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A gentle kind of cat care

Reducing anxiety, frustration, and URI in shelter cats

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2012

Cats are invariably stressed out when they enter a shelter because they can’t escape or hide, and don’t know what’s going to happen next. Gentling techniques can help ease their anxiety, which improves their physical health as well. Happy cats (like this one with volunteer Heather Koos in the colony room at the Tri-County Animal Shelter in southern Maryland) have a stronger resistance to the URI-causing pathogens found in all shelters. Cat lovers already know that cats love to have their faces touched. A gentling intervention developed by researcher Nadine Gourkow eases anxiety in shelter cats by using circular movements around the head and chin. Anxious cat Frustrated cat Content cat

Until somewhat recently, most shelters worked to prevent upper respiratory infection (URI ) by focusing on reducing crowding, effective disinfection, adequate ventilation, and vaccination. However, it’s now recognized that stress is almost always the most important factor affecting URI’s development, severity, and outcome. Hence, efforts to reduce emotional stress should begin as soon as a cat enters the shelter.

Nadine Gourkow has been looking at emotional stress in cats for years. Her master’s degree in animal science compared the effect of various types of housing on stress, time to adoption, and rate of sickness in cats at the British Columbia SPCA in Vancouver, Canada. Based on her research and further studies at the SPCA, she developed the CatSense system and a program to train staff to implement it at the SPCA’s 36 shelters. The system included the Hide, Perch & Go box and The Emotional Life of Cats video.

In 2007, Gourkow began her doctoral research at the SPCA to examine the relationship between emotions, immune competence, and feline URI. Her findings, she hopes, will help develop sciencebased shelter practices that further increase emotional well-being in cats and reduce URI.

Proper disinfection will always be important in shelters. But “we can tell people to wash their hands and attempt to disinfect everything as much as possible, but the reality is that shelters are filled with pathogens that cause URI,” says Gourkow. “So, since we can’t manage that very well, then the other option is to increase the cat’s resistance to those [pathogens] , and the way that you do that is by making them happy.”

But how can a cat’s emotional state be assessed?

Starting at the Beginning

It starts with understanding that cats coming into a shelter are, almost without exception, stressed out and anxious.

People often think of anxiety as being inherently negative, but Gourkow explains that it’s useful in the natural world. “It’s a state of uncertainty, not knowing what’s going to happen next, that’s meant to assess a situation to find out if there’s impending danger,” she says. “But when cats are in the shelter, they can’t figure out what’s going on, and anxiety can last for days. They can’t get out, and they can’t hide. It’s a very scary state to be in, and usually it should last just a few minutes.”

Gourkow suggests imagining how such stretches of anxiety would play out in our own world. “Imagine that you’re in your home and you think there’s somebody there and you have to listen carefully to every sound to figure out if you’re in danger. If you think you’re in danger and there’s no way out and nowhere to hide—you can’t go under your bed, there’s no closet to go into—it’s terribly frightening, awful, and, for me, the thought that cats could live in that state for more than 10 minutes was just almost unbearable,” she says.

Cats, of course, cannot speak up and tell people that they’re freaked out. And while there are some feline behaviors that clearly exhibit their stress, there’s also biochemistry.

During her doctoral research, 40 healthy cats helped Gourkow construct and validate the first-ever scale to assess emotional states in cats using physiological measurements of stress and immunity. The scale now has 24 behaviors that she’s validated as statistically representing two negative emotions, anxiety and frustration, and one positive emotion, contentment.

Gourkow’s immune measure was Immunoglobulin A (IgA), the antibody that protects cats from environmental pathogens. The amount of IgA, the main antibody secreted in mucous, is mediated in part by emotional states. “IgA acts like a glue to prevent pathogens that cause URI from crossing over into the body,” says Gourkow, “and because 80 percent of cats’ IgA-producing cells are in their intestinal tract, measuring [IgA in] their feces was perfect.” Measuring and analyzing IgA on every stool, Gourkow found high IgA in content cats and very low IgA in anxious and frustrated cats.

Cats at the SPCA were mouth swabbed on intake, then again on day 4 and day 10, for the five common pathogens causing URI: feline herpesvirus 1, bordetella bronchiseptica, mycoplasma felis, feline calcivirus, and chlamydophilia felis.

“We now know that content cats have higher IgA, which protects them from environmental pathogens,” says Gourkow. “So I thought, is there a way to take these cats that are anxious and frustrated, and change what the scientists call ‘the emotional valence’ from negative to positive?”

That led to the second s tudy of Gourkow’s Ph.D. research, in which she examined the effect of gentling and mental stimulation on emotions, mucosal immune system, and health. It’s the first study that looks at the relationship between behavior and IgA in cats, examining the effectiveness of behavioral interventions to induce contentment and increase immune functioning in shelter cats.

Gentle on their Minds

Behavioral interventions such as gentling have been developed for many animals. Gourkow’s gentling technique allows a cat to control the amount of hand and tool contact he desires, and having control is of utmost importance for anxious cats. Gourkow’s gentling intervention involves touching a cat, using circular movements around the head and chin only. “I used a gentling tool for cats that were too aggressive to touch by hand,” Gourkow explains. “Both gentling approaches [hand and tool] mimicked allogrooming, for example, grooming by another cat, especially mom. The idea was to see if the intervention received during the first five days would prevent disease later on.”

Gourkow’s gentling technique gives the cat the opportunity to experience a series of short encounters with positive outcomes. “The goal was to change the cat’s mind about impending danger, and for the cat to feel that, ‘This is a safe place, these are safe people.’ And then the gentling, touching part was really for them to experience physical pleasure, because that sets off different hormones in the body that are actually calming and reduce anxiety,” says Gourkow. “This is the beautiful thing—the mucosal immune system is mediated in part by the psychological state.”

It took several sessions before Gourkow was able to touch some cats, but she was amazed by how quickly and easily even they turned around. Although cats didn’t improve 100 percent—some still stayed at the back of the cage and were frightened when anybody else came in—many showed improvement in about three days. The cats who took longer were usually aggressive. For those cats, Gourkow used a mechanical gentling tool, which not only increased their IgA but helped greatly in reducing their aggression.

“Preliminary results show great improvement in emotional states and a reduction in incidence of URI in cats receiving mental stimulation and gentling treatments, particularly anxious cats,” says Gourkow.

Although cats who have been gentled may still get URI, “it’s easier on them because they continue to eat, and they’re easier to manage,” Gourkow notes. Even in shelters that are treating URI, if the cats are difficult to manage and medicate, they often get euthanized, she adds.

Gourkow wants shelters to understand that this program shouldn’t be an afterthought. “Changing emotional states, making cats content with shelter life with such simple techniques, has a great potential [for] saving many lives,” she says. “The mind/body connection is a beautiful thing. A happy cat is a healthy cat.”


About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.