July 2021

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, sponsored by Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Supplements. Please note the opinions in this blog are the expressed opinion of the author, and not directly endorsed by VETgirl.

Understanding Anxiety in Cats: Helping Cats Cope with Environmental Change

By Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD, Research Scientist at Nestlé Purina Research, St. Joseph, Missouri

Cats are often regarded as mysterious creatures—independent, individualistic and even aloof. However, if we could better read their behaviors and the subtle cues they often provide, we would realize that these seemingly self-sufficient pets can be quite sensitive and sometimes prone to anxiety. The truth is that feline anxiety is quite common in cats; unfortunately, it is also severely understudied and underreported.

No, cats are not small dogs…
While dogs and cats can both suffer from anxiety, they are wired differently. Dogs are group animals that evolved in close association with humans and, through the selection pressure we put on them, became quite dependent on us. As a result, dogs are quite sensitive to changes in their social dynamic with humans and to changes in the routines we’ve established with them. Because of their social orientation, dogs tend to display how they’re feeling with overt behaviors, whether it’s wagging their tails when interacting with owners, barking when strangers walk past their houses—or tearing up their couches when owners leave.

Cats, in contrast, evolved as solitary hunters that stalked prey from long distances. Their nature is to be highly attuned to even subtle changes in their surroundings. This environmental orientation/sensitivity means that cats can develop anxiety from something as minor as rearranging the furniture to something as major as a move or adding another pet to the household.

…and yes, cats are social
It’s true that cats are more self-sufficient than dogs, thanks to their evolutionary pasts. But it’s erroneous to assume they aren’t social and deeply bonded with their human family members. Cats are also known to absorb human behaviors and can change their own in tandem. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 cat owners that was conducted by Purina, 71% of respondents said they believed their cats were stressed when they were stressed. And because cats are both bonded with their people and independent by nature, they can develop anxiety when separated from their owners or become anxious when their owners are around them too much.

Feline anxiety has many facets
Manifestations of anxiety in cats can range from chronic stress responses to full-blown panic attacks. Anxious behaviors, however, are not always recognized as such. In the Purina cat-owner survey, 78% of respondents regularly noted at least one anxious behavior in their cats, but only half of these owners recognized the behaviors as being anxious in nature.

The signs of feline anxiety can be subtle and easily missed—or disruptive enough to lead to relinquishment. Examples include:

Changes in posture, such as lowered stance, pulling ears back or pulling whiskers together instead of fanning them out
Reluctance to eat and drink
Excessive overgrooming, to the point of pulling out fur
Hiding, retreating and lack of social interaction, sometimes manifested as aggression if a cat feels cornered or unable to escape from a stressful situation
Extreme vigilance or unrest, usually exhibited through excessive pacing and meowing
Destructive behavior, such as shredding curtains or clawing furniture
House soiling when the cat has been reliably using the litter box

Because stress has a dampening effect on the immune system, anxiety can also lead to illness. Anxious cats are more susceptible to conditions such as upper respiratory infections and GI issues such as vomiting and diarrhea.

Go to the gut for answers
Not only can the GI tract be affected as a result of feline anxiety, but the gut also has a direct line to the brain via the gut-brain axis. This connection has been researched in several species, including humans and animals, as scientists strive to find new therapies to relieve the signs of anxiety. A recent study conducted at the Colorado State University (CSU) College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences investigated the potential to target the gut-brain axis in cats via the probiotic Bifidobacterium longum BL 999, which has been shown in dogs to help maintain calm behavior.

The CSU study was conducted over a 12-week period using cats with chronic subclinical feline herpesvirus 1 (FHV1). This model was selected because it is a common infection associated with clinical disease that is exacerbated by stress. A total of 24 cats were divided into placebo and BL999 groups that received either a daily placebo or probiotic supplement. For the first six weeks of the study, the cats were housed by supplement type in two separate group housing rooms with similar enrichment. During the second six weeks, the cats were moved back and forth at two-week intervals from group housing to individual housing to induce mild stress.

The study determined that the cats supplemented with BL999 experienced positive behavior and health changes that were statistically significant compared to control animals. The specific benefits were:

Behavioral changes: During the times cats were housed individually, those supplemented with BL999 were significantly more likely to reach out to the scorers through the enclosure and significantly less likely to pace.
Biochemical changes: During the stress periods, the cats supplemented with BL999 were significantly less likely to have abnormal serum cortisol concentrations.
Clinical changes: During the stress periods, the cats supplemented with BL999 were significantly less likely to exhibit sneezing associated with reactivated FHV-1.

Anxiety is a condition that is common to humans and animals, even though the anxious behaviors can manifest in different ways. As we learn more about the stressors that trigger anxiety in cats and the ways in which the gut and brain communicate, the hope is to discover new ways to help our feline friends.

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