Routine And Enrichment Makes For Healthier Cats

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Published in the January 1, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, an Ohio State University study indicates that maintaining a stable routine and providing an enriched environment not only makes your cat happier, but actually improves its health!

The Study Cats

Funded by grants from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Ohio State's Veterinary Medical Center was housing 32 cats for various research purposes:

  • 12 were healthy cats
  • 20 were cats that were chronically sick with feline interstitial cystitis (IC), an illness characterized by recurring discomfort or pain in the bladder and often both an urgent and frequent need to urinate.
  • The cats were various ages with the oldest cat in the study being 8 years old.

Sickness Behaviors

The plan was to study how the health of the cats might be affected by changes in their care and environment, and to see whether changes had a greater affect on cats with a chronic illness that healthy cats.

The "health" of the cats would be statistically determined by counting "sickness behaviors" for each cat in the study. The three most common sickness behaviors in cats are:

  • Vomiting
  • Urination or defecation outside the litter box
  • Refusing food

These three behaviors accounted for:

  • 88 percent of all sickness behaviors in healthy cats
  • 78 percent of sickness behaviors in the cats with IC.

Control Conditions

The primary caretaker of the colony of cats was Judi Stella, a doctoral candidate in veterinary preventive medicine. Stella spent months setting up a standardized feeding, play and cleaning schedule for all of the cats based on previous work by Tony Buffington about the benefits of environmental enrichment for cats that stay indoors.

Environmental Enrichment

In the study, this included:

  • Routine care and feeding at the same time every morning
  • Keeping food and litter boxes in the same locations
  • Daily cleaning of cages
  • Clean litter boxes
  • Regularly washed bedding
  • Individual boxes to hide in if each cat wanted to
  • Numerous cat toys
  • Playing classical music for at least one hour each day
  • All cats had 60 to 90 minutes cage-free time each afternoon to allow them to interact and play with toys or use climbing and scratching posts.

Results

Once the group of cats had adjusted to their stable, enriched routine, their health was measured by counting the number of "sickness behaviors".

  • The healthy cats, on average, exhibited 0.4 sickness behaviors
  • The cats with IC exhibited 0.7 sickness behaviors
  • Statistically there was virtually no difference between the sickness behaviors of the healthy and the sick cats.
  • The appearance and behavior of the cats with the chronic illness improved over the course of the control time: Their coats were shinier, their eyes were clearer and, perhaps most surprising, none of these cats missed the litter box or vomited for two weeks, despite not receiving and specific medications.

Unusual External Events

In the next phase of the study, lasting 77 weeks, the cats were subjected to a combination of changes called “unusual external events”. The unusual external events included:

  • A change in caretaker personnel including complete cut-off of contact with their longtime, primary care-giver
  • Schedule changes
  • Food removal
  • Restraint
  • Withdrawal of playtime and music
  • A three-hour delay in feeding time

Results

  • Both the healthy cats and the cats with IC were at more than three times the risk of acting sick when their routines were disrupted.
  • those numbers increased to 1.9 sickness behaviors for healthy cats and 2.0 sickness behaviors for cats with interstitial cystitis.
  • Overall, this translated to a 3.2-fold increase in the risk for sickness behaviors by all cats when their routines were disrupted.

Final Conclusions

  • Healthy cats were just as likely to exhibit sickness behaviors as were the chronically ill cats.
  • Healthy cats and chronically ill cats had the same number of sickness behaviors in response to unusual events.
  • By enriching the environment, you can reduce IC cats' symptoms by about 75 or 80%.
  • If a cat is not eating, not using the litter box or is vomiting, the quality of the environment may be a factor that needs to be addressed in coming up with a diagnosis.
  • Older cats had a higher risk for an increase in the total number of sickness behaviors and for an increase in upper gastrointestinal symptoms and avoidance behavior.
  • Sickness behaviors of cats with interstitial cystitis were reduced even though they were not treated with any drugs and were eating commercially available dry food, which suggests these cats do not require drugs or special diets as part of their therapy.

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