Psychosomatic diseases in cats atn academy

Psychosomatic disorders, where a physical illness is caused by mental stress, are not uncommon in cats. In particular with virus infections, urinary and respiratory diseases a strong psychological component is suspected. Likewise with diabetes. This raises questions: Why do cats tend to develop psychosomatic illnesses?? Which cats are at risk? How to recognize mental overload? Does the nursery play a role. What responsibility do breeders bear. We followed up on these questions.

The cat – predestined for psychosomatic diseases?

Let us first take a look back. When humans began to store their crops in granaries, the ancestors of Felis silvestris catus, the Latin name of our house tigers, joined together about 10 years ago.000 years voluntarily to humans. A self-domestication as only the cat can claim for itself. She fought the army of rodents that raided the supplies, she was appreciated for that, and that's all that was required of her. Your time as a purring soul comforter. Elegant room panther had not yet come for a long time. In contrast to the dog, the cat was largely spared selective breeding interventions until about 150 years ago. The result: cats are seen as headstrong, independent, individual, wild and domestic at the same time.

So genetically there is much more wildcat in our domestic cats than wolf in dog. In some more, in others less. This could explain why many cats are not very tolerant of interventions in their natural way of life and why they react relatively frequently with psychosomatic disorders to housing and environmental conditions that deviate significantly from them.

Psychosomatic diseases in cats: A stimulus-poor environment can make ill (Photo: Patricia Losche)

Triggers of psychosomatic diseases in cats

Low-stimulus housing conditions and a disturbed relationship (as perceived by the cat) between cat and cat owner favor the development of psychosomatic pathologies. This has been proven in various studies. In addition it comes that cats are often only conditionally, many cats not at all group-suitable. In addition to boredom and misunderstandings between cat and human, the mere fact of being forced to socialize in a confined space – with the owner or even with conspecifics – can act as a sickening stressor for a cat. In fact, it is mainly full-time house cats that develop psychologically based illnesses; cats with outdoor access are rarely affected, according to the results of a Spanish study of 336 cats that presented to veterinary clinics with corresponding symptoms.

But with it not all cases can be justified. As in humans, there is no single trigger for psychosomatic diseases. While one animal tolerates certain things without any problems, another one is already overstrained with it and develops symptoms, which can be traced back causally to living conditions perceived as unpleasant or threatening. Even among littermates there can be considerable differences. An Australian study of 1556 cats concluded that breed, age, sex and social environment are significant factors in the development of behavioral and psychosomatic disorders.

Chronic overload

Essential for the development of psychosomatic diseases is perceived stress. It arises when essential needs of a cat are not satisfied. "Domestic cats are exposed to a variety of stressors that (…) can trigger different behavioral changes," write researchers Marta Armat Tomàs Camps and Xavier Manteca in a paper on the topic.

Stress here is not to be understood colloquially, but in a biological-medical sense as a response to a stress that challenges the body. It is defined as a physical and psychological reaction to harmful or unpleasant stimuli (stressors), the processing and control of which overtaxes the animal acutely or chronically, i.e. continuously. The body reacts to this by releasing certain hormones, the stress hormones. These are the same as the human body's response to stressful situations. Cortisol (cortisone, corticosterone) is of particular interest to us because it is the response to chronic stress. Thus, it is of central importance for the development of psychosomatic diseases, because it has a more long-lasting effect than the stress hormone adrenaline, which only has a short-term effect.

Cortisol is an endogenous steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal cortex and has many functions in the organism. Among other things, it has an anti-inflammatory effect, which is used in medication with its inactive precursor cortisone. The reason for this is the weakening of the immune system, which is why a permanently high cortisol level increases susceptibility, especially to infectious diseases. Cortisol promotes catabolic (degrading) metabolism, influences the central nervous system, raises blood sugar levels (diabetes!), promotes bone loss (osteoporosis).

Psychosomatic diseases in cats: When compatible, conspecifics are a good remedy for boredom (Photo: Patricia Losche)

Coping – the cat's protective shield against stress

In sensitive cats, anxiety, pain, general trauma and stressful situations, which the cat cannot influence or foresee, trigger the development of psychological disorders. In contrast, more robust characters that show a high stress tolerance have learned to cope with stresses or find a way to avoid them. These animals are less susceptible to the development of psychosomatic disorders. They develop appropriate coping strategies in potentially stressful situations, a skill called coping. Coping competence is determined on the one hand by genetic factors and on the other hand by the environment, so-called epigenetic influences. The latter determine which of the genes present are activated and which are not.

Epigenetics: Every living being has a blueprint, the genes, which are present in the form of DNA in the nucleus of every body cell. But not always and at every place every gene is to be read off. Here one has to be switched off temporarily or permanently, elsewhere one has to be activated. Environmental influences and demand situations in the body determine the epigenetic programming of the genome, the result of which can even be passed on to the offspring, i.e. it is hereditary. The genes themselves are not changed. Experiments with cloned rats have shown that in this way even genetically identical siblings develop into different individuals due to the influence of the surrounding environment and thereby effective epigenetic influences. In the end, no two organisms are alike, although the genes are not different.

