Bouncing Back: The Resilience Rainbow for Cats

Does your cat show signs of stress, such as peeing outside the box, when you travel, even though they love the pet sitter? Do they take days to recover from vet visits, changes in routine, or even new furniture? Does every little thing seem to set them off, leaving you feeling sad for them or frustrated with their behavior? Your cat may lack resilience.

What is Resilience and Why Does it Need a Rainbow?

Resilience is the ability of an individual to resist and bounce back from the negative effects of stress. Because stress can be a leading factor in both behavioral and physical concerns in cats, building a cat’s ability to handle stress can be extremely valuable to their long-term wellbeing. 

Daily life can support or damage an individual’s resilience. By considering a cat’s daily life and routine, you can help them to build resilience and be better able to cope with both routine life and larger stressors they might encounter.

Created by Bobbie Bhambree (CDBC, CPDT-KA) and Dr. Kathy Murphy (BVetMed, DPhil, CVA, CLAS, MRCVS), the Resilience Rainbow is a framework for supporting pets through building and maintaining resilience. There are seven domains to the framework, like the colors of a rainbow. The creators of this framework published an article describing these concepts in more detail and applying them to dogs, which you can read here. Continue reading below for how the Resilience Rainbow relates to cats.

Decompression

As described in the article, decompression is “the process of releasing or reducing pressure”. You can think of it as letting air out of a balloon so it is less likely to pop. Decompression activities can be incorporated into your cat’s daily routine to support their overall ability to cope when challenging situations do occur. Or you can use them to help your cat recover after a stressful moment, like coming home from the vet. 

You can tell when an activity has helped your cat decompress because afterwards their breathing has slowed, their body is more relaxed, and they are more able to settle. Some activities that might help a cat decompress are:

Try different activities and observe the effect they have on your unique individual.

Tabby cat stretched out, relaxed, on brick surface.
Credit: Karsten Paulick/Pixabay

Safety and Security

Safety is actually being protected from harm; security is feeling that you are protected. While most indoor pet cats are safe, they may not feel secure for many reasons. Other pets, children, unfamiliar visitors, outdoor cats, and more can contribute to a cat feeling unsafe in their home. 

You can increase both safety and security for your cat by:

  • Keeping them safely indoors when not supervised
  • Deterring outdoor cats from coming into your yard
  • Adding vertical space throughout your home so your cat can get off the ground
  • Creating a safe zone where your cat can take a break from other pets, children, or guests

Completing the Stress Cycle

If decompression is reducing some pressure, “completing the stress cycle” can be understood as a full return to baseline or full recovery from stress. The stress cycle refers to the rising and falling of the physiological stress response during and after an event. This is something that can take time, especially if there are multiple sources of stress in a cat’s life at the same time (multiple stress cycles to complete). Completing the stress cycle can often be accomplished in the same ways as decompression, though it might require multiple decompression activities over an extended period to fully recover (depending on the source of the stress, how long the cat has been experiencing it, and the unique cat).

The concept of completing the stress cycle can be important at many different points in a cat’s life. For example, your cat will need time to recover after:

  • Spending time in a shelter environment
  • Being rehomed
  • Being lost
  • Moving to a new home
  • Having new people or pets move into the home (or leave)
  • Transitioning to being indoor only
  • Having a pet sitter care for them
  • Having guests visit
  • A vet visit
  • Seeing outdoor cats
  • And more

If your cat experiences one of these things, take extra care to support them in the hours, days, and weeks following.

Mental and Physical Wellbeing

Your cat will have a particularly hard time coping with stress or change if they already have deficits in their general wellness. This category includes health, diet, species-appropriate environment, and enrichment. Given that large range, here are just a few starting places:

Predictability

Predictability decreases stress, reduces anxiety, and can help a cat feel they have more control over their life (see Agency below). That said, too much predictability can lead to boredom and might decrease resilience to novelty later in life. It’s a balancing act but, in general, cats benefit from more predictability than less.

  • Create a routine of daily play, feeding, and interactions
  • Maintain the routine with a pet sitter when you’re away
  • Interact with and pet your cat in consistent and predictable ways, paying attention to what they enjoy
  • Introduce novelty through enrichment in a way that gives your cat choice

Social Support

Secure social attachments and positive interactions can support increased resilience. People or other pets can provide social support but just having other pets in the house doesn’t automatically mean your cat benefits from these relationships. Check in on whether pets are really getting along

  • Whenever possible, stay with your cat during their vet visits to provide comfort.
  • If your cat wants to sit on your lap to observe a situation, allow them. Just make sure other pets aren’t crowding them, if they aren’t comfortable with this.
  • Have a more confident pet greet guests to take the pressure off, while providing a safe place for a shyer cat to retreat and observe.

Agency

Agency is being able to control actions and their consequences in your life. Many cats lack agency because of the confines of pet life. They can’t choose where to go, who to interact with, what they eat, or many other aspects of life. Our cats’ preferences are often ignored in favor of ours. To some degree this is because we make choices to protect their safety and health, or because there aren’t other options we can give them. However, increasing agency when we can is an important part of caring for a cat. You can increase agency, control, and choice while maintaining safety and without it being a free-for-all. 

  • Use positive reinforcement to teach your cat to cooperate in their own care, such as nail trims or taking medications, rather than using force.
  • Provide options for resting, hiding, eating, avoiding other pets or guests, and using the litter box.
  • Learn to understand and respect your cat’s body language.

The Resilience Rainbow invites us to take a big picture look at the lives of our cats and their long term wellbeing. To learn more about the impacts of stress and the possibility of building resilience, read the author’s article here. What can you do today to build resilience?

 

If your cat would benefit from more resilience, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.