Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Cat Owners are Zookeepers

Posted: 25 Jan 2010 01:57 PM PST

Dr.Larry_NAVC_2010 That's right. You may have been unaware that you were running a zoo, but if you have a cat you are part cat lover and part zoo keeper.

This bit of information came to me in a talk at last week's North American Veterinary Conference and I must say it was quite a revelation. According to Dr. Tony Buffington of The Ohio State University and the mover and shaker behind the Indoor Cat Initiative, our house cats are basically solitary hunters of small prey. They tolerate us and in fact they are very dependent on us because we control their environment, or hunting grounds, as they would perceive it.
As you know, I'm and advocate of keeping cats indoors and I've written about that several times on the blog. I think indoor cats are less likely to get into trouble, are healthier in the long run and much less of a burden on wild bird and rodent populations. I still think that, but Dr. Buffington gave me a new perspective on this issue and it's something we should spend a good deal of time with on the blog.
His perspective is that forcing cats to live in certain environments may contribute to a host of chronic disease problems in cats. Furthermore, cats respond to their environment  much differently than people or dogs, due to their unique perspective as solitary hunters of small prey. Not only are they hunters, but in some cases they are also the hunted, and they've been genetically programmed to respond as such. In the wild, cats are the prey species of any carnivore larger or smarter than themselves. For house cats those predators would be people, dogs and even other bigger cats.
We people and our dogs are pack animals by nature and we view the world much differently than cats. Pack animals have highly evolved communication skills that lead to efficient pack behavior. Cats don't have the same skills. For instance, cats perceive any form of discipline as an attack. Where you might give your dog a whack on the butt if he gets up on his hind legs to eat your food off the table, attempt to whack a cat and they think you are tying to kill them. 
When you start to think about the world from the cat's point of view you can start to imagine how their living situation could have a big impact on their health. Imagine an environment that is chaotic, with people or other cats and dogs coming and going at all times. For a solitary hunter of small prey that situation would represent a constant threat. He'd have to compete for resources with the other cats while spend most of the day escaping or hiding from the threat of predation by dogs and strange people. Bailey_in_basket
On the other hand imagine an environment that is barren, that provides no stimulation at all. No chances to hunt small prey or even pretend chances to hunt small prey. The only activity being the sixteen hours of sleep a day interspersed with walks to the food bowl and litter box.
According to Dr. Buffington both situations lead to high levels of chronic stress and chronic stress has long been thought to lead inexorably to chronic disease. In fact Dr. Buffington has coined a term for this condition, namely, The Sensitive Cat Syndrome. As a renowned researcher on lower urinary tract disease in cats, Dr. Buffington is convinced that poor husbandry or poor "zoo keeping" with domestic cats and the resultant stress has a role in certain forms of cystitis.
We also know that many common cat disease conditions are far more common in indoor cats. Lower urinary tract disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and FORL to name a few are much more common in indoor cats. We don't know the exact cause of many of these problems and it could be that environmental conditions play a much bigger role than we think. 
This does not mean that we should immediately open the zoo doors and let our cats out into the great outdoors. That could create its own set of stressful circumstances, let alone exposure to infectious disease. Instead we need to work hard to create an enriching environment for our domestic cats. Feline Enrichment is a term we will be hearing about much more often in the future. Proper enrichment of the domestic cat's environment will be just as important as physical exams, vaccinations and parasite control in preventing disease.
I'm so excited about this subject. Imagine if we could reverse some of the troubling trends in chronic disease through enrichment. How much of the precipitous rise in the incidence of hyperthyroidism in cats could be due to environmental stress? In the years ahead we will know more about that. In the meantime we'll spend more time talking about specific ways to enrich the lives of our cats in posts to come.


Post a Comment