The influence of caring and friendly environment

Epigenetic factors influence behavior, metabolism and resilience of offspring. They also shape the organism in terms of when and how much cortisol is produced, because they program the organs and brain regions associated with cortisol metabolism. This is the conclusion of a study that investigated the impact of epigenetic influences in the early phase of development. Parts of the brain are also affected, more precisely: the hippocampus, a brain region that is involved in the processing of external influences as an emotional filter. It is also involved in cognitive performance. These include memory, learning and problem-solving behavior, but also orientation, creativity and emotional performance.

Epigenetic influences include, for example, the stress of the dam during pregnancy, the caring of the dam towards the puppies, but also the maternal nutritional status or the experience environment during rearing. Cats raised in low-stimulus environments, for example, show impaired response to and discrimination of visual stimuli and delayed response to auditory stimuli compared to freely raised conspecifics, indicating that growing up in low-stimulus environments may impair perceptual performance in adult cats. Some of the consequences are lifelong and are even inherited by the next generation, others are modified or reversed by subsequent experiences.

Psychosomatic diseases in cats: Hunting and play instincts want to be acted out (Photo: Patricia Losche)

Kittens need a lot of positive input

In summary, the less positive stimuli the puppy encounters and the more stressors it and its mother are exposed to prenatally and early in life, the more susceptible the animal will be to stress. And the greater the susceptibility to stress, the more likely is the development of psychosomatic diseases.

A well-fed, caring mother cat that raises her kittens in a pleasant environment with positive environmental stimuli and low physical and emotional stress will also release more mentally and physically stable offspring into life than a poorly fed mother cat that has to raise her kittens under constant threat in a low-stimulus environment.

If a pregnant queen gives birth to her kittens in sudden confinement, this stress load can lead to psychological vulnerability, reduced coping skills and resilience (psychological resistance) in the pups. Similar in puppies of cats in poor housing conditions. If cat puppies grow up in the stimulus-poor environment of a bare room or cattery (the rule in profit-oriented mass breeding), they are impaired in their sensory perceptions. Early weaning and inexperienced or poorly caring dams also increase the likelihood of stress vulnerability and thus the onset of behavioral disorders and the expression of psychosomatic illnesses. If additional stresses then affect the cat later in life, the diminished coping skills can potentially make it sick.

On the other hand, puppies are more sociable and more affectionate to humans than cat mothers (and fathers)!) demonstrably more open-minded towards both familiar and unfamiliar people than puppies of shyer and therefore more quickly stressed cats. Late weaning, as usually practiced by responsible breeders, has as positive an effect on psychological stability as rearing by a sovereign, relaxed and caring mother cat.

Important risk factors for the development of psychosomatic diseases in cats


– Stressful experience during pregnancy of the dam and during rearing of the puppies – poor nutritional condition of the dam – inexperienced or rough dams – little caring attention and nurturing by the dam – parents aggressive towards people – little or poor experience with people during rearing – low-stimulus environment during rearing – early weaning

Adult cats:

– Unstimulating living environment of the adult cat – lack of outdoor access – traumatizing experiences – violent handling – inappropriate handling of the cat – arbitrariness in upbringing and handling – constantly changing daily routines – frequent moves and changes of owner – socialization of cats that are not socially compatible with conspecifics – lack of interaction with conspecifics in socially predisposed animals – bullying by conspecifics – disturbed relationship between humans and cats – a life with outdoor access offers a lot of variety

Psychosomatic diseases in cats: A life with outdoor access provides a lot of variety. Indoor husbandry must compensate for this. (Photo: Patricia Losche)

Psychosomatoses: chronic stress instead of challenge

Triggers for the development of psychosomatic illness can be divided into physical (z.B. Threat, punishment, poor housing conditions), intraspecies social triggers (e.g.B. incompatibility among fellow cats) and the relationship between owner and pet (z.B. wrong handling and arbitrariness). As long as the cat has learned to deal with it (coping), it is not stress, but challenge. for challenge).

While challenge does not permanently affect the cat, chronic stress overloads the internal control system. For this, multiple occurrences and/or prolonged exposure, but above all unpredictability and uncontrollability of the situation by the cat must meet appropriate genetic prerequisites. For example, when exposed to bullying from fellow workers or arbitrary handling by humans. If several such stimuli come together (stress accumulation), the triggered stress adds up and the probability of a psychosomatic illness increases.

Psychosomatic illnesses usually develop insidiously. Seemingly suddenly showing physical symptoms. However, during history taking, it then turns out that there were behavioral changes beforehand. Often dismissed as a symptom of aging, quirkiness or disobedience. Behavioral changes are often a cry for help. Indication of increased stress levels. With early intervention through a root cause analysis with appropriate behavioral counseling by trained behavioral counselors. Therapists can often prevent physical manifestation.

Behavioral changes that are indicative of stress levels in the cat

Patricia Losche

Patricia Losche is a freelance author, text and photo journalist. Interpreter training was followed by biology and journalism studies, freelance and editorial journalism for several major publishers. Later, training as an animal psychologist at ATM. The animal psychology training at the ATN. Empathy, respect and understanding at eye level in dealing with animals are a special concern of Patricia Losche. Since 2014, she has been writing blog posts for ATM and ATN, authoring scripts and tutoring students in various disciplines. Several years of practical experience in the naturopathic treatment of horses, dogs and cats as well as decades of experience in animal husbandry are incorporated into the transfer of knowledge. She is a member of the professional association of established animal health practitioners (FNT) and 1.Chairwoman in the professional association of animal behavior consultants and trainers (VdTT).

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