Cats With Learning Difficulties

My personal experiences inform me that there are cats with learning difficulties. It is to be expected. “Learning difficulties” is a nice term. Another is “educationally disadvantaged”. In the old days people used to use the cruder term “educationally subnormal” or ESN.  I am referring to cats that have noticeably lower intelligence.

Little runt of a kitten. Photo by Ctwirler12
Little runt of a kitten. Photo by Ctwirler12
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

I realise that “intelligence” is a very easy word to abuse and misuse. Cat intelligence is different to human intelligence. Indeed, even, the classic I.Q. test is misleading for humans.

I need to be sensitive to the difficulties of writing about so called “intelligence”. I also recognise that signs that might indicate a lack of intelligence might be caused by a timid and very shy character, for example.

However, that caveat recognized, I have seen cats that behave in a way that indicate to me that they lack the usual standard in skills and characteristics associated with cats.

In fact, right now I am looking after a cat that I think might have learning difficulties. I could be wrong. Her owner, a very elderly lady, had a fall and has gone to hospital. I wish her the very best by the way. We are looking after her cat. She is a tiny, underweight female. She lacks appetite. We are off to the vet with her asap.

However, she seems to have that slightly confused, glazed over look on her face. It is a face that lacks the usual level of alertness in cats. This may be due to what has happened. I understand that, but I don’t believe it is, in this instance.

I have seen what I would consider to be clear signs of learning difficulties in two purebred cats. One was a blue British Shorthair living in Britain, bred by a British breeder. The other was a Burmese who was also a British bred purebred cat.

Both responded less well to stimulation in any form. They were both somewhat characterless. A list of the characteristics that I would ascribe to a cat that is educationally disadvantaged are:

  • slightly confused look on the face
  • passive – less active
  • less responsive to interaction with people
  • tends to lack an emotional response

This is obviously far from a scientific approach. It is just observation. My theory is that inbreeding in purebred cats can affect a cat’s intelligence. Inbreeding can lead to noticeable health issues, some of which are rather vague such as a compromised immune system resulting in illness and a shorter life. A classic example might be the condition referred to as Bengal Nose or HCM in Bengal cats.

Inbreeding cat also result in impaired brain function. This is much less noticeable. For example in the case of the blue British Shorthair, this cat breed is quite passive, quiet and docile anyway. It is difficult to assess brain function through simple observation. This is why cats with learning difficulties go unnoticed.

As far as I am aware, there is almost no work on cat intelligence. There is one semi-anecdotal survey on cat breed intelligence. But when did you last see an article on the internet about cats with learning difficulties?

Funnily enough, Elisa has just mentioned Sealy’s drooling in a comment saying that it might be due to brain damage caused a fan belt injury. There will be quite a lot of articles about brain damage caused by trauma but very little about reduced brain function due to poor breeding or a lack of proper development in the womb.

In the case of the cute little female cat I am currently caring for, her tiny size and low weight may be due to malnourishment as a newborn kitten and/or a lack of proper fetal development in the womb. I don’t know. That is a pure guess and quite a wild guess.

Geriatric cats with dementia – a widely recognised condition amongst veterinarians –  will exhibit similar characteristics to cats that have learning difficulties.

I think it is fair to say that in general cat owners don’t think a lot about this topic. People consider all cats to be the same or very similar in respect of intelligence. There may be many cats that have reduced brain function due to the effects of poor nutrition on the fetus or, in the case of pedigree cats, inbreeding due to the breeder striving to create a good looking cat, while paying less attention to health issues.

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19 thoughts on “Cats With Learning Difficulties”

  1. Michael:
    You’re clearly/truely one of us cat lover/rescuer/helper, it takes a person with a very loving heart & lots of patience to help one of our purry/furry friends in distress; Cardie looks very young & perhaps undernourished, very traumatized.
    perhaps by learning her nutritional needs thru a caring vet & giving her a special diet with LOTS of patience along with TLC (tender loving care)she’ll improve physically & mentally as well. Michael, please keep us posted on sweet Cardie.
    Best sincere wishes on Cardie & your other cats,
    Southeast Arizona (USA)

    • Thanks keenpetite. I can’t not help a cat (or any animal) in distress. In fact, I go towards them, willingly, and with a strong desire to help in my heart. I don’t know where that comes from. It does create a little bit of a burden for me. I am sure may people who feel the same way carry the same burden.

      • Michael:
        Again it’s great what you do for our furry/purry friends, dogs, cats & whatever needs help @the moment. God Almighty created all animals for our companionship. There are times when they need more than the usual help & since we were created in His image, we should view it as a privilege not a burden, He will reward us in kind, please read the account of Creation in the first 3 chapters of Genesis.
        I’m extremely elated & pleased that as mentioned previously, Michael is one of us, catlover/rescuer/helper. Some of us are born with it.
        Wish you & yours a most beautiful time with your purry/furry friends.
        Southeast Arizona (USA)

  2. Good luck for both you and Cardie with the vet visit. Whatever the situation, she’s a lucky little cat to have come into your care however brief it might be. I had the same questions Marc asked regarding her age and life situation. What kind of food is she used to. Does she go outside at all. How is Charlie doing with her? I assume he isn’t threatened at all by the little girl.

    May your journey to the vet be easy, and I hope Cardie’s caretaker does well and can come home soon. Look forward to hearing more.

  3. When my cats got back from their spay surgery I was worried they were brain damaged due to them behaving exactly according to the list of symptoms you have described. Listless and spaced out they were. I am a worrier and I watched them both like a hawk and it was very frightening for me to see them lacking their usualy alert characters. What you are describing sounds like the after effects of anaesthesia but without the low blood pressure basically. Is it possible she was operated on and responded badly to the anaesthesia? Otherwise yes, logically and compromised early developing stage inlife could lead to this. I have a friend who’s kitten was very ill and suffered permanently in her mental development. She fosters kittens and although this cat is grown up now it apparently still thinks its a kitten and will prefer to go sit outside the foster room with her favourite toy in the hopes of being able to join and play with the foster kittens. She is more shy and usually won’t eat til all the other regualr adult cats in the house have eaten. She is like a shy slightly scared little child I guess but she didn’t mention the blank staring or anything. Just that she is developmentally compromised and as a result is behaving more like a kitten than an adult cat. It sounds a little more serious what you are talking about here. I suspect malnourishment due to bad teeth and gums if Cardie is an only cat. Or some other ailment that is taking her appetite away. It must be exacerbated by the fact that she is now in a strange place.

    I also think Ruth made a really great point. An indoor cat is conditioned hugely by the human caretaker and is therefore limited by that relationship and the confines of the place it lives. I agree with Ruth that if a cat is left to its own devices alone in an apartment then in many ways the cat will lose many of its natural motivations and instinctual behaviours because nobody is there to stimulate it. It is physical too. They say for humans that receptors in the brain can be grown and diminished by behavioural input. So part of the cat could just die out mentally for lack stimulation. I believe it is probably not permanent but that one may have to dig deep to get an initial response. I remember getting a cat who never played to play once. He played laike he was half asleep and half motivated. Sort of lazilly grabbing at the wand toy like a depressed person would half heartedly do something. It’s sort of like the non anxiety form of depression or something.

    I hope she is ok and not sick. I hope that if she is compromised then she is happy and I hope if she is just depressed or not stimulated that something can be done to make her life more colourful and motivated. It sounds odd though.

    One omportant question – unless I missed it, how old is she? How long has she been with the elderly person? Any idea of what her usual environment is like? Visitors? No other animals obviously, but do kids come over occasionally? …or is her life extremely quiet and is she not even connecting with the caretaker on top of that?

    Fingers crossed for Cardie – I wish her well and her human too.

    • Hi Marc, thanks for the comment. About Cardie. I felt she was OK and no sick just a bad eater and perhaps the food was no good etc. Anyway, I have just been to the vets. Cardie looks well but lacks appetite. Her teeth are good. I gave her some palatable food and she ate better. Her lifestyle was very quiet with her carer who, although a very nice women, is very elderly and we don’t know when she’ll be released from hospital. That’s the background.

      Anyway, it’s bad news. Cardie has cancer of the intestine. She is not in pain. The vet palpated her insides near her intestine and felt a large lump. It is that which is causing the loss of appetite. I bought some super palatable paste type food at the vets as she likes to lick food and she has eaten it well. Very pleased. The vet gave a steroid injection to stimulate appetite and make her feel better. I don’t think she feels bad just a bit flat perhaps.

      She is at the end of her life, though. The vet said the cancer has probably spread. We will have to talk with the owner in hospital and try and contact next of kin who are a long way away. It is tough all round.

      There are some big decisions to make. I hope we can make them with Cardie’s caretaker. I am actually fearful for Cardie’s caretaker as well as she is very elderly and in the UK elderly people don’t do well in the NHS.

      • I’m so sorry for the elderly lady and for Cardie too,it sounds as if both haven’t much time left and it’s so awful they are apart.
        I don’t suppose the lady even knew Cardie wasn’t well, stomach cancer in cats is usually too far gone to operate by the cat shows symptoms and it’s diagnosed.
        The steroid will buy a bit of extra time but it’s going to be very hard on you Michael if the lady or her family leave it up to you to make the decision at to when Cardie has had enough.

        • You are right, Ruth, and it hurts already. Cardie is OK. She is sleeping and comfortable. This is going to be hard. She is a very vulnerable, sweet cat. You know, like all the regulars, I love all cats in the same way.

