Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Nature v Nurture: The Case of the Nervous Cat

Are some cats just born nervous? Can we teach them to relax around other cats of the household? Can we help anxious cats become confident? How do we ensure our cats grow-up to be well-adjusted, stress free and healthy? Well the ongoing nature/nurture debate can help provide the answers.

We are all born with the ability to feel anxious, it is indeed a survival mechanism to steer us from danger[1]. But why do our cats respond so differently to particular stressors?

We have all noticed that some cats are more timid than others when put in certain situations, some cats will struggle to get out of the hands of the vet, others will close their eyes and submit. Some behave aggressively when taken to a show, others hide away. We have witnessed some timid cats learning and developing over the years to become more confident, whereas others of the same lineage remain fearful.

Timid cats are at risk of a number of stress-related behavioural difficulties, affecting both health and welfare of that individual. Experts have correlated stress with urination around the home, over-grooming, eating disorders, aggression, depression, re-occurring infection and inflammation and maternal rejection[2]. So how can we avoid these potential difficulties? First we need to understand where the core issue lies.

The study of the genetics in reference to complex behaviours such as anxiety, has evolved dramatically from the old nature vs. nurture of the past century. Researchers highlight the importance of specific gene-environment interactions during critical periods in development and their role for the onset of stress-related behaviours in the later stages of life[3]. So although no single gene has been identified to account for these exaggerated arousal levels, it is acknowledged that nature plays a part in the onset of anxiety-related disorders, a predisposition rather than full cause[4].

The nurture element comes in to play during the development of the cat within our domestic environment. We regularly witness this as we see two littermates develop to adopt differing behavioural strategies to certain situations. These environmental elements to cats' developing anxiety-related behavioural issues, includes the age that they have been weaned, previous learning about humans and their world, being ‘overloaded’ with new learning, e.g. moving house, to name a few.

Environment is always an issue that I come across with my work and indeed is the simplest for us to alter to avoid behavioural problems with our cats. The feline has evolved to develop certain essential behaviours for survival. Our domestic cats maintain these behavioural needs, they have internal drives to eat a variety of meats little and often, to sleep for around 18 hours a day, to climb up to higher vantage points, hide or flee from danger, maintain social company, and so on, these behaviours are ‘hardwired’ deep inside the brain.

If these behaviours are restricted, just as we do, our cats suffer an element of stress. So to eliminate this factor we simply allow more natural eating patterns, i.e. eating little and often throughout the day, having meat to tear at, increased nesting sites for all cats of the household, scratching posts and horizontal scratching surfaces, hideaways, look out posts, access to the outdoors (even if only a pen to allow secure access) to get you started.

Due to the complexities of this topic this is all rather brief, but provides a good starting point. Please feel free to contact me for further reading suggestions, I am always happy to help.

Take care


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[1] Cannon, W. (1929) Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage. New York, Appleton

[2] Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W. And Ackerman (1997) Handbook of Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat, Elsevier Limited, United Kingdom

[3] Leonardo E. D. and and Hen, R (2006) Genetics of Affective and Anxiety Disorders, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol.57:, pp.117-137

[4] Donner, J. et al (2008) An Association Analysis of Murine Anxiety Genes in Humans Implicates Novel Candidate Genes for Anxiety Disorders, Biological Psychiatry, Vol.64, No.8, pp. 672-680