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Cool Cats - Ten Stress Busters You Can Learn From Your Cat

By Theresa Meyers

Sitting on the back of the sofa, staring out the front window, your cat watches you walk in the door from work exhausted and stressed out, again. You notice the pair of wise feline eyes blink at you. Your cat stretches forward, taking its whole body through a wavelike motion, then leaps down to lead down to lead the way with a come-hither meow. Sure, we listen to our cats, but do we really take the time to learn from them? Experts agree your cat may have more to teach you about reducing stress in your life than you realize. What kinds of tips can your favorite feline offer?

  1. Take more naps. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals most adults are in chronic sleep deprivation. "We humans live our lives in a hamster wheel of activity," says Marty Becker, DVM, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul (Health Communications, Inc., 1998). "Cats never miss a chance to take a nap. They rest a lot and don't feel a bit ashamed of it. We should bathe ourselves in sunshine, plop on a couch and take a half hour nap." Sleep deprivation is cumulative, so even an hour of sleep can make a difference in how your body functions, medical doctors say. Catnaps during the day may be the best solution for busy adults who rarely get a chance to hit the sack early or sleep in late.

  2. Stretch every day. That familiar arch and lengthening your cat does with such ease sets a perfect example. Rather than typical calisthenic-type stretches, experts advise trying something relaxing for your mind and good for your body-yoga. The low impact exercise can assist in building flexibility, strength, plus serve as a relaxation technique to calm stress. "Some of the postures in yoga actually mimic the cat," says Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., a certified bioenergetic psychotherapist in Manchester, Conn., and author of Optimum Health (Bantam Doubleday, 1998). "Yoga attenuates and assuages the sympathetic nervous system," he says. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our 'fight or flight' responses, such as increased adrenaline. Yoga helps to calm those responses, allowing the body to relax. Joining a class or doing a videotape workout at home even once a week can improve your health, he adds.

  3. Get a massage. You probably give one to your cat every day, but when was the last time you enjoyed the stress-relieving powers of massage? Your cat is also proficient in massaging itself. "When a cat cleans itself, it not only performs a bathing function, but nurtures itself with a self-massage," Dr. Sinatra says.

  4. Eat more salmon. You heard right. In reality your cat's affinity for fish may be a healthy habit, Dr. Sinatra says. Fish contain Choline, DNAE (a neuro-protective transmitter) and the enzyme CoQ10, which Dr. Sinatra says is both a brain tabby catand heart food. "Research shows as we age, we produce less CoQ10 in the body, which is the premier nutrient for anti-aging." Cats, unlike humans or dogs, seem to retain higher levels of CoQ10 as they age, he notes. "Since CoQ10 is found in a lot of fish and cats eat fish more readily than humans and dogs, it may be one of the reasons the feline mammalian species is a little sharper as they age," he says.

    5. Learn the art of silence. If you watch your cat sit by the window or in a favorite sunny spot, you may think it's being lazy and just enjoying the sunshine, but it's actually doing much more. Your cat is meditating its own way. "Cats tune out the world for short periods," Dr. Sinatra says. "Humans can achieve the same effect by focusing on their breathing and letting their mind clear in a meditative state. This discharges the nervous system, drops the heart rate and reduces blood pressure. It can also reduce the hormone Cortisol, produced by the adrenals." Cortisol, which is produced when a body is under stress, can damage the body and affect the memory and brain when present in large amounts. Some researchers believe a connection exists between the overproduction of this stress hormone and Alzheimer's disease, he adds. To incorporate this into your day, Dr. Sinatra suggest you take time to relax without thinking or doing anything. Listen to some music or lie down and close your eyes. Above all, he said, take a few minutes just to "be".

  5. Know your body. "Whatever cats do, they put their whole body into it," Dr. Sinatra says. How can this help you? "Your body can tell you a lot. When you take a walk, take in your surroundings. Get in touch with your breathing and try to focus on getting out of your head and into your body," Sinatra suggests. "If people can release their thoughts and focus on things like the roll of their hips and the fell of a step as they walk, that's when a walk can be much more healing." Dancing may be better exercise for reducing stress than walking became you listen to the music as you move and concentrate on the movement of your body to the music, Dr. Sinatra says.

