Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a beautiful cat who was a rescue kitten that I got at 8 weeks old, she was found by a mechanic at about 4 weeks old in a car engine hiding and covered in oil. She had been kicked and was almost dead, and she was at the vet on life support for two days. When I got her, she was terrified and stayed clinging to a chair for two whole days. Olive is now 2-1/2 years old, she has anxiety, is hypervigilant and has a high startle response, but otherwise is very playful, loving, and a very special girl. She loves my cuddles and I adore her. However, Olive will not use any litter tray. She pees on blankets, the mattress in my spare bedroom, clothes, anything that she can reach, she pees on. Even today, a blanket had been blown off my washing line and had fallen on the ground, and she chose to pee on the blanket despite having a whole garden to use. I took her to a vet who didn’t check her for a UTI — she was there as she had a cat bite on her face from a fight as she is very territorial about her house — but when I mentioned it the vet said the peeing is not a medical issue, its a behavioral one, that she has such high levels of anxiety that this could be an underlying trigger for peeing on soft items. He recommend anti-anxiety medication which I am unsure about. I wonder if she does have PTSD from early life trauma/abuse. I have two other cats who she absolutely adores; they preen each other and play together, and the other two always use the litter box. Olive doesn’t pee anywhere she sleeps or I sleep, so my bed and sofas appear to be safe. But this problem is really causing me a lot of stress too as I have the biggest pile of unending laundry and I don’t know what to do to help her or stop this behavior. Any advice would be so appreciated.
Thomas: The answer to your main question, Hollie, is yes — cats can get PTSD.
Bella: Post-traumatic stress disorder causes the symptoms you’re mentioning: hypervigilance, anxiety, fighting and inappropriate elimination.
Thomas: Trauma causes real physiological changes in the brain, and even though you humans say our brains aren’t as complex as yours, we’re still mammals and we still have the same kind of brains as you.
Bella: The changes that happen in the brain are very basic and they occur in areas that are all about stress response, regulating emotional responses, and ability to differentiate past from present.
Thomas: Inappropriate urination, when not caused by medical problems, is a sign of territorial stress and emotional discomfort. Although Olive feels safe and comfortable with you, she pees on other objects because the smell of her urine gives her comfort and eases her fear.
Bella: So what can you do about it? Well, that short course of anti-anxiety medication your vet recommended will ease the PTSD-generated stress response and allow her to reprogram her mind as she realizes she’s safe.
Thomas: Mama knows a little bit about PTSD from personal experience, and she says that when she’s feeling really anxious, sometimes a little Bach Rescue Remedy helps. You can get the regular kind, preserved in alcohol, and rub a drop or two into the fur on the top of her head.
Bella: But there’s also a version just for pets that is preserved in glycerine.
Thomas: When Olive has a major episode — for example, if she gets in a fight with one of her housemates — try giving her some Rescue Remedy. It’s even better if you can give it before the fight, so if you see her revving up and getting aggressive, give the Rescue Remedy then.
Bella: Now, about the peeing. The first thing we’d recommend is that if you only have one litter box, get at least one more. Most behaviorists recommend one litter box per cat, plus one extra.
Thomas: The reason we say this is, it could be that Olive feels that she can’t use the litter box because it “belongs to” the other cats.
Bella: Even though Olive seems to be the aggressor in territorial fights, your other cats may have conveyed to her that the litter box belongs to them and them only.
Thomas: There’s a cat litter called Cat Attract that may help get her into the litter box. We’ve never tried it ourselves, but some of our cat blogging friends have had good results with it, so you may want to try that as well.
Bella: You’re also going to want to increase her confidence by playing with her in the problem areas of the house. Interactive play with a string or feather toy can do wonders to help a cat feel like she owns a space.
Thomas: Celebrity behaviorist Jackson Galaxy, star of Animal Planet’s awesome My Cat From Hell, actually dealt with Mia, a cat who had PTSD.
Bella: With another cat Xena, he used some of his Spirit Essences (flower essences) to help ease her symptoms. In conjunction with anti-anxiety medication, addition of litter boxes and confidence-building, these essences might help Olive, too.
Thomas: How about you other readers? Have you had a cat with PTSD? How did you help him or her?
Bella: Please tell us about your experiences in the comments!