Categories: mental health

Is it possible for cats to have autism?

I think you could extend the word ‘autistic’ to describe the behaviour of unsocialised cats. I explain why.

A couple of years ago I wrote about pet vaccinations and the belief by some cat owners that they can cause autism in pets because of the claimed link to autism in people by former doctor Andrew Jeremy Wakefield. Subsequently it was found that that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, there is a group of people in America who still support him because they believe in his work.

Autism in cats?

Autism is described as ‘a developmental disorder characterised by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behaviour’. They say the brain looks different in a child with autism compared to a ‘normal’ brain. Autism seems to be a genuine condition rather than a label that doctors stick on kids who behave differently to ‘normal’ kids. I am not wholly convinced that it is a genuine condition.

For the time being, I think we have to put aside the idea that cat vaccinations might cause autism in cats because (1) no one has done any research into autism in cats and (2) as mentioned, the link between vaccines and autism has not be proven in people.

However, an interesting thought has just popped into my head which makes it entirely possible that cats can suffer from a feline version of human autism (as we describe the condition). I have repeated the definition of autism above. You could apply it to unsocialised cats. Perhaps this is why people ask for information on autism in cats. The questioners can see a similarity between feral or undomesticated cats and autistic people.

In terms of integrating with people (the objective of cat domestication) the behaviour of unsocialised cats is similar to that of autistic kids because they have difficulty with social interaction (with people) and they have not learnt to communicate in asking for food and attention by using the meow. Unsocialised cats also demonstrate restricted and repetitive behaviour in that they consistently hide from people, hiss at them and refuse to interact.

Although no one has labelled feral or unsocialised cats autistic cats you could do it based on observable behaviour. But scientists and vets would say that I am anthropomorphising domestic cats (humanising them). And in a way I am because I am referring to the cat-human interaction. In cat-to-cat interactions this argument does not hold up.

As I said earlier, this is about labels. The term was first used by Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist. In the 1940s researchers started to use the word to describe kids with emotion problems. It seems to me that the continued increase in diagnosis of autism in kids is due to doctors extending the word ‘autistic’ to describe more types of what they consider to be ‘abnormal behaviour’ but which might be different behaviour. Autism as a descriptive word is elastic and the elastic is being stretched. On that basis it could be stretched further to describe unsocialised cats.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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