Study Shows Cats Communicate Distress With Fake Illnesses

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Caring for a creature that doesn’t speak the same language comes with challenges. Pet owners rely on body language, behavioral observation, and plain old guesswork in their attempts to better understand their cats and care for their needs.

To make things more complicated, a recent study shows cats are capable of communicating in unexpected ways. Researchers from Ohio State University suggest some cats “fake illness” to send specific messages to their caregivers.

In the study, researchers observed the health and behaviors of 32 cats. Within that group, 20 cats were diagnosed with an illness called feline interstitial cystitis. This chronic condition causes bladder pain most often triggered by a change in routine or environment. The remaining 12 cats were confirmed healthy at the start of the study.

Predictable Routines

While the sampling of cats was relatively small, researchers found a clear pattern when changing the daily routine for both healthy and sick cats. During weeks when the cats enjoyed unchanged, predictable daily routines, both groups displayed few “sickness behaviors.”

Researchers defined these behaviors like vomiting, refusing food, and not using the litter box. In the healthy cat group, there was an average of .4 sickness “events.” In comparison, there were .7 events in the group with confirmed illnesses.

Disrupting the Daily Schedule

During weeks when caretakers changed something about the routine, researchers noticed a significant change in the cats’ perceived health. They expected the cats with interstitial cystitis to exhibit an increased number of symptoms, but surprising data came from the group of healthy cats.

According to the study, the healthy cats were almost as likely to experience sickness behaviors as their cystitis-diagnosed peers. The healthy group of cats suddenly presented with an average of 1.9 sickness behaviors. At the same time, the cats with cystitis averaged 2.0 sickness behaviors.

Using Health as Communication

The number of sickness behaviors tripled for both groups when their routines were changed. By looking at the numbers, it is hard to discern which group consists of chronically ill cats and which is made up of healthy cats. Researchers concluded that the healthy cats appeared to be sick due to the stress or discomfort caused by the changes in routine.

It’s impossible to tell whether the cats consciously chose to “fake” an illness or whether their symptoms were brought on solely by stress. Either way, they got their point across. Their behavior sent a clear message that the changes were both noticed and unwelcome.

In a press release, Tony Buffington, a professor at Ohio State University said, “A healthy cat, or any healthy mammal, can feel the stress of environmental disruption and exhibit sickness behaviors as a result. You get the environment right, and they’ll recover.”

Keeping Cats Healthy

These sickness behaviors can give pet owners valuable insight into their cats’ thinking. If a cat has concerning symptoms that don’t seem to connect with a diagnosable illness, their routine could provide answers. Cats often rely on predictable routines to help them feel safe and confident.

When they’re fed at different times, introduced to new family members, exposed to something new in their environments, or spend more/less time with their families, these changes can negatively affect both their mental and physical well-being.

To ensure these sensitive felines stay happy and healthy, cat experts encourage pet owners to keep their cats on regular schedules. They say to deliver meals at the same times every day, keep the cat’s food, water, and litter box in consistent locations, and have patience when making changes to their home life.

When change is unavoidable, pet owners can help cats through the transition by offering increased opportunities for enrichment, bonding, and relaxation.

While some cats like to act like they rule the house, the truth is that pets have little control over their lives. This powerlessness can be understandably stressful. The best thing pet owners can do is respect those feelings and give cats the stability and routine to keep them confident.

About Amber King

Amber's pet writing career started when her strong-willed and understandably anxious rescue dog, Copper, inspired her to write about her experiences training and loving such a beloved family member. Since then, she has welcomed more dogs, cats, foster cats, and chickens into her life. She uses her experiences with her own pets as well as lessons learned by volunteering with animal shelters to help other pet people better understand and care for their furry best friends.