What chronic stress can do to humans is well-known—heart disease, digestive disorders, depression and a negative impact on immunity for just a few examples. Researchers feel chronic stress can affect animals in the same ways. But detecting human stress is difficult enough, detecting it in animals, especially cats who are biologically programmed to hide anything that might make them seem weak and put them at risk, takes a whole new set of detection tools.
Whether human or feline or any animal, a body under stress secretes a specific hormone, cortisol, which can be measured to determine the level of stress that’s affecting the body. This is most often measured with a test of a bodily product: blood, saliva, urine or feces, but in cats this presents a two-part problem. First, we know how much they love to have blood drawn or have us collect urine or feces, especially when they are already stressed. Second, the cortisol levels in these products only measures the current point in time to about 24 hours prior.
Measuring chronic stress either needs repeated tests to chart the levels of cortisol over time, or it needs another measure. Cortisol accumulates in hair and nails, two things kitties specialize in.
The Winn Feline Foundation gave a grant for a study, “Using novel, non-invasive measures of chronic stress in cats to determine levels of stress hormone in the hair and nails of cats”, to determine the effectiveness of both collecting the samples and the effect of the actual collection on the cats. The initial abstract stated, “Based on some studies, nails might provide a more precise measure of cortisol than hair, and conveniently, cat nails are trimmed during regular cat care. If successful, this would provide veterinarians with a simple, accurate way to measure and diagnose chronic stress in cats, with the ultimate goal of helping to alleviate the suffering of chronically stressed cats.”
The study began in 2017 and is now about halfway complete and the study investigators presented an interim report of 36 samples of hair or nails along with the responses to questionnaires by owners. Initially it seems that hair cortisol differs depending on where on the body it was taken and even the part or type of hair, root or tip, and guard hairs or undercoat. Nail samples tended to have lower cortisol levels but were consistent between front and back paws.
The markers for higher cortisone levels seemed to coordinate with the cats’ quality of life. A cat with a chronic illness did not have increased cortisol levels if it was happy with a good quality of life. A cat that seemed chronically stressed with a coat that wasn’t groomed and appeared messy was likely to have high cortisol levels. Cats that seemed happy and had neat, clean coats had low cortisol levels.
Forty-five more samples from 15 cats still need to be assayed and the final numbers will be tallied. The investigators may choose another physical testing method for nail samples that may pull more cortisol from the nail and evaluate the differences between hair and nail cortisol. Those results will guide the selection of the second group of cats for testing hair and nails.
In the end, the investigators hope to provide veterinarians with a simple and accurate method for measuring chronic stress in cats and help to alleviate their suffering.
Winn Feline Foundation is a non-profit organization established in 1968 that supports studies to improve cat health. Since 1968, the Winn Feline Foundation has funded almost $6 million in health research for cats at more than 30 partner institutions world-wide. For further information, go to www.winnfelinefoundation.org.
Also read Humane Use of Animals Guidelines Revised March 2015 for use of animals in Winn-sponsored studies (opens as PDF).
The photo at the top is two of my own cats, Namir, who had feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure, and Lucy, who had FIP. I lost both of them to those diseases.
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Great Rescues Day Book:
Portraits, Rescue Stories, Holidays and Events, Essential Feline Information, All in One Book
Each month features one of my commissioned portraits of a feline or felines and their rescue story along with a kitty quote on the left page, and on the right page the month name with enough lines for all possible dates, with standard holidays and animal-themed observances and events. Great Rescues also includes a mini cat-care book illustrated with my drawings including information on finding strays or orphaned kittens, adopting for the first time or caring for a geriatric cat, a list of household toxins and toxic plants, or helping stray and feral cats and beginning with TNR.
Each book includes also 10 sheets of my “22 Cats” decorative notepaper with a collage of all the portraits in black and white so you can make your own notes or write special notes to friends.
The portraits in this book, collected as a series, won both a Certificate of Excellence and a Muse Medallion in the 2011 Cat Writers’ Association Annual Communication Contest, as well as the 22 Cats Notepaper mentioned below.
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission, although links to your site are more than welcome and are shared. Please ask if you are interested in using and image or story in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of an image or a product including it, check my animal and nature website Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.
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Weekly schedule of features:
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