Chris Kouwenhoven

Treating the stressed-out cat

If your cat shows persistent or significant behavior changes, take the cat to the veterinarian. Illness may be the stressor that is producing the behavior changes and it should be ruled out first. If the cat has a clean bill of health, then it is up to the owner to determine what may be stressing the cat. If the stressor can be removed, the solution is simple. For example, if the stressor is the neighbor's cat who likes to sit outside the window, the shades can be pulled during the time of day that the cat is most likely to appear or maybe the neighbor can be convinced to keep his cat inside. Other stressors, such as a change in the owner's work schedule or the daughter's sudden absence from the home when she leaves for college, can often be compensated for by giving the cat more attention when the owner is home. Gentle grooming or massage combined with an interactive play session a couple times a day has solved many stress-related behavior problems.

Cats find consistent routines and predictable environments very comforting, so try to keep your cat's activities on a schedule. Playtimes, mealtimes, and bedtimes should occur at approximately the same time every day. If the household is unusually chaotic due to visitors, the holidays, or a planned move, the cat should be given a room where he can feel safe and secure and where he will have all his necessities (food, water, litterbox, favorite toys, a sunny window, etc.) until the hubbub is over. Remember that cats find familiar scents--their own or their favorite person's--very reassuring, so put some of your worn, but not washed, clothes in the cat's room. (Feliway, an environmental spray that can be purchased from your vet, has been proven to have a calming effect on cats when sprayed on objects in the room. When used according to the directions, it is also effective in solving territorial spraying problems.)

When you talk to a stressed cat, use a slightly higher than normal pitch to your voice and speak very softly. Deep voices create fear and loud voices can be grating on the cat's sensitive ears. You can "stroke" your cat with your voice and this can have a wonderfully soothing and healing effect on your pet.

If the stressor cannot be removed from the cat's environment, for example, when the source of the cat's anxiety is the new baby, stress can also be reduced or eliminated by systematic desensitization and counterconditiong. (See our article "Bringing Home Baby"). Desensitization, according to the Manual of Feline Behaviour by Valerie O'Farrell and Peter Neville..."involves exposing the animal only to versions of the feared stimulus which are so mild that little or no anxiety is provoked. The intensity of the stimulus is then increased in gradual stages until, finally, the level of the stimulus which originally provoked the phobic reaction can be presented without inducing massive anxiety. This process of desensitization is helped if the cat's background anxiety level is as low as possible when the anxiety provoking stimulus is presented. This is best achieved by first relaxing and distracting the cat through feeding or petting or, if other methods fail, by means of anxiety-! reducing drugs." (If drugs are used, select anxiety-reducing drugs that are not sedatives and which will not result in harmful side-effects with prolonged use.)

Counterconditioning helps to speed up the habituation process. By rewarding the cat with food and attention as you expose him to the feared stimulus, you countercondition his response. Through this process, the cat learns to associate a pleasurable experience (food and attention) with the object he fears. To illustrate this method of desensitization and counterconditioning in the case of a baby, the scent of the baby can be introduced to the cat by putting baby blankets in the cat's sleeping areas. Then tapes of the baby crying can be played (at low levels at first) while the cat is eating something delicious. Finally, when the baby is in the room with the cat, Kitty should be petted, played with, and given food rewards.

Whether the anxiety-producing stimulus is a baby, another cat, or the vacuum cleaner, this gradual and systematic process will reduce, and eventually, eliminate, the cat's anxiety. Instead of a pet that is hissing, hiding, and possibly soiling the house, your efforts will be rewarded with a confident, friendly, and relaxed member of the family.

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