Can cats have mental illness? My exotic cat, Xiao Mei, was rescued as a kitten after having spent days in the top of a tree. The poor thing must have been terrified, yet the truth is, she prefers to be way up high. She gets on top of a door and lets her four legs hang down like a lion in a tree. She never has purred, and she despises the other cats. Another of my rescue cats hisses and spits a lot, even when he is purring. Where he learned such language is beyond me, but that is all it is: noise. I know Siamese who yowl their heads off and tortoiseshell cats with a “tortie ‘tude” who just can’t seem to calm down. Are they “crazy”? Not at all; these are breed-specific characteristics encoded to some degree in each cat’s respective DNA. Sometimes, when they have no safe and acceptable outlet for their instincts, they tend to get into trouble. They need their space, entertainment, a safe place, and high perches to truly be happy.
However, can cats actually be “mentally ill”? The answer is YES.
What is Mental Illness?
According to The Mayo Clinic, “mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions: disorders that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time.”
Can Cats be “Mad”?
Laurel Braitman, Ph.D, wrote her book Animal Madness in 2014 using her observations based on personal experience and scientific research. “There is not a branch of veterinary science, ethology (the science of animal behavior), neuroscience, or wildlife ecology dedicated to investigating whether animals can be mentally ill,” she writes. “[H]umans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry: experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws.” Rather than condemn anthropomorphism (the act of assigning human traits to animal behavior), she recognizes it as a way to understand how animals relate to our human selves. Dr. Braitman states: “Madness is a mirror that needs normalcy to exist. This distinction can be a murky one.” Indeed.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder In Cats
OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a behavioral disorder in which a cat engages in repeated, exaggerated behaviors that do not seem to have a real purpose. These include over-grooming to the point of irritation or exposure of bare skin, pacing, vocalizing, overeating, sucking or chewing on fabric or plastic, to name just a few examples. Some breeds seem to be more prone to OCD, especially Siamese or other Asian breeds.
Behaviors usually have a reason, however, and your veterinarian will likely want to rule out physiological problems before diagnosing your cat with a mental illness. The doctor will consider parasites, fungi, bacterial infection, allergies, skin cancer, and pain as possible factors. Tests should be performed to check for lead poisoning, thyroid problems, hypertension, vitamin deficiencies, liver and kidney disorders, and thiamin deficiency. Does the cat have brain lesions or trauma? Are there neurological problems such as epilepsy or a tumor? Rupture of a spinal disc or nerve inflammation may be causing significant pain in your cat, and hearing loss may cause vocalization. Blood screens, fecal and skin tests, food elimination, and many other avenues of exploration may solve the puzzle of your cat’s behavior.
Spaying and neutering should also be considered as a possible solution for some concerns. Regulating feeding times, eliminating inconsistencies and distressing stimuli in the household, and making play, exercise, and social time priorities can alleviate the problems. An increase in dietary roughage or a change in diet may help stop fabric sucking and chewing in particular.
Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome
FHS in cats is a rare disorder that can surface in cats of any age, but it usually affects mature cats. This is a rare condition that causes the cat to react to physical stimuli that should not cause pain. Also called “rippling skin disorder,” the skin and muscles on the cat’s back move in a distinctive way when the pain hits. It seems to be more prevalent in Asian breeds such as Siamese. I once had a Siamese that would suddenly burst into a “cat fit,” tear around the house, and even empty his anal glands on the way when an episode began. According to Dr. Alexander de Lahunta, DVM and professor emeritus of anatomy at Cornell University, these symptoms may be the result of a seizure disorder. Dr. de Lahunta describes additional signs such as salivation, wild vocalization, and uncontrolled urination. Other signs might be similar to OCD behavior described above. Medical treatment may include amitriptyline or fluoxetine, phenobarbital, prednisolone, or Gabapentin. Scheduling feeding and play times may help, as well as avoiding scratching Kitty’s back so as not to set those muscles spasming. Sometimes affected cats will try to attack the pain, which can result in other distressing behaviors. If you remember the news story of the family that called 911 because their cat had them trapped in the bedroom, that cat was eventually diagnosed with FHS and was successfully treated.
Senility in Cats
Feline Cognitive Dysfunction (FDS), sometimes called senility, is a frequently confusing disorder that mostly occurs in elderly cats over the age of 15. Litter box problems may be the first sign, followed by aimless wandering, confusion, getting stuck in corners, and an inability to recognize familiar people or family. These behaviors are sometimes medically caused by a waxy protein known as beta amyloid deposits in the brain. It is precisely what causes Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Anxiety, fear, tremors, vocalizing, licking the floor or objects, reversing or disrupting sleep cycles, and changing interaction with family or pets may become evident. Therapy with a medication called Anipryl has been researched by a number of veterinarians; approved for use in canines, researchers have found that it dramatically helps about a third of cats with feline senility. Another third of cats tested showed moderate improvement. The final third showed no improvement. Although it is not a cure, this effectiveness buys back some time with these kitties, and that is a precious thing.
Mental stimulation, puzzle toys, and entertainment such as bird feeders that cats can watch are helpful tools to keep your cat mentally alert. Giving cats places to lounge and climb, hiding treats around the house so they have to “hunt,” and even teaching your cat to walk on a leash for outdoor stimulation can keep their minds limber and healthy. I did that with my first Siamese cat and he loved it.
Trauma in Cats Causing Mental Illness
Remember my cat with the foul mouth? He was thrown out of a car when he was tiny. He suffered grievous injuries and required many sutures but recovered well physically. He is a loving and comical pet, but he spooks easily and his first reaction is hissing. In fact, when he was waking up from anesthetic, he was spitting and hissing, earning him his name: Spitfire. In our clinic, we see mistreated animals frequently, including those that have been attacked by other animals, shot, hit by cars, and caught in car engines. They adapt quite remarkably with proper treatment, but the fear and inability to understand what has happened can take some time and patience to overcome. Medication may be necessary to treat more than just the physical scars.