Cats are creatures of habit. Small animals who are both predator and prey, cats have little control over their own environment. Establishing a territory and routines within it are things they can control. This helps them feel safe and secure, and they exhibit confidence and general wellness. If routines are changed they may act fearful or even look like they haven’t bathed in days. In fact, a study of stress in cats showed that changes in their routine could actually make them exhibit symptoms of illness.
Whether friendly or feral, indoors or out, it’s when everything is right where they left it in their little bit of territory that they feel and act their best. Their meals are on time and show up as they always do, they have their typical interactions with other cats, and with you.
Yes, you and your habits are part of your cat’s daily routines, as they are a part of yours. You get up at a certain time, feed them, do your fussy human things and then leave (most days), come back, feed them, interact with them in different ways like play and litter box cleaning and maybe some cuddling to watch a movie, then you head back to your bed, and before you know it the cycle starts all over again. Of course, you don’t leave every day, but most of the time you do.
Until you don’t, for forever it seems, you are just there all the time, getting in the way of napping and time for Neighborhood Watch, and you’re acting kind of odd on top of it all. And so is everyone else they can see.
We might figure that our cats would love it if we were home all the time, and now as we all follow “stay at home” and other shut down orders to keep ourselves and others safe from spreading and contracting the coronavirus, we are putting that to the test. Some cats may not seem to react at all—but remember they are experts at hiding how they feel—or they may seem somewhat skeptical or even fearful, or they may adapt and reset their own routines to match the new ones you are now establishing.
Because their reactions may become quite physical and even life-threatening for themselves, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on them, track any changes you see in behavior, help them with any anxiety, and remember that when we all go back to work, whenever and however that may be, they will experience changes yet again.
The study of cat enrichment and behavior
The study that discovered cats exhibiting symptoms of illness when stressed by changes in routine wasn’t actually a study of that at all. The study was to test how environmental enrichment can affect cats with interstitial cystitis (IC), long suspected to be caused or exacerbated by stress in their environment, often caused by changes in the human’s schedule like going away on vacation or moving, and how much enrichment in their cages helped them to adjust. The most notable symptoms of illness were vomiting, urinating or defecating outside the litter box, and decreased eating.
One person fed and cared for all the cats in the study which included 20 cats with IC and 12 without as controls, spending months to establish a regular feeding, play and cleaning schedule that seemed to be the least stressful for all of the cats. The health of the cats with IC improved, which wasn’t expected, so that was then tracked along with other data.
To the study leaders’ surprise, when that caretaker took a vacation and the cats were cared for by another person, or when their routine was intentionally changed for other reasons, the control cats who were well began to exhibit symptoms of illness along with the cats who had IC, then they resumed their regular healthy habits when she returned. This had never been studied, so, again, more parameters were used to track the cats’ changes, but the point as made that simply changes in routine could seriously affect a cat’s health.
Signs of illness to look for
Some signs of illness in cats include the ones mentioned above, vomiting, urinating or defecating outside the litter box, and decreased eating, as well as:
- changes in social interactions
- increased vocalization
- lack of grooming
- change in sleep patterns
That’s not the end of the list, of course, but they are some of the most common and obvious. Really, pay attention to any change in habit or behavior because it’s often the only thing that indicates illness in cats, and nothing is too small to note.
What do you do?
First, report to your veterinarian. Never presume that any of these changes are “just because of” the situation and dismiss them. Your cat could have an underlying medical condition that has nothing to do with the change in routine or which was made worse by the stress of the change. This needs to be treated, and while you observe, your veterinarian needs to know what you’re seeing. Also, several of the signs of illness could become life-threatening, like not eating.
And even if a symptom develops as a result of a change in routine and you know that, your cat is still suffering from some amount of stress and needs your help to adjust. The study mentioned above points out the importance of enriching the cat’s environment with routine, play and affection.
