Mews & Views

Mews & Views -- A blog for cat lovers everywhere with a focus on the low-income pet cats of northern and central New Mexico.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Caution: Displacement Stress May Kill An Otherwise Healthy Cat

We knew moving our cats would be stressful – for them and us. But, we also knew the trip would only last 2 days and then they would adapt quickly to their new home. These are special cats -- troopers who have already gone through more life changes than most cats – and each time they’ve landed on their feet.

Most started out in traditional one-cat family homes and then were relinquished, lost or abandoned when they were middle aged – 8-12 years old. This change by itself could have killed them – as they ended up at their local animal control shelter where cats over 5 years old automatically fail the adoption litmus test. But, through an odd stroke of fate, they escaped death row to live at our Cat Retirement Farm during the brief time (2000-2003) that we were admitting cats and then subsequently moved home with us for continuing life care when we closed the farm in 2005.

The stress from losing their original family took an immediate toll on most of the cats, and so their first weeks -- or in some cases months -- with us were spent nursing them back to good health -- syringe feeding them Science Diet AD, hydrating them with SQ fluids, and administering medications to treat aggressive upper respiratory infections. These inherently healthy middle-aged cats were overcome by the stress of losing their family, but all they needed to bounce back was a heavy dose of attention and supportive care to keep them going while they adjusted to their new life style. They needed to know they had a home and that life was good. Once they understood this, they rebounded as quickly as they got sick.

We provided the supportive care because we were committed to the belief that the life of each cat has value and once we rescued one, we would care for him or her in the same manner we would a pet cat. Sadly, this is not the case at most shelters whose focus is to adopt out quickly and spend as little time and money on each cat as possible. In these shelters – at the first signs of anorexia or sneezing – the cats are put down – even though these are not life-threatening conditions unless left untreated. The budget and motivation to preserve the lives of the orphaned cats just isn’t there – a sick cat makes the shelter look bad, is hard to place, and can be remedied by an injection of euthanasia juice. There are always more cats waiting to take their place. I’ve always found it strangely ironic that small rescues – often operated by individuals that have no donor base – spend their own time and money to provide their cats with quality veterinary care and yet larger shelters with inertia-laden endowments sitting in their investment accounts -- and often in-house veterinary clinics -- put the same cats down at the first signs of illness.

Even the design of traditional shelters exacerbates the stress an orphaned cat feels often triggering the very illnesses that are their demise. The more days the cat spends at a caged shelter, the more likely they are to stop eating or catch a cold. Fostering them in the homes of volunteers is a much more viable way of housing cats while they await a new home. There, they can receive around-the-clock care, live in a familiar setting, and have the stimulus (windows, toys, people) they need to reduce their stress over being displaced. And, the foster parent, can become a powerful advocate in seeing to the cat getting a permanent home – they learn the cats personality, behaviors and temperaments and can advocate from that knowledge.

In this last life change for the TLC cats, only one cat’s stress caused any sign of illness. Simon had an outbreak of his chronic herpes virus. It had been in remission since the last time we moved him – from the TLC farm to our home. Fortunately this outbreak was nothing compared to his earlier ones (see photo) and was treatable with his regular treatments – cleaning his eyes daily with a moist cotton pad, applying Genteal Gel severe eye drops twice daily, giving him 250mg of L-lysine once daily and applying a few drops of prednisolone acetate twice weekly. We simply increased the pred for a few days and caught the virus while it only affected the skin on the tip of his nose. His eyes fortunately stayed pretty clear.

Why we didn’t see any more signs of stress-triggered illness in the TLC cats probably has to do with the bonds they’ve formed with us and with each other. Once they got to their destination they craved more attention for a few days – in fact even the four feral cats were hovering around our bed the first couple of nights – but soon fell back into their old routines of seeking out their friends to sun and nap with. Life is good when you have wide window sills and heated floors to nap on with your best buddies.


  1. Did you build your new house in Santa Fe, or were you specifically looking for another one with heated floors? Were you able to sell your A2 home... and are you continuing TLC in NM???? (Glad everyone is OK!)

  2. No - we moved into a house that had been built in the 1990's. Although we weren't specifically looking for a house with heated floors, the fact that this house had radiant heat was a big plus. Apparently in the Santa Fe area, it's the most common form of heat and most houses use it for at least a portion of the heat. Our Ann Arbor house is not on the market yet, but should be soon.

    We will set up cat programs -- almost certainly spay/neuter -- in the near future. First we need to get settled in our home, then we have to see what is already being done in Santa Fe County for cats and then we'll develop our programs -- hopefully in a way that compliments the work being done already by other cat organizations. For example, the Friends of Felines web site refers to a program they have that cats can be fixed for a $10 co-pay and the County itself mentions a program they run with a couple dozen private veterinary clinics that guarantees low-cost spay/neuter. We may be able to do something in conjunction with one of these programs to help -- or they may be groups these programs don't connect with that we could focus on.