Sudden changes can cause stress in cats
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By Mickey Zeldes  June 21, 2013 12:00 am

One of my cats wasn’t acting right last week, so, of course, off we went to the vet.  She seemed to be straining a little when urinating, so I knew a urinalysis would be in order.  The vet did an examination and didn’t find anything remarkable.  So we went home to wait for the results.

A couple days later the vet called to discuss the tests and said our cat’s urine was very concentrated. But they didn’t find any bacteria, so it didn’t seem to be an infection.  She asked if the cat was under any stress?  Cats stressed?  All they do is lay around the house going from one cozy bed to the next napping.  

Unless they are actually in the heat of a fight, I’ve always thought of cats as the epitome of sereneness – the way they slowly stretch, curl up, close their eyes and purr.  I think I’ve achieved that level of relaxation once while having a full hour massage while away on vacation.

But in fact, I had to answer “yes” to that question.  We had recently lost one of our four cats and that meant a reshuffle in the hierarchy – always a stressful situation.  Cats living in multiple cat households set up a strict hierarchy, and peace only exists while that order is respected.  It doesn’t take much to disrupt it though – a new arrival (human or another animal), loss of a member, a move to a new home or even a new piece of furniture can present a challenge and disrupt the harmony.

Do you know which cat is top in your home?  There are many signs. Literally, the cat that always gets the top place on a climbing post is typically the leader.  The dominant cat will usually enter a room confidently and walk to the center whereas lesser cats will usually stay closer to the walls.  The top cat will often leave his stool uncovered in the litter box while everyone else carefully buries his or hers.

When two cats are close to the same rank things can get tense.  They growl, posture, threaten and try to chase each other away from prime real estate (a favorite chair or a high perch for example).  If there is only one food dish available, it can be a major source of tension (that’s why it’s always recommended to have one more litter box than the number of cats and at least 2 food dishes in a multi-cat household).  If one cat doesn’t back down, it can escalate to an actual catfight – serious injuries are rare when everyone is fixed but there can still be fur flying.  So what can we do to help ease the tension?

Acknowledge that we don’t get to choose who the top cat is in the household.  Just because one cat is the oldest does not necessarily mean she/he will get top ranking.  Make sure there are plenty of the valuable resources to go around (food and litter boxes, soft beds, etc.).  Use Feliway, which diffuses a feel good cat pheromone, where your cats hang out the most.  If necessary, there are drug therapies that can help lessen the tensions in the home (one type for the dominant bully cat, and another for the timid picked on cat).  

Be patient, as long as no one is getting hurt, and realize that they need to sort things out.  In the worst situations, sometimes a cat will need to be rehomed, especially if he or she is causing actual harm to the other cats.  Once in a while there is a cat that just can’t tolerate being around others.

So, my husband and I have our work cut out for us.  Have you dealt with the stress of a shifting hierarchy with your cats?  What worked for you?  We’re open to suggestions.

Upcoming events

• Summer Camp still has openings in some sessions.  Don’t let your young animal lover be bored this summer.  Details and applications are available at rpanimalshelter.org.  

• Free pet ID tags and microchips are available for all Rohnert Park and Cotati pets.  Stop by the shelter during our open hours to protect your pet – Wednesday 1-6:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 1-5:30 p.m.; and Sunday 1-4:30 p.m.

Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at mzeldes@rpcity.org.

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