for their interpretations) can allow veterinarians to identify the presence of stress more objectively.

How do we decipher medical vs. behavioral problems?
It can be quite challenging to decipher medical vs. behavior problems, especially if we are thinking of this as an “either/or” scenario when it may actually be an “and” situation. We should be looking simultaneously at both pathways and looking for relationships between them. We need to ask:
• How might the emotional well-being of this cat be impacting their behavior?
• How might this be related to how the cat is manifesting their stress?
• What are the stressors that require our attention?

How can owners mitigate stress in their households?
How and what we feed is very important. We should be thinking about the delivery of food as well as the nutrients and additional ingredients to maximize the benefits these cats see from their meals.

Are they feeding canned or dry? The moisture content of food can impact urinary tract function; canned food may be an important addition if not already part of the meal plan. Proactive use of diets that are formulated to support urinary health, that contain nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties, and that include functional nutrients to help cats cope with stressful environments can all be helpful strategies to consider. For example, the Royal Canin Urinary SO® + Calm diets include tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, which has an impact on emotional health. The Royal Canin Urinary Calm and Royal Canin Multifunction Urinary SO® + Calm diets also include a milk protein called alpha-casozepine, which impacts GABA receptors within the brain. GABA is an anxiolytic neurotransmitter, and nutritional support of GABA function can help cats cope with stressful situations.

Using pheromones may be another way of supporting stressed cats. These chemical messengers are given off by one member of a species, impacting the behavior or emotional well-being of another of the same species. Pheromones have an almost immediate effect on animals who are responders, and our ability to use synthetic analogs of pheromones to positively impact behavior can be beneficial for cats. Pheromone diffusers can be used for cats where we have already identified manifestations of stress, such as for cats who are urine marking, where there is tension between cats in the household, or for cats who are exhibiting hiding behaviors. Pheromones can also be used proactively during times of stress, such as when adding a new baby, cat, puppy, or spouse, or when kids are coming back from college, or whenever we anticipate experiences that are new, different, potentially threatening, or stressful. In these situations, pheromones preemptively provide support for the cat even before stress is a factor.

What are other suggestions for multi-cat households?
When you see cats in multi-cat households with recurrent urinary tract issues or other chronic conditions, dig a bit deeper to understand their living situation and identify opportunities for improvement.

• Do not assume that because you’re not seeing injuries, abscesses, or fighting/conflicts that the cats enjoy one another’s company.
• Get to know the more subtle signs of stress and recognize when those signs are significant to physical health.
• Emphasize the importance of resource availability by maximizing the availability of food, water, litter boxes, 3-dimensional spaces, safe resting locations, and toys.

Our goal for domestic cats is not only to identify stress, but to understand and meet, or even exceed, their needs.

Today’s VETgirl blog is sponsored by Royal Canin. Recommend Royal Canin Multifunction Urinary SO® + Calm complete and balanced adult cat food to help support a healthy urinary tract while providing calming nutrients for cats facing stress. Learn more at my.royalcanin.com.

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