One of the best ways to help your cat is the very thing that will help you adjust to this strange time—routine. Make life more predictable again. Reassure your cat that everything is okay even if it’s not the way it usually is by establishing routines specifically with your cat that are reassuring. Make mealtimes consistent, including not overfeeding if your cat starts asking you for food every 45 minutes out of stress. Set up a consistent play time at least once a day and play for a set time ending with a treat and affection. Try to reduce your own stress levels so your cat doesn’t pick up on your stress and run with it.
Remember that our pets can’t see the big picture of what’s happening. Our pets are dependent on us for much of what’s good in their life, and because we’ve chosen to take them into our homes we are responsible for their well-being. Take them seriously, and let them know you’re there for them. They’ll love you even more for it.
Read my entire series of articles on the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19
There is no evidence that our pets can give us the coronavirus.
Wash your hands and don’t touch your face!
Even healthy cats act sick when their routine is disrupted https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110103110357.htm
Tips for Preventing Cat Behavior Problems During COVID-19 isolation https://www.catbehaviorassociates.com/tips-for-preventing-cat-behavior-problems-during-covid-19-isolation/
The Top 7 Changes In Cat Behavior https://news.vet.tufts.edu/2017/08/the-top-7-changes-in-cat-behavior/
How to Use Positive Reinforcement for Good Cat Behavior https://www.felinebehaviorsolutions.com/use-positive-reinforcement-good-cat-behavior/
Your Cat’s Emotional Connection https://www.felinebehaviorsolutions.com/cats-emotional-connection/
Other articles here about COVID-19
Humans, Pets, and the Coronavirus (https://thecreativecat.net/humans-pets-and-the-coronavirus/)
No Coronavirus Found in Pets, But Keep Them in Your Emergency Plan (https://thecreativecat.net/no-coronavirus-found-in-pets-but-keep-them-in-your-emergency-plan/)
Fostering Saves Lives, Self-quarantine With a Foster Kitty During the COVID-19 Crisis (https://thecreativecat.net/fostering-saves-lives-self-quarantine-with-a-foster-kitty-during-the-covid-19-crisis/)
Veterinary Medicine During A Time Of Restriction Of Elective Services And Social Distancing (https://www.wormsandgermsblog.com/files/2020/03/COVID-guidelines-essential-elective_social-distancing_Mar24b-2.pdf)
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19):Owner Contact Guidelines (https://cdn.brief.vet/CB/CB_Covid-19_eblast1/DT_Covid+2019_03302020_G.pdf)
What you need to know about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/2019-ncov-factsheet.pdf)
Social distancing WITHIN veterinary clinics (https://www.wormsandgermsblog.com/2020/03/articles/animals/dogs/social-distancing-within-veterinary-clinics/)
COVID-19: Protecting your veterinary team during the pandemic (https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19/protecting-your-veterinary-team-during-pandemic)
FAQs – Practicing Veterinary Medicine in Pennsylvania During the COVID-19 Pandemic (https://www.pavma.org/blogpost/1674843/342444/FAQs–Practicing-Veterinary-Medicine-in-Pennsylvania-During-the-COVID-19-Pandemic)
COVID-19 Response: Limiting Non-Emergency Surgery in Shelters and Spay Neuter Clinics- updated 3/16/20 (https://www.uwsheltermedicine.com/news/2020/3/covid-19-response-limiting-non-emergency-surgery-in-shelters-and-spay-neuter-clinics-updated-3-16-20)
Telemedicine Resources During COVID-19 (https://www.pavma.org/page/COVIDvetTelemedicine)
Considerations for mobile and house call veterinarians during the COVID-19 pandemic (https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19/mobile-house-call-veterinarians-covid19-pandemic)
Gifts featuring cats you know! Visit Portraits of Animals
Great Rescues Day Book:
Portraits, Rescue Stories, Holidays and Events, Essential Feline Information, All in One Book
This information is part of what’s available in Great Rescues Day 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.
Subscribe to my e-newsletter
Subscribe to The Creative Cat Preview E-newsletter.
Weekly schedule of features:
Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Thursday: New Merchandise
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!