Tag Archives: Cat Stress Score

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I love music – always have. I listen a lot – while I’m working, while I’m cooking, while I’m driving, running, if I’m not sleeping there might be some music in the background (right now, it’s Bob Mould’s new album, “Sunshine Rock”). But does my cat enjoy it? Well, given that I like loud music of the punk rock type, probably not so much. In 2015, a study of anesthetized cats showed that compared to heavy metal music and pop music, when cats are getting spayed, they would prefer a little classical music. This was determined by measuring each cat’s respiratory rate and pupil dilation, both of which were lowest when cats were subjected to classical music (for the record, the musical choices were  ‘Adagio For Strings (Opus 11)’ by Samuel Barber;  ‘Thorn’ by Natalie Imbruglia; and  ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC.).

More recently, researchers looked at whether music might reduce stress for cats receiving a medical exam at the veterinary office. Further, they were interested in whether “cat specific music” would provide benefits compared to classical music or silence. The study, “Effects of music on behavior and physiological stress response of domestic cats in a veterinary clinic,” was recently published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

I’ve written about “Music for Cats” previously – its distinguishing factors perhaps not so much the quality of the tunes, but the sounds created for their similarities to purring and other sounds that cats might find attractive (like squeaking noises and suckling sounds).

To test the responses of cats, the researchers tested 20 cats with all three musical conditions (cat music, classical music, silence). Each condition was tested on a different date (with two weeks between each test). When cats arrived at the veterinary hospital, they were placed in an exam room with the musical stimuli for 10 minutes. Then they were given a basic physical exam, including the collection of a blood sample, while the music played on. A “Cat Stress Score (CSS)” was recorded at three time points: before the music began, during the physical examination, and after the music was turned off and the physical exam was over. Cats were also given a “Handling Score (HS)” during the physical exam by the person conducting the exam. Finally, that blood sample was used to look at neutrophil:lymphocyte ratio (NLR). NLR has been associated with stress and distress behaviors in other species, although in a study of rats, it was associated with chronic, rather than short-term stress.

For a little more context, the Cat Stress Score is a commonly used measure looking at various aspects of cat body language. The score can range from “1” (fully relaxed, for example, laying on side, eyes closed, head on the surface, sleeping) to “7” (terrorized, crouching and shaking, flattened ears, yowling). The Handling Score rates the overall demeanor of a cat, ranging in possible scores from “0” – “friendly and confident” up to “25” (overtly aggressive), with three categories in between: friendly and shy, withdrawn and protective, and withdrawn and aggressive.

A relaxed cat! Photo via creative commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/28342973473

Results suggested that the Handling Scores and Cat Stress Scores were lower during the physical exam when cats were listening to “Cat Music” compared to classical music and silence, which were not different from one another for either score.  Cats who had been listening to “Cat Music” also had lower CSS’s during the post-physical exam period. From the graphs, it appears that cats listening to Cat Music had average CSS’s of 2 (weakly relaxed) compared to the other cats who scored 3’s on average (“weakly tense”). The handling scores of all cats averaged around 2, on a scale of 1-25, all falling well in the range described as “friendly and shy.” There were no differences found in any of the groups for the measures of NLR.

The study provides some evidence for the positive responses of cats to “Cat Music.” The one caveat being that overall, although “statistically significant,” the actual differences between the groups were relatively small (meaning that the differences in CSS and HS scores were 1-2 points on average). It is also unclear why the different musical conditions did not lead to differences in NLR in any of the cats. All cast had slightly elevated NLRs compared to normal averages. The authors hypothesize that perhaps the car ride before the veterinary exam may have increased the NLR in all cats, making it hard to determine the effects of the music.

Despite small effect sizes and no change in NLR, anything we can do to reduce stress for cats during veterinary exams, is worth considering! In addition to other stress reducing techniques (such as non-slip mats and towels on exam tables, examining a cat in their carrier if that is where they want to be examined, minimizing wait times in lobbies, and providing cats with treats if they are willing), Cat Music is another tool that veterinarians might want to add to their exam room toolbox!

References

Hampton, A., Ford, A., Cox, R., Liu, C., Koh, R. (2019). Effects of music on behavior and physiological stress response of domestic cats in a veterinary clinic. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X19828131

Kessler, M. R., & Turner, D. C. (1999). Effects of density and cage size on stress in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) housed in animal shelters and boarding catteries. Animal Welfare8(3), 259-267.

Mira, F., Costa, A., Mendes, E., Azevedo, P., & Carreira, L. M. (2016). Influence of music and its genres on respiratory rate and pupil diameter variations in cats under general anaesthesia: contribution to promoting patient safety. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery18(2), 150-159.