  6. Combine play and exercise. "Exercise in humans doesn't have to be no pain, no gain. It can be recreational," Dr. Sinatra says. "Daily exercise in itself will produce growth hormones, which for anti-aging is a must. Cats enjoy exercise, no question." Since your cat doesn't differentiate play and exercise, neither should you. Don't be afraid of seeming silly in your enjoyment of an activity, Dr. Sinatra says. "When your cat attacks a string, actively rolls around with a toy or goes running through the house in a game of chase, it doesn't worry about what you will think. It enjoys the moment. The best thing humans can do to emulate cat behavior at play is to play with their children and grandchildren. More importantly, do it on the child's terms and not yours. The sillier you are when playing with children, the healthier it is. Take time out for a game of tag, jump rope, tumbling with the kids on the floor or playing horse."

  7. Walk away from abusive situations. Cats don't tolerate needless abuse, says Ian Dunbar, Ph.D., member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and director for the Center of Applied Animal Behavior in Berkley, Calif. "If a human owner tries to reprimand them harshly or physically, they turn around, shake it off and walk to a quite, secluded spot where they become independent and aloof. In reality, cats are highly social animals, and they are adamant about not socializing with unsocialized people," he says. "This is a marvelous lesson for people. When you remove jerks from your life, life is peaceful indeed." As a former chief of cardiology at Manchester Memorial Hospital, Dr. Sinatra suggests patients get away from stressful, emotion-laden situations that can lead to a heart attack. "I tell people that if a situation evokes a body response, such as their muscles tightening up, they need to leave."

  8. Be forthright. Cats are always quite forthright when it comes to caring for their own needs, Dr. Dunbar says. "They effectively train their owner to be a good butler and open doors, to be a good waiter and serve food, and to be a good masseuse and pet them on command. We can take a lesson from them by learning to be honest and unembarrassed about our own needs," he says.

  9. Make time for yourself. Whether it's scheduling a haircut, hiring a masseuse or talking a walk, you need to pamper yourself regularly. "People who take time for themselves have lower heart rates, lower blood pressure and a higher dispositional optimism," Dr. Sinatra says. Positive thinking is a powerful factor in preventing illness; pessimistic people get sick far more often than their optimistic counterparts.
    All in all, your cat may teach you more about reducing stress than you'd realized. The subtle enjoyment of a stretch, the contemplation of the moment, each with its catlike quality, can offer great strides toward stress reduction. Take the time to learn from your cat, so the next time you walk in the door, you'll be able to greet your cat with a knowing wink of your own.

Top Stressors in Your Cat's Life

Cats often appear relaxed, sophisticated and perfectly content, but stress may linger beneath their cool exteriors. According to animal behaviorists, certain factors can cause your cat to stress out, which may lead to behavioral problems. The factors that can cause your cat the most stress may be closer to home than your think. Behaviorists suggest introducing change slowly, especially when one of the following stressors is present:

  • Other cats. Keep an eye out for territorial behavior.
  • Introduction of another animal, such as a dog, ferret or bird, to the household.
  • New people, children or babies.
  • A new or remodeled home.
  • A significant change in your work schedule.
  • Poor health, recent visits to the veterinarians office or chronic medical conditions.
  • Strong reprimands and physical punishment. Use positive reinforcement instead.
  • Limited access to the litter box, food and water bowls or safe, comfortable sleeping areas.
  • Loud noises from alarms, barking dogs or indoor appliances, such as vacuum cleaners or central heating and cooling units.

Is Your Cat Stressed Out?

If your cat is experiencing stress, you'll probably see the symptoms in the form of altered behavior. Animal behaviorists who specialize in treating cats suggest you keep a diary of your cat's behavior to help recognize and assess stressors when they occur.

"We look for altered grooming patterns, whether or not the cat is eating, urinating or defecating formally and has normal activity patterns and social interactions," says Barbara Simpson, DVM, Ph.D., a veterinary behaviorist at the Veterinary Behavior Clinic in Southern Pines, N.C. "Stress is something we all seem to identify with, but we seem to have trouble defining it. Definite signals present themselves if cats are not doing well," she adds.

If your cat's veterinarian has ruled out medical causes for behavioral changes, and you believe your cat needs help, consider contacting an animal behaviorist. Ask your veterinarian or contact a college of veterinary medicine for a referral. You can also turn to books, magazines and Web sites for information. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior can give referrals either by e-mail or by mail. Visit it at To contact the ASVAB by mail, write to Dr. Laurie Martin, ASVAB secretary, Dept. CF, 201 Cedarbrook Rd., Naperville, Il. 60565.

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