Cats Get Sick When Routine Changes

Healthy cats can develop sick behaviors, such as refusing food and vomiting, when there is a change in their routine.

Cats are creatures of habit, and changing routines could make them ill. What's more, the condition of cats suffering from interstital cystitis may even improve after caretakers establish a routine.

Ohio State University researchers found that both healthy and chronically ill cats showed more signs of illness, like vomiting, coughing up hairballs, and defecating outside the litter box, after disruptions in their daily routines, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Both sick and well cats showed over a three percent increase in sickness behaviors after changes in routine, like late feeding, or disturbances, such as being put in restraints or not allowed their usual play time.

The results were nearly the same for both groups of cats which seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn't the sick cats get sicker? The possible answer to that question makes this research particularly important for pet owners.

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"For veterinary clinicians, when you have a cat that's not eating, is not using the litter box or has stuff coming up out of its mouth, the quality of the environment is another cause that needs to be addressed in coming up with a diagnosis," said senior author of the paper, Tony Buffington, in a press release.

The inspiration for this research came from the observation of a doctoral student caring for a herd of cats. Judi Stella, lead author of the paper, was caring for a group of 20 cats suffering from cystitis/DS00497">interstitial cystitis (IC) along with 12 healthy cats.

The sick cats had been given to Ohio State's Veterinary Medical Center by owners who couldn't deal with the cats interstitial cystitis problems. Stella was trying to find a way to use them to study chronic illness. If she couldn't find a use, the cats may have faced euthanasia.

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While she evaluated the cat's suitability for study, Stella developed a low-stress feeding, cleaning and play routine for the cats based on Buffington's earlier research. After setting up a routine Stella noticed the sick cats weren't so sick.

To test her observations, she set up experiments in which both cats with IC and healthy cats were kept under the same conditions and with the same routine. When the routine was changed, both cats showed signs of illness.

During routine weeks, the healthy cats, on average, exhibited 0.4 sickness behaviors and the cats with IC exhibited 0.7 sickness behaviors. But during weeks containing breaks in normality, those numbers increased to 1.9 sickness behaviors for healthy cats and 2.0 sickness behaviors for cats with interstitial cystitis.

The treatment of IC by establishing a routine could reduce the suffering of pets and their owners, since there is no good drug treatment for the disease, which occurs in both cats and humans, said Buffington.

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Interstitial cystitis is a painful condition involving inflammation of the tissues of the bladder wall. The result is frequent and urgent urination, accompanied by pain, as well as a general pelvic pain.

"What we found, in other clinical studies and with this study, is that by enriching the environment, you can reduce IC cats' symptom burden by about 75 or 80 percent," Buffington said.

"A healthy cat - or any healthy mammal - can feel the stress of environmental disruption and exhibit sickness behaviors as a result," Buffington said.

A concerned cat owner may find some tips in the routine followed by Stella. Her routine included care and feeding at the same time every morning. In the cages, the food and litter boxes were placed in consistent locations and kept clean.

Stella also provided hiding boxes and numerous commercial cat toys. The cages were cleaned daily and the bedding washed regularly. The cats even got classical music for one to two hours each day.

Also, all the cats were released from their cages for 60 to 90 minutes each afternoon to allow them to interact with each other and play with toys or use climbing and scratching posts.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons