Study Determining Noninvasive Chronic Stress Measures in Cats

Where is Diane?
Where is Diane?

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, and hair and nails are easy to collect on a regular basis.

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 first part of the study tested the accuracy of measures from fur from various parts of the body and nails front and back. Participants found that results from the fur clippings varied widely depending on the area of the body from which they originated, the type of hair and portion. Initially it seemed that hair cortisol differed 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, but were also consistently lower than that from hair, so investigators worked to improve the methods to extract more cortisol from the nails.

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.”

After the methods were refined they designed medical and behavioral/lifestyle questionnaires to be completed by the owners of the owned cats. Questions included:

  • number of litter boxes
  • household atmosphere
  • being allowed on furniture
  • children in household
  • other pets
  • indoor/outdoor/catio use
  • owner assessed behaviors and temperament/personality of the cats
  • grooming behaviors
  • owner assessed stress level
  • physical characteristics
  • appearance
  • medical history

For community cats,  information was extrapolated during sample collection.

The initial results showed 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.

Results

Front declaw associated with cortisol concentration

The study reported that being front declawed was the only behavioral or medical factor found to have “a significant association with hair cortisol concentration”. “If a cat was front declawed, that cat was more likely to have a higher hair cortisol concentration,” it stated.

Other factors

Other factors that had “significant associations” with nail cortisol concentrations:

  • unkempt fur
  • chronic illness
  • litterbox issues
  • age

When a variable increased or the question was answered “yes” instead of “no” then nail cortisol concentration increased accordingly. “Interestingly, owner-reported stress assessment of cats, was not found to be significantly associated with hair or nail cortisol concentrations. This might indicate that owners do not accurately gauge the stress or lack of stress in their cats.”

Read the report

Determining noninvasive chronic stress measures in cats – final grant progress report

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.


Read more articles about Health and Safety and Veterinary Medicine.


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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, The Creative Cat offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats. From catchy and creative headlines to factual articles and fictional stories, The Creative Cat provides constant entertainment and important information to people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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