Physical health in cats has been a very commonly reviewed topic. But it also sparks discussions regarding feline mental health. Since mental health research in pets focuses typically on dogs, it is essential to review the existing studies related to cats. Moreover, the almost insignificant amount of data pertaining to feline mental health is why this topic needs to be researched more thoroughly and attentively. The paper’s primary objective is to discuss feline mental health based on separation anxiety, behavioral categories, significant symptoms, risk factors, and implications. Also, the paper seeks to give direction for future research studies or where the focus should be on feline mental health.
Separation Anxiety and Schwartz’s Four Behavioral Categories
Nowadays, cats are among the most popular domestic animals that are seen as companions for many individuals and some believe that cats do not require much attention. Even though there is a significant range in how friendly cats might be towards people, there is universal agreement that these domesticated animals are not as lonely as their feral ancestors. These discrepancies are most likely the result of both hereditary factors and the extent of human interaction during the tense period (Eriksson, 2017). Moreover, research shows that when domestic cats are inside, they have more interaction with humans than animals that prefer to be outside (Eriksson, 2017). This is thought to be due to a stronger desire for house animals to find alternative kinds of excitement in the usually reasonably consistent home setting. Furthermore, because cats generally sleep for 16–18 hours each day, domestic cats may adjust their busy time to household activities (Eriksson, 2017). Before being raised, well-being issues have often been connected to animals’ interactions with other cats, including forced coexistence with new and unrelated cats or compulsory closeness to neighboring cats, but their socialization with people (or lack thereof) has received less attention.
Eriksson illuminates other research that discovered temporal variations in relationships between cats and owners. The study indicated that these animals are essential social companions for many people and that, in turn, humans appear to be valuable for many domestic cats (Eriksson, 2017). In this sense, the data extracted from the research indicates that patterns of social interaction differ according to several critical criteria involving animal or human personality, which are assumed to impact relationship quality. Nevertheless, the cat-owner connection has been proven to be equally useful and helpful to both sides (Eriksson, 2017). This also includes ongoing negotiations of needs, as observed in group-living mammals.
However, a series of studies on cat anxiety discovered one more sign of the significance of humans to domestic cats. The analysis revealed that some cats experienced anxiety, which was demonstrated through inappropriate urination and defecation, increased vocalization, destructive behavior, and excessive grooming when the owner was not around. In several countries, including the U.S., Japan, and the U.K, domestic animal behavioral issues even became one of the leading reasons for abandonment. Cats are typically abandoned when they demonstrate troublesome behavior, including such tendencies as aggression toward household members, other individuals, and animals, inappropriate defecation, and harmful activity conducted by the animal in the house (de Souza Machado, 2020). Scratching, mounting higher areas, excessive nighttime activity, attention-seeking, plant-eating, attempting to escape from the house, and are among more examples of undesirable yet normal cat behaviors.
As a result, one of the most common issues that negatively affect a cat’s mental health is separation anxiety. This is caused by psychological reactions caused by a bond between the two sides. It is assumed that cats are not bothered by their owner’s long-term absence (whether it is a vacation or staying in a hospital). However, a number of studies have stated that this belief is inaccurate (de Souza et al., 2020).
Generally, small animal-caretaker bonding is an important social development among many species, including cats. The absence of a cat’s owner results in an “insecure base,” which accelerates stress levels. According to Behnke et al. (2021), the long-term absence of the cat’s owner deteriorates the secure base effect (SBE), which reduces vocalization or interferes with functional proxy hence heightened anxiety. SBE’s primary purpose is to reduce anxiety and boost the cat’s affiliative and exploratory behaviors, especially in stressful situations.
Research has further clarified how separation may affect feline mental health. An altered version of the Ainsworth test was used for the action. It was discovered that cats were more active and less anxious in the presence of their owner (de Souza et al., 2020). Being alone or accompanied by a stranger caused the opposite reaction. This further validates future studies of separation-related problems in cats.
Cat-caretaker separation is a stressor that influences the functioning of a cat’s central threat response system (CTRS). The severe stress level in cats alters CTRS’s components, including the hypothalamus and some brain structures responsible for the modulation of CTRS’s activities (Buffington & Bain, 2020). The problem affects the cat’s cognitive functioning by altering operant conditioning and attention bias. Separation anxiety also interferes with cats’ expectations and capacity to cope or deal with potentially stressful events.
Another research provided by the Juiz de Fora University has also reviewed said issues in cats. For the study, participants consented to respond to a questionnaire. The first part of the following questionnaire requested basic information (de Souza et al. 2020). The second part reviewed the cats’ behavior during the owners’ absence or visual separation; Schwartz’s four behavioral categories defined separation-related problems, including three additional ones.
The results have presented more specific details regarding separation-related problems in cats. It has been discovered that most of the cats with this issue have demonstrated two or more behaviors related to this condition (de Souza et al., 2020). Fifty percent of the cats matched criteria I and II, and less than one-fifth met all three. This has specified the frequency of this severe issue in domestic cats.
Ainsworth test indicated that unaccompanied owners or caretakers display inactive behaviors and slowed alertness frequency (de Souza Machado et al., 2020). For instance, some cats become unstable and show abnormal psychological reactions. Behavioral problems caused by cat-owner separation explain why abandonment-related cases are expected in U.S., U.K., and Japan. In developed countries, most pet owners are working-class and hence can take time to interact with their pet cats. The same group does not tolerate cats’ destructive behavior or aggressiveness.
