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Cats Fears & Anxieties

Stress Sponges: How Cats Pick Up On Our Emotions

Reading Time: 3 minutes When we’re stressed, our pets get stressed, causing changes in their health and behavior.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

My husband, Ray, was dying of kidney failure and needed a transplant. He had a live donor and a surgery date. The day before the transplant, the surgery was canceled. Ray was at dialysis and I was alone with my cat, Angel, when I got the call. Inconsolable, I screamed and cried.

The next morning when I woke up, I discovered Angel had pulled out several clumps of her fur and was bleeding. I rushed her to the veterinarian, still distraught over the canceled transplant. They knew what was going on with Ray and after a thorough exam concluded that perhaps my emotional distress had had this negative effect on Angel.

Twice more, we had kidney transplant dates that were canceled for various reasons. Each time, I reacted as before. Each time, I woke up to Angel bleeding from pulling her fur out all night.

Ray finally got his transplant but lived only two years before dying of a massive stroke. My reaction to his death was sadness instead of desperate panic like before. And Angel’s reaction to the situation was different, too, as she tried to calm me and wipe away my tears. She did not rip out her fur, but she was different. She seemed sad because she loved Ray with all her little heart, but she stayed by my side because she knew I was hurting so much.

My stress had become Angel’s stress.

“What you describe was likely psychogenic alopecia,” says Kenneth Martin, DVM, Diplomate, ACVB. “It is a condition of excessive grooming thought to be brought on by social or environmental stress. The disorder can progress to more significant self-injury of the skin like you describe with Angel.”

He explained that in cats as well as humans, emotional distress is linked not only to gastrointestinal health, but also to the health of hair and skin. Stress, or distress, may cause flareups in allergic skin disease. A cat’s reaction to stress, or distress, can vary by the individual and the behavior may occur in your presence or absence.

“People may not realize that our emotions can be contagious to others around us, human and animal alike, if we are anxious or distressed,” Dr. Martin says. That’s especially true when there is a powerful bond between human and animal.

Rough Times for Humans Can Make Their Cats Sick

When people who have close bonds with their cats are stressed to their maximum capacity, it’s difficult for kitty not to feel it. Paula A. Gregg, president of the Cat Writers’ Association and blogger for Sweet Purrfections, knows this from personal experience. She was a caregiver for her mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It was an emotional time for her, and it showed in the health and behavior of her cat, Truffle.

“Truffle started having diarrhea, vomiting, and was hiding,” Gregg says. “When I believe things are out of my control I tend to go into depression. I’m trying to be patient when Truffle comes to visit with me so I don’t upset her too much, but she just picks up on my emotions so easily.” Her veterinarian determined that Truffle was probably experiencing stress because she was so attuned to Gregg and her emotions.

Changes in social behavior and activity are clues, Martin says.

“Being more withdrawn may indicate depression whereas being more active may indicate anxiety. Look for changes in mood or appetite. Like people, pets might internalize feelings or direct or redirect their feelings to others.”

Gregg’s mother passed away in December 2021. “Both Truffle and my other cat, Brûlée, have become very close to me the last few months,” Gregg says. “They are usually in the same room very near me wherever I am. Truffle always has to be touching me.”

Becoming More Aware of Our Emotions

When it came to our cats, neither Gregg nor I realized the power of our own emotions, but their reactions aren’t uncommon. There’s evidence of social referencing in cats and dogs—the act of looking to their owners to know how to respond to novel objects or situations, Martin says.

“Social referencing refers to the process wherein infants use the affective displays of an adult to regulate their behaviors toward environmental objects, persons, and situations,” Martin says.  “A parent-child relationship may exist between people and their pets.” 

Can we change the burden of stress we put on our pets, sometimes without even realizing it?

Martin says: “Emotional support works both ways. Our behavior can influence the behavior of others around us, whether human or animal.  Pets are very attuned to the emotions of their caregivers and they are good at reading human body language.  We can’t change the past but can be cognizant that pets are able to read our body language and may look to us regarding how to behave and feel in a given circumstance.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Sandra Toney has been writing about cats for over 25 years and is an award-winning member of Cat Writers Association and Dog Writers Association of America. She has written for many print and online magazines about cat health and behavior and has written eight books. She lives in northern Indiana with her cat, Angel.

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