Thursday, October 9, 2014

Is stroking your cat good for your cat?

This is how Hero greets me when he wants a pat. Subtle.

As some readers may be aware, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider, Coursera, is running an interesting course on Epidemics with instructors from the University of Pennsylvania. And it is fascinating stuff (vet student readers take note - its a lovely review of immunology, a good intro to public health and a nice revisiting of microbiology - and its painless!).

A new area for me is the topic of social influences on immunity. Social support, or lack thereof, may have a significant influence on timing of onset of clinical signs, disease progression and severity. This is well documented in HIV patients. It would be interesting to study this phenomenon in the veterinary clinical context. For example, I wonder if anyone has looked at whether outcomes in animals who receive more attention are improved? And if so, how much boils down to social/emotional support and how much to instrumental support (i.e. being more diligent about medicating and nursing affected animals).

As it happens an Australian study, just published, looked at the benefits of stroking a cat to the cat itself. The experiments were conducted in a shelter. One lucky scientist had the job of being chief stroker: patting cats gently on the head and neck and talking to them softly for ten minutes at a time, four times a day. If the cats were on the cranky side, they bravely used an extendable stick with a rubber tip. (Tough job, but someone has to pat cats for science).

The recipient cats on the whole were less anxious, appeared to secrete more IgA in faeces, and overall shed less pathogens (including Mycoplasma felis,  calicivirus, herpesvirus (FHV-1) and Bordetella bronchiseptica) than control-cats. They were also less likely to develop flu signs.

Overall this suggests a beneficial effect on immunity, potentially mediated by stress reduction. Which raises a big issue - should shelters be putting more resources into personalised attention for cats? It might seem like a luxury, but if it results in less spread of disease, and less severe disease, it might be a good investment.

Another interesting concept being discussed in the course is the microbiome. When I went through uni and we learned immunology the term microbiome wasn’t mentioned. The microbiome consists of all of the microorganisms living in and on us. According to the Epidemics instructor Marcel Salathe, these outnumber human cells by a factor of 10:1, and contain 100x more genes than our own genome – but have a combined weight of less than 1kg. Scientists are currently exploring the role of the microbiome in our response to disease, much as the role of genes was the primary focus, at least when it came to the host, a decade ago.

And if all of this talk of cats is tempting you, check out this post on why you should adopt a cat (if you have not already):


Gourkow N, Hamon SC and Phillips CJC (2014) Effect of gentle stroking and vocalisation on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease in anxious shelter cats. Preventative Veterinary Medicine doi:10.1016/j.prevetmed.2014.06.005