Signs of Separation Anxiety and Risk Factors for Feline Mental Health
The research revealed that depression was the most commonly reported sign caused by separation from the owner. The other symptoms were: vocalization, anxiety and agitation, and inappropriate urination. In the cats in the separation anxiety group, the frequency of all of the symptoms was higher than in non-SRP cats (de Souza et al., 2020). However, the general population has been reported to demonstrate destructive behavior as the most common sign. According to de Souza Machado et al. (2020), separation causes cats to become attention seekers or clingy. In other words, cats experiencing separation anxiety can do anything or associate with anyone to remain comfortable. Owners believe that comfort and attention-seeking, and clinginess are cats’ reactions when “lonely,” and the behavior can be conditioned. Cats are sensitive to social reinforcement; hence can prepare their attention-seeking behaviors to suit their desired needs.
Pain and physical health problems can also be a contributor to a cat’s poor mental state. Thus, cats have been known to demonstrate very problematic behavior (Mills et al., 2020). Since owners of some cats tend to be surprised by said traits, it can be implied that physical disorders may negatively affect the animals’ mental health as well. This explains why vets can use unusual behavior (such as aggression) to review a pet’s condition.
Cats involved in “house-soiling” due to separation anxiety experience unexplained painful micturition. The problem results in bruised legs and weak claws in cats. Anxiety separation is detrimental to cats and can result in multiple severe injuries. According to Mills et al. (2020), house-soiling among cats can also cause interstitial cystitis associated with unbearable pain. Besides, the physical health problems are some of the reasons cats escape from homes or ignore their caretakers.
As the popularity of cats as domestic animals grows in terms of environmental characteristics, the necessity for improved management techniques and responsible ownership becomes a priority. Proper cat ownership entails methods that safeguard the cats from harm and behavioral issues, thus improving their well-being (de Souza Machado, 2020). In the research conducted by de Souza Machado (2020), cats identified by their owners as having separation-related problems were closely linked with having no access to toys or the entire house. Moreover, these cats were refused access to interact with other household animals and had no access to the outdoors. Lastly, it was found that cats with separation-related problems were left alone 5 to 7 times per week and for 2 to 6 hours daily (de Souza Machado, 2020). Therefore, it can be concluded the domestic cats in the study lacked certain conditions that they require to remain physically and psychologically healthy.
The restricted surroundings of most houses do not frequently suit the inquisitive instincts of cats since they do not supply the stimulation that the cat could experience outdoors, making the environment dull and predictable. Therefore, environmental stimulation aids enclosed cats by reducing stress-induced by confinement, increasing exploration activity, and many other uses of the area (de Souza Machado, 2020). In the overall population of feline representatives, 12.56 percent of the animals did not have access to toys (de Souza Machado, 2020). Meanwhile, 26.67 percent of the separation-related problems group did not have access to toys, indicating that this is a significant factor connected to separation anxiety (de Souza Machado, 2020). As a result, using environmental stimulation, including toys, might be an excellent alternative for improving the well-being of confined cats and preventing the issues connected to separation from owners.
While data on the correlation between some diseases and aggression may be minimal, others describe a detailed image of it. Arthritis and dental infections have caused cats to demonstrate defensiveness and severe fearfulness (Mills et al., 2020). Gastrointestinal problems can also lead to a cat’s aggressive behavior. However, most studies are usually more focused on dogs, so further research regarding domestic cats and pain-related mental issues is required.
Stress is the primary risk factor for feline mental health-related problems. According to Poole (2020), stress triggers feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), increasing sympathoneural outflow. The process causes a mental problem when the adrenal cortex is not activated. GAG’s abnormality accelerates urinary solutes, which causes tissue injury which interferes with the adrenal cortex. Also, altered pH and electrolyte imbalance may cause the cat’s glycosaminoglycan layer to abnormal functioning.
Implications and Future Research
Having reviewed the data mentioned above from two sources, anyone can notice the pattern. Scientific research on pets’ mental health is usually focused on dogs. Misconceptions about cats could cause a shortage of data. In other words, the issue of feline mental health is severe due to the minuscule review of this topic. This is why scientists should discover more information about cats’ mental health. In this sense, the social function of people in the lives of cats demands more significant consideration in future research.
The recommended areas will help improve cats’ mental health and reduce potential problematic behaviors. More importantly, researchers should pay attention to FIC since it is the most common condition triggering feline mental health-related problems in cats. Scholars and cat vets should look into FIC’s pathogenesis, epidemiology, nutrition, and drug therapy. Moreover, future research should investigate the impact of the Secure Base Effect on feline mental health and how it influences cats’ olfactory cues. Lastly, because cats respond variably towards the owner depending on the time they are apart, the commonly held belief that cats can manage perfectly alone at home should be reconsidered. Extended separation intervals might be of practical significance since they accurately represent the usual scenario for most domestic cats with working owners.
Generally, cats can struggle with mental health issues as well. Two of the most common causes are separation from the owner and physical health problems. When their owner is absent or visually separated, felines struggle with mental issues. As a result, interaction of domestic cats with their owners plays an integral part in their mental health and can result in separation anxiety, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Pain caused by gastrointestinal and dental issues can make cats unusually aggressive. Unfortunately, studies regarding this correlation are usually focused on dogs, so further research is required. Researching on feline idiopathic cystitis, secure base effect, and olfactory cues will help improve cats’ wellbeing and safety.
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Buffington, C. T., & Bain, M. (2020). Stress and feline health. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 50(4), 653-662.
de Souza Machado, D., Oliveira, P. M. B., Machado, J. C., Ceballos, M. C., & Sant’Anna, A. C. (2020). Identification of separation-related problems in domestic cats: A questionnaire survey. PloS one, 15(4), e0230999.
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Poole, A. (2020). Feline idiopathic cystitis: what to suggest. The Veterinary Nurse, 11(4), 161-165.