Swan, M. P., & Hickman, D. L. (2014). Evaluation of the neutrophil-lymphocyte ratio as a measure of distress in rats. Lab Animal43(8), 276.

Zeiler, G. E., Fosgate, G. T., Van Vollenhoven, E., & Rioja, E. (2014). Assessment of behavioural changes in domestic cats during short-term hospitalisation. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery16(6), 499-503.

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Many cats spend time in shelters or in a boarding facility during their lifetime. The welfare of these cats is an issue of major concern – how can we make this experience less stressful? Stress can make cats appear less adoptable, or make them susceptible to disease, so reducing potential stressors is an important welfare question.

A new study, “The effects of social interaction and environmental enrichment on the space use, behaviour and stress of owned housecats facing a novel environment” brought to us from La Trobe University in Australia, took a stab at looking at what factors could potentially reduce stress on cats who find themselves in unfamiliar turf. The study looked at the effect of different types of resting areas, and human interaction on the cats’ stress levels and behavior. The researchers also included information about the cat: their age, sex, temperament factors, and previous experience with boarding.

Let’s start with the cats – twenty owned cats who were each assessed in the home via the Feline Temperament Profile, which measures how cats respond to a stranger on behaviors such as making eye contact, approaching the stranger, biting or scratching when handled, reaction to an unexpected noise, and willingness to interact with a toy. This gives cats one FTP score, which rates cats on friendliness, playfulness, aggressiveness, and fear. Most of the cats in the study lived in multi-cat homes, twelve were indoor-outdoor, and seven cats had previous experience being boarded in a cattery.

char12The cats were housed for two days in a room at the university, which was set up with litter box, food and water, and three enrichment options: an igloo bed, an open basket with the owner’s scent added (via used pillowcase), and a cat tree. Cats were randomly assigned to one of two groups – one group received one 20-minute visit from a human per day, and the other group received three 20-minute visits. These visits included talking in a gentle voice, as well petting, playing and grooming if the cat allowed.

Several variables were recorded: each cat was given a Cat Stress Score twice a day (the CSS uses body language and activity levels to determine a cat’s stress levels); in addition, measures of “stress hormones” in the cats’ feces were taken before, during, and after the study. The proportion of time the cat spent in the enrichment options was measured, as well as time spent engaged in different behaviors (such as grooming, playing, and eating).

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Cats with higher stress scores spent more time in igloo-style cat beds. Photo by hehaden via Flickr/Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hellie55/6754221353/

There were many variables and analyses and results, so I’ll try to focus on a few key findings. There were some individual differences when it came to enrichment use, and it seemed like it took most of the cats a day to adjust and show preferences. On the second day, cats with a higher stress score spent more time in the igloo bed; these cats were also less likely to explore, and in fact performed fewer total behaviors than less stressed cats.

Human interaction seemed to have a positive effect on stress – cats who received three visits a day had lower stress scores on day two. This suggests that human interaction for owned cats kept in confinement cat be a positive experience for them. Older cats, and cats with no previous experience being boarded also had higher stress scores.

Most cats did not sit in the open basket with their owner’s scent; this may have been because the basket was open, and not elevated, and thus was quite different in the safety it offered compared to the igloo and the cat tree. Thus, we can’t conclude that cats do NOT find owner scent comforting – further study is needed.

Do we need to revisit how we measure feline temperament? Photo by Dilara Goksel Parry.
Do we need to revisit how we measure feline temperament? Photo by Dilara Goksel Parry.

Interestingly, the Feline Temperament Profile did not predict any behaviors or stress scores. This suggests that we might need to revisit how we measure cat personality – as some shelter temperament tests are based on the FTP, and make assumptions that behaviors in one environment should predict behaviors in another. This is not the first time that the FTP has failed to correlate with other behavioral or physiological measures, although other studies have shown some consistency over time. It is possible that a longer stay in the facility in the current study would have revealed different results and more effects of the FTP.

This study did provide several tidbits of useful information that can be applied to housing cats in a shelter or cattery. Older cats may need more help adjusting to new environments; positive interactions with humans are helpful, and multiple interactions per day may be best; cats should be offered both an elevated safe place and a secure, enclosed bed to ensure meeting the needs of cats and their different tendencies to adjust to new spaces. Cats may need a day to decide which enrichment(s) they prefer, and because many cats utilized multiple enrichment items, choices may help them get comfortable. Finally, further research is needed to determine whether owner scent is helpful or calming to cats.