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OSU study says cats deal with stress like humans

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Cat owners and lovers, an OSU study says that a stable environment and daily routine are essential to keep cats healthy.

Tony Buffington, an OSU professor of veterinary clinical sciences and Judi Stella, a second-year doctoral candidate in veterinary preventative medicine, conducted a study that was published in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association on Jan. 1, which confirmed cats become sick due to unexpected changes in their environment.

Changes in a feline environment include altering feeding schedules and play times, substituting the animal’s caretaker, spontaneously cleaning out the litter box and changing other daily routines. Cats become stressed from such changes, which cause them to exhibit behaviors of illness such as vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss and a decrease in appetite.

Stella’s work aims at optimizing environments in animal shelters to make animals healthier and adopted faster. In 2006, she became the caretaker of a colony of 12 healthy and 20 unhealthy cats diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a feline bladder illness.

Over the course of a year, Stella created a daily routine and “enriched environment” that pleased the colony. In doing so, she experimented with the height of the cat’s cages and what laundry detergents the cats preferred for their bedding. She discovered cats wanted mats on hard floors, and that cats liked to listen to “Vivaldi’s classical music most,” Stella said.

The unhealthy cats’ IC went away, and they acted and looked healthier when given a stable routine, Stella said.

Buffington and Stella accidentally found their topic of study when Stella went on vacation. Both the unhealthy and healthy cats became sick again with vomiting, diarrhea and a decrease in appetite, Stella said.

Upon Stella’s return, the duo conducted a 77-week study to observe the behavior of the colony and their reactions to unexpected environmental change.

Stella experimented with feeding the colony three hours late and found they stopped eating. She also observed their behavior when the cage cleaner was absent on vacation.

Buffington and Stella concluded the colony became sick from the change in caretakers during Stella’s absence and from changes in their environment they perceive as stressful.

“These sickness behaviors are common in every mammalian species I’m aware of, even humans when they are stressed before finals. It is easy for students to understand,” Buffington said.

MacKenzie Mcnanee, office staff at Care Pet Clinic at 785 E. Main St., said most animals appear stressed and sick when visiting the clinic.

“It’s definitely because of the stress and anxiety of being in a car and being around other animals,” she said.

Dogs and cats act the same in the clinic, Mcnanee said, but “ferrets have no issues.”

Buffington said it is not likely for the sickness behaviors due to environmental change to lead to other sicknesses, but “everything is possible.”

New toys, food and music should be introduced to animals over a week’s period because sometimes it takes that long to interact with them, Stella said.

New food should be introduced to the animal beside their old food, Buffington said, so they can choose and show which they prefer.

Stella said pet owners should allow a familiar person to take care of pets and stick to a specific schedule when they go out of town.

“Pet owners should establish a routine and create an enriched environment for their pets tomorrow,” Buffington said. “It’s a good preventative medicine.”  

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