01/25/2012 01:18 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Stress Busters for Kitties

I talk a lot about feline stress because kitties are at special risk for illness and emotional and behavioral difficulties as a result of living a stressful existence.

The Stress Response

Stressful situations provoke a fight-or-flight response in all animals, including felines.

When ongoing, chronic stress is present, the fight-or-flight switch stays in the "on" position, which eventually throws all body systems out of balance.

What happens during a stressful event is that glucose is released from sites throughout the body, and blood carrying glucose and oxygen is diverted toward organs used during physical exertion like the heart, skeletal muscles and brain.

If this cycle occurs so often there is a constant release of glucose and chronic overworking of fight-or-flight organs, it's easy to predict the result.

Systemic inflammation is a result of chronic stress. A body that remains in a constant state of arousal, ready to fight or take flight at all times, will experience declining function and/or disease in some or all important systems including digestive and urinary, immunologic, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular.

The same power a body possesses to fight or flee under stress, when given no outlet, will wear that body down and ultimately cause death. Thus the expression "stress kills."

Kitty Stressors

The same kinds of stressors that affect you can affect your cat, including:

  • Noisy environments
  • Aggression among members of the household, including pets
  • Poor-quality diet
  • Competing with other pets at mealtime
  • Social isolation

Since your cat can experience one or several of these stressors on a daily basis, it's important to have some tools at your disposal to help kitty cope and relax.

Sensory Stress Reduction

Give some thought to how your cat experiences her living situation through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

  • Reducing visual stress. Your kitty appreciates variety in the lighting in his environment. Sometimes he wants to sit in the sunshine. Other times he prefers a dark spot to nap or hide out in.

    Build variety into the lighting your cat is exposed to with items like boxes, play tunnels, perches in different spots, closet shelving -- even an empty cabinet he can safely access.

    Boredom causes stress, so you might also want to consider kitty videos or a window perch for your cat to relax on.

  • Reducing auditory stress. According to Dr. Narda Robinson, writing for Veterinary Practice News, a study published in 2011 concludes: "Expanding experimental evidence indicates that music modulates both cardiac and neurologic function, squelching stress through both biochemical and neuromodulatory means."

    Slow classical music seems to relax most animals. By contrast, loud music, the noise of much of today's TV programming and arguments among humans in the home elevate stress levels and promote a systemic inflammatory response.

  • Reducing olfactory stress. Some smells that can cause stress for your feline include cigarette smoke, chemical cleaning products, cologne, air fresheners and scented candles.

    Kitties respond well to certain aromas, including fresh air, catnip, lavender, chamomile flowers, valerian root and pheromones. Experiment with a variety of these scents and see which ones your cat seems to like. If you discover she has a particular favorite, consider safely adding the scent to an area of your home your kitty hangs out in.

  • Reducing diet-related stress. Feeding a diet specifically designed for your carnivorous cat is the best way to prevent nutritionally-related stress. Species-appropriate nutrition will include a diet rich in animal protein and moisture. Older kitties often need even higher levels of protein than youngsters to prevent a decline in lean body mass as they age.

    Keeping up with your cat's dental health is also very important in preventing diet-related stress, as is hairball control.

    Insuring your cat gets some exercise will help with GI motility, as will regular massages.

  • Reducing somatic stress. Speaking of kitty massage, it is also a good way to reduce all kinds of stress-related symptoms like anxiety, pain and depression.

    Petting, cuddling and brushing your cat, as long as he's willing, will not only reduce his stress level but will strengthen the bond you share with your pet. If your cat doesn't like to be touched at all, especially if this is a recent development, I recommend you have him examined by your vet to rule out any painful condition that could be causing his refusal to be stroked or held.

    Acupuncture and chiropractic can also relieve stress and support healthy immune function.

Cats living in stressful situations develop chronic illnesses and behavior problems that can make living with them a challenge. That's why for the love of your favorite feline, it's important to set her up for success in an environment that is enriched and as stress-free as possible.

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Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at:

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.