Because cats are so often portrayed by the pet industry as prima donnas, cuddly couch potatoes, or aloof manipulators, cat owners have a poor understanding of the animal living with them. That’s why when I lecture about cats and their health and sanity, I start by introducing them as ultimate survivalists and what makes them so remarkable.  Felis Silvestris Catus has changed little from their ancestors: anatomically, behaviorally, and metabolically.  I demonstrate how their stealth and highly efficient predator physiology, while helping protect them from danger and starvation in the wild, can also set them up for stress and anxiety, even fear in a household setting. Their hearing, which allows them to listen in and track ultrasonic sounds of rodents and small prey, goes on overload or perceives a range of sounds found in the home environment as potential threats: electronics, loud noises, unusual sounds, or neighboring animals. Paw pads, attuned to picking up vibrations when honing in on prey, also absorb unknown environmental vibrations, placing the animal on alert for a potential encounter. Isolated, the cat may startle with these events, recovering easily. If the environmental events are ongoing then the cat is at risk of health and/or behavior issues. In fact, there is growing evidence many chronic health problems of domestic cats are directly or indirectly the result of stressors or unusual environmental events.

Only recently, due to these increased health and behavioral issues, science started looking at how cats relate to their surroundings: the home environment, their humans and, other animals.  So, in addition to its distinctive physiology, we need to consider the cat’s environment and its perceived lack of control. Unusual or threatening scents, unfamiliarity of a caregiver or new surroundings, change in routines, hierarchies with other animals, even the rearrangement of furnishings can place a cat on the edge.  Territory security is critical for cats, some say more so than their attachment to humans. However, a cat’s perception of safety is filtered by who is in that cat suit. Was the cat introduced to humans during that fragile socialization window as a kitten? Or is the cat guarded around humans?  Is the cat encouraged to explore (with supervision) to help build confidence? Or is the cat more isolated?  A less confident cat can find itself at the mercy of a stressful lifestyle.  And as for the human-feline relationship?  A recent study supports what cat owners have known: cats do develop deep attachments, create a language just for their humans, respond to our emotions, and can even recognize facial expressions. Our human-animal relationship and how we assemble as part of their territory is just as critical.

And of course, I discuss diet. For lack of a better analogy, I explain that unless we are feeding a species-appropriate diet to these obligate carnivores, it’s kinda like we are using cheap fuel in our vehicles. It will run, but how well? Good nutrition is the most important factor in health and longevity. But what’s not often discussed is how poor nutrition influences behavior. Many commercial cat foods are increasingly using plant proteins to meet the higher protein needs of cats. Unfortunately, plant proteins do not offer the complete amino acid profile required by this carnivore and must be balanced accordingly.  While supplementation may look good on the label, our cats are the test subjects for long-term nutritional balancing.  In my experience, foods can be deficient in or have less bioavailable stress-fighting nutrients found naturally in the cat’s carnivore diet. These can include, taurine and arginine, Vitamin Bs, Vitamin C, Magnesium, Zinc, and phytonutrients, which help reduce anxiety and normalize stress responses.  Rotation of diet should also be at the forefront. Variety protects against boredom, fixation, and nutrient imbalances.

More recently, I have been looking at the gut-brain axis, the feline microbiome, as well as the nutritional support of medicinal herbal therapies.  How can we incorporate the synergy of these therapies to treat the whole cat?  For instance, stress and anxiety are known triggers for housesoiling, yet, rarely looked at as a contributing factor to gastrointestinal issues and other sickness behaviors, which can include decreased food and water intake, anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory infections, decreased activity, and social interactions, and reduced body care (grooming).  We understand from human research the brain can affect the GI microbiome neurologically and hormonally by changing intestinal motility, permeability, pH, and mucus secretion throughout the length of the intestine or regionally.  Reciprocally, healthy GI development is essential to the development of the central nervous system.  Herbal therapies offer healing support through medicinal properties from nose to tail and all organ systems, and on a supportive role nutritional benefits adding yet another healing dimension. In a recent case, the incorporation of a mushroom blend, Mushroom Defense, drew upon the nutritional values of added vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And in theory, we tapped into the cellular to cellular connections of the Common Mycorrhizal Network* to help the cat feel more grounded in an indoor-only environment.

Feline well-being requires we acknowledge the cat’s innate nature and physiology.  We must respect their need for security and safety in their territories and enrich their environments. We need to encourage social contact and supervised explorations, but with an understanding of their innate requirements and at times on their terms. We should offer hunting and predatory enactments for mental and physical activity, and last but not least, offer a species-appropriate diet.  All these criteria are just as important as loving and petting.  We are modern zookeepers.

*Learn more about the Common Mycorrhizal Network.

© Terri S. Grow for Wise Feline, 2021
The mission of Wise Feline™ is to: re-introduce you to the cat(s) who live with you; share new sciences that are beginning to reveal our cats’ true nature; and encourage you to use these new understandings to help you develop healthier and happier relationships.