Temple Grandin (in conjunction with Catherine Johnson) believes that it is possible that the domestic cat’s small frontal lobes compared to the rest of the brain might have something to do with, what she sees, as a high occurrence of ODC-like behaviour in cats.
A human’s frontal lobes, which are behind the forehead, take up to 29% of the brain, whereas the frontal lobes of the cat are just 3.5 percent. The frontal lobes, we are told, are important for such things as planning, organizing, staying on track and importantly, changing actions.
Cats get stuck on one sort of behavior or thought pattern and are unable to shift to a different one. She mentions the instance of a cat shelter where there were 40 cats. They were housed together inside a room with cages along the walls. The doors to the cages were open. The person in charge of the shelter told potential adopters that they should not even try to adopt one of the adult cats living there because they always ended up being brought back to the shelter.
She explained this by saying that the cats who lived in this room had formed a colony and they did not want to leave. I have never heard of rescue cats forming a colony in a shelter before and not under the heading of obsessive-compulsive disorder but it does indicate the strength of the feelings of a cat being set in his ways and unable to change. In addition there is, of course, the anxiety and fear of moving to a new place. I wonder, though, if Temple Grandin has this wrong.
It is interesting that Temple Grandin equates the attachment that cats have to their homes and their territory with a cat’s obsessions and compulsions. There are many instances of cats making their way home after being forced to move to a new home. On one occasion Temple Grandin mentions the case of a cat which kept running back to the old home until finally the new people who’d moved in said they would adopt the cat so that she could keep on living in the same place (see a similar story).
Cats do get into a rut but I’m not sure this is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I see it more like a desire for comfort through familiarity and routine. We are all like that, even human beings. Some cats refuse to drink water out of the water bowls and some cats insist upon drinking straight out of the tap. She cites these as examples of obsessive compulsive disorder. Once again I see them as just preferences and familiar routines which are reassuring and, as for tap water, it is fresher. Many cat owners don’t change water often enough.
She also thinks that cat obsessions may be a reason why many cats can end up in predicaments that they can’t get back out of. It is because they get “mentally stuck”, she says.
She also believes that a lot of elimination disorders have obsessive-compulsive disorder qualities about them. She states that a cat can get anxious about his litter box or about another cat and start to pee and poop outside the litter box. The cat continues to do this because he can’t stop as a result of excessive, compulsive behaviors.
Once again, I see this as an incorrect assessment. A cat will continue to go outside the litter box because (a) the reason for not using the litter box still exists and (b) he has created a new “toilet area” and cats like to use the same area as it is a habit that is hard-wired as a marking behavior.
My conclusion is that the small frontal lobes may be factor in obsessive behaviours but I don’t believe the level and influence of obsessive/compulsive behaviours is as bad as Temple Grandin makes out.
Note: Temple Grandin is the author of Animals Make Us Human (and I believe other works). The ideas from this book.