Feeding the Stressed Cat

Good nutrition is important for our pets, but never more so than during times of stress and illness. Here are some meal-time tips.

Fires in California last fall caused more than 300,000 residents and their pets to flee their homes. This spring, an estimated 1,000 dogs and cats in Iowa, Indiana and Missouri were temporarily relocated or found stranded as a result of recent flooding in these areas. And dont forget Hurricane Katrina, which displaced an estimated 50,000 animals in 2005.

Bev Caldwell


A house pet that suddenly finds itself in a noisy, unfamiliar shelter, or worse yet, barely clinging to life from the peak of a rooftop, suffers from a high level of stress. Though your feline hopefully will never experience this level of stress, the physical responses to stress – whatever the cause – are similar. So, whether the cause of a cats stress is a catastrophic disaster or the addition of a new kitten into the home, much can be learned from those who routinely work with stressed felines and applied to our house cats – particularly when it comes to feeding and nutrition.

How Stress Affects the Cat

The “fight or flight” reaction is a cats natural response to a disturbing situation. “When the level of stress increases, stress hormones get pumped into the blood stream with a variety of impacts,” explains Sean Delaney, DVM, MS, and board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. Delaney is the chief medical officer for Natura Pet Products, Inc.

One of the functions of these hormones is to ready and release sources of energy in the cats body. For example, when the cat is preparing to defend itself or run, it needs available sources of energy. Stress hormones also affect the gastrointestinal tract. “Stress usually decreases a cats appetite. If the cat is in a fight or flight situation, it tends to forget about eating,” Dr. Delaney says.

Unfortunately, for most house cats, when the stress levels are high (and the animal feels like eating the least), it actually needs to eat more, according to Jennifer Lander, DVM, director of medicine at the Adoptions Center for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City.

In addition, stress can effect other bodily functions. “Cats are more prone to constipation [in times of stress],” said Dr. Delaney. “They just dont go.” (See related article on page 5 of this issue.)

Stress also effects the immune system, making the cat more susceptible to disease. If a stressed animal becomes ill, this only serves to exacerbate the situation, dumping more stress hormones into the bloodstream, thereby continuing the vicious cycle.

Stopping the Cycle

When working with a cat that is not eating, time is of the essence. “A cat will literally starve himself to death,” says Dr. Lander. If a cat does not eat for a few days, other problems can ensue: Fat becomes mobilized in the bloodstream and can clog the liver, causing liver failure. Overweight cats, with increased body fat, are more prone to this serious disease, which can be a downward spiral. However, according to Dr. Lander, if caught early enough, the so-called fatty liver disease can be reversed with treatment that revolves around proper nutrition.

As any cat owner knows, sometimes enticing a healthy cat to eat a meal can be a challenge; when the cat is stressed, the challenge becomes that much more difficult.

To encourage a stressed cat to eat, the experts offer several strategies:

(1) Novelty – To entice picky or non-eaters, Dr. Lander suggests offering a smorgasbord of gourmet foods to see which foods might tickle the stressed cats fancy. Tip: Cats, even more so than dogs, tend to find foods that are high in protein and fat most attractive.

 (2) Respecting a cats texture preferences – Once a cat selects a food, its best to stick with this type of food: “Cats like new things but not necessarily those that are too foreign in format to what theyre used to eating,” says Dr. Delaney. In other words, if you know your cat generally likes canned food, continue with canned food, but try a novel protein source, such as rabbit or venison that your cat might find “intriguing.”

(3) Wetter may be better – If a cat isnt eating, it often isnt drinking either. Constipation, hard dry feces or no movement at all can be an issue with stressed cats, according to the experts. Feeding canned foods can help increase the cats water intake, as can wetting dry foods with chicken or beef broth – but make sure the broth isnt made with garlic, which can be harmful to cats, cautioned Dr. Delaney. (Wetting foods may change the foods texture, however, so please see number 2.)

(4) Heightening aroma – “Warming foods can entice a cat to eat, especially older animals that have lost some of their sense of smell,” said Dr. Delaney. (This tip goes for fresh, dry and moist foods.) The food should be slightly warm but not hot.

(5) Make every mouthful count – “If a stressed animal is not eating as much volume, the food needs to have more calories in it,” related Dr. Delaney, who recommends energy-dense, high-protein and high-fat foods.

(6) Boosting immune systems – “There is evidence that using higher protein levels can boost an animals immune system,” said Dr. Delaney.

With all of these strategies, the priority remains to get the animal to eat. It’s vitally important that the cat receives adequate nutrition.

Reducing Stress

Owners can help their cats cope with the side effects of stress through diet. Once a cat begins eating well again, “Theyre not as stressed, and they regard feeding as more positive,” says Dr. Lander. “Of course, nutrition is not a cure for stress or disease because it doesnt eliminate the source of the cats stress.” If your cat is experiencing high levels of stress that you can identify (such as moving to a new home or adding a new pet), you can keep your cat healthy with good nutrition while you work toward helping your cat adjust to the source of its stress.

If you dont know the source of your cats stress, Dr. Lander encourages owners to seek veterinary care immediately. “The stress of disease can cause a cat to lose its appetite, which is often the first clue that something is wrong,” said Dr. Delaney.

So, if your cat shows signs of stress, such as a change in appetite, a deviation from “normal” behavior (i.e., a friendly cat is suddenly hiding), or you notice a difference in your cats litter box, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible.