How do you tell if your cat has mental problems?

It can difficult to tell if your cat has mental health problems. The subject of mental health in domestic cats is a very difficult one even for the experts, including veterinarians because we don’t know enough about it. And we don’t know enough about it because we can’t talk to our cats. We therefore have to guess and work backwards from behaviour which we might consider as abnormal.

Cat's simplified mental processes
Cat’s simplified mental processes. Illustration: PoC based in image in public domain.
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Introduction – we don’t know much

It’s interesting to note that in the best book you can buy on home veterinary care, Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, ‘mental health’ is not mentioned in the index at all. That is the kind of emphasis that is placed on mental health in domestic cats.

There is also a murky dividing line between genuine mental health problems and logical behavioural responses to events or stimuli. If the response is logical and normal it can’t be said to be a mental health problem. It is therefore difficult to talk about it in the context of animals. And animals respond logically because their behaviour is instinctive. This precludes a diagnosis of mental health problem in some instances.

There is a danger as well to anthropomorphise cats and project our mental health issues onto them, although it can be useful sometimes to do this because it may help us to diagnose mental health problems. For example, if they demonstrate obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because of stress, we can recognise this in ourselves. There is certainly quite a lot of overlap between domestic cats and people in terms of behaviour driven by circumstance and inherited characteristics.

To get to the meat of the article, I think we can reduce or summarise feline mental health problems into those few topics that we do agree exist. I list them below.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder in cats

Over-groomed cat
Over-groomed cat on belly. Likely cause: stress. Picture in public domain.

In reading about cats over fourteen years, it is hard not to come across references to OCD in cats. This is manifested in a cat by over-grooming their stomach and the inside of their hind legs, which are easily accessible areas of their anatomy. This can result in fur being removed entirely down to the skin. It’s agreed that cats do this because there are stressed and self-grooming calms the nerves. The cause and effect is the same in cats as it is in people and OCD is quite commonplace in people to varying degrees. It provides a sense of control in people which is calming.

Other examples of OCD might be pacing, vocalising, overeating and sucking or chewing on non-nutritious objects such as fabric. Actually sucking and chewing on wool is another example of a known mental health issue.

Wool sucking

Feline wool-sucking
Feline wool-sucking. Picture in public domain.

It is said that if a domestic cat sucks their owner’s ear lobe or some other object such as a person’s finger or a garment, it is due to early weaning. In other words the cat was removed from their mother too early which has resulted in this deviant behaviour of being nursed by a human when they stuck on that person’s ear. It looks like a form of madness but it is probably fair to say that it is a logical extension of being weaned too early. I think it’s fair to classify wool sucking as a mental health problem and one which is known about. Incidentally Dr Desmond Morris suggests that cats suck wool because of the lanolin in it (plus early weaning).

Kittens sucking their thumbs is not uncommon by the way:

Kitten sucking their thumb
This is an alternative to wool-sucking. Photo: PoC.

Depression

Rescue cat with a sad face
Rescue cat with a sad face. Pic in public domain.

To discuss depression in the context of humans is difficult because the word “depression” is very elastic. Therefore layperson like myself, never mind a veterinarian, have to be incredibly cautious when discussing this mental health issue in relation to domestic cats. Let’s agree that cats can suffer from depressed mood because of the environment in which they live. It is hard to detect it in their behaviour but logically we have to conclude that it happens and the converse also happens namely that they can be content in a nice environment. Can we see depression in a cat’s facial expression? I think so.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome

Anti-dementia tablet for cats
Anti-dementia tablet for cats. Picture: PoC.

The title is a long version of what we might call senility or dementia in people. It is a well rehearsed topic concerning people. It is also a well-known syndrome in geriatric dogs and a similar condition is seen in some older cats. I think it’s fair to say that it does exist in some geriatric cats. They might have memory problems, forget how to use the litter box and lose some awareness of their surroundings. They might pace and howl at night as if lost. They are generally disorientated and indeed disorientation may be present in up to 40% of cats from 16 to 20 years of age according to the book I refer to above.

Trauma resulting in mental illness

Based on my reading about cats, we can say that domestic cats are very resilient, mentally, to trauma. They recover from traumatic events in the long term and normally don’t demonstrate mental health problems as a result such as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Veterinarians must treat a lot of cats who have suffered trauma and I think they would say that they recover remarkably well but it takes time and patience to overcome. Let’s say that cats may suffer temporary mental health problems because of trauma.

Feline hyperesthesia syndrome

There is a short section in the book I have (mentioned above) on this mental health issue. They say that it occurs at about 1 to 4 years of age. The cat has episodes when their skin twitches, the tail whips and they don’t want to be touched. It’s as if the skin is supersensitive. The pupils are dilated. The trouble is that vets don’t know whether this is a mental health issue, a neurological problem or a behavioural problem. It is normally seen in Abyssinian, Himalayan, Burmese and Siamese cats. The condition highlights our lack of knowledge of mental health problems in domestic cats.

Autism in cats

Is my cat autistic?

It appears that some cat owners believe that vaccinations can cause cats to become autistic. These are anti-vaxxers. There is a lot of this around at present with the Covid-19 vaccinations being administered in huge numbers. I am mentioning this for completeness but there is no science to the best of my knowledge which supports the notion tha cats can suffer from autism.

Jackson Galaxy

Jackson Galaxy, the well-known cat behaviourist, has referred to, in his books and I suspect also in his videos, medication such as antidepressants to treat cats which he has decided have mental health problems as reflected in their abnormal behaviour. He is a very well respected cat behaviourist and he has seen a lot of cat behavioural problems. I trust his judgement. In short, he is saying that sometimes cats do suffer from mental health problems and when you can’t get to the bottom of cat behaviour in the usual way, the only way forward is to treat the cats with medication. Perhaps Lux the Cat is one example.

Narcissism

This is a fun section because in my opinion narcissism or narcissistic behaviour is exclusively to do with people. Can domestic cats be narcissistic? No, but it is said that narcissistic people prefer dogs and codependent people prefer cats! This is because narcissistic people want to be adored and admired and dogs fit the bill. Cats, on the other hand, do not look up in wide-eyed admiration at their owner. They are on an equal footing and sometimes they are the master because they train their owner very subtly over a long period of time to get their way. This only happens if the owner loves their cat.

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