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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 and
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,"
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".
- 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.
- 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."
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- Strong reprimands and physical punishment. Use positive reinforcement
- Limited access to the litter box, food and water bowls or safe, comfortable
- 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 www.avma.org/avasb/homepage.htm
To contact the ASVAB by mail, write to Dr. Laurie Martin, ASVAB secretary,
Dept. CF, 201 Cedarbrook Rd., Naperville, Il. 60565.