          • I was thinking it’s just over a year since you lost Binnie, now you face another sadness, not the same I know when you are caring for a cat who isn’t actually yours, but heartbreaking all the same.
            It made me think of Maverick too, one of the 15 abandoned cats next door to us, he was in care for a good while then got a wonderful home, but almost immediately was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw.
            Cheryl the lady who adopted him and Lilly(another of the abandoned cats) had to make the decision when to let him go, it was horrible for her. At least he was loved at the end.
            I think we who love cats can truly feel each others pain and grief when another true cat lover loses one.

            • You are right. I am still tender at the loss of Binnie and now this has been sprung upon me. It’s a bit of a downer. But we have to see the brighter side. As you say, she is loved and she has lived.

              • This is very sad to read. I feel as does Ruth in that I wish they could be together since I’m sure they’d make each others final time much nicer for each other. How sad. And for you Michael it must be hard.

                In my opinion however it is also an honour to be chosen by fate or simple circumstance to be the person who must see a little one off from this life. Actually to be landed with a situation like that is something quite special. All of a sudden you are possibly going to be the last person sweet little Cardie will see and know. I have no doubt you will make Cardie feel secure and safe in as much as you can as a complete stranger. This happened to me once. A twist of fate landed me with a dying cat who I barely got to know in the last week of her life. It’s a special thing and to be treated as such. I’m sorry this must be so sad for you because of Binnie too.
                Poor Cardie. I hope she is feeling ok and safe even though in the unknown.

                • Thanks Marc. Cardie is loved tenderly and she was sleeping today having eaten a bit. She has used her litter as well for both defecation and urination. All indications that she is sort of settled in nicely. She is nervous as expected but not overly so. I am happy about things as they are as good as they can be I feel.

                  However, tears have been shed again. Cats can do that to you when you love ’em. Tomorrow my partner is going up to hospital to try and see the elderly carer who I am informed is over 95 years of age. I fear for her really. We need to tell her about Cardie asap.

                  My experiences with Binnie make me tender but they have taught me about when I need to help Cardie on her way into that better world over the rainbow bridge.

      • I’m sorry for Cardie. Damned cancer. I just last week lost a doggie friend to cancer. He was a strong and beautiful robust beast.

        The bad news won’t help her elderly caregiver. This little bit of focused kindness toward Cardie is a wonderful gift. Soft food, knowledgable care and concern. Take care of yourself Michael.

        • Thanks dw. It is hard. I have spoken to the elderly lady’s next of kin and she is happy with what we are doing. Although it is very distressing, I am pleased in one way. We have a clear diagnosis from the vet so we know where we are. We know what to do. It will be tough on Cardie’s carer but I feel we must tell her asap because Cardie may not have long to live. I don’t know. She may have months but I have been told by the next of kin that Cardie has being going down over the past 5 weeks – quite fast. So things may happen fast.

  4. I hope that little cat you are caring for is alright Michael, poor little soul won’t know why she’s living with you instead of the elderly lady.
    It must be so traumatic for cats when the life they are used to suddenly changes, especially when they go from a home to a Rescue Centre and have to live in a cage.
    People say cats adapt, yes they do because they have no choice, it’s wonderful how they are so stoic and accepting of any fate.
    I think cats have different talents, just like people do, some may not be intellectually clever but may be clever in other ways and I agree it could go back to before birth and also the first few weeks of kittenhood. But also it could be because of lack of attention from the caretaker, some people still say ‘Cats can amuse themselves and they sleep two thirds of their life anyway’ Again they have no choice, fate decrees whether they end up with someone who truly does love cats and is prepared to spend time with them or someone who simply wants to ‘own’ a cat.

    • The little girl cat is called Cardie. She is OK. I was worried about leaving her in an empty flat. She needed help eating and I had to have her here to manage that. I am taking her to the vet at 3 pm today for a checkup. She is very small and vulnerable. She just ate some different food I put down. She prefers liquids. It may be that her teeth/gums are sore. We’ll check this out with the vet. She purrs and head butts which is a good sign of contentment. I am just concerned about her appetite. She may be ill but seems pretty healthy.

  5. Sealy fits all your criteria for learning disabled. You hold him up to face you and he just stares at you. You lay him on the vet table and he’s perfectly still until you pick him up off the table. The vet never had such a passive cat. Especially while removing stitches.

    Sealy is learning to play now. He likes to bat at toys on a string. He had a slapping fight with Midnight with him in a large cube and her outside.

    He does have a personality forming now. He’s smart enough to know to go to his feeding cage for his wet food. I believe his motor skills are very much off.

    He has a sweet lap cat personality and everyone who’s met him has fallen in love with him.


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