Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My cat. Peaches, is around 6 or 7. I am her third owner. She was abandoned by her second owner at my sister’s vet clinic for a year. In that year she was very loving to everyone and would not bite or scratch them (only a little playful bite when she wanted to be petted). After the year, the doctor asked if I would like to take her because she warmed up to me very well. I have had her for about 2 months now and she is very sweet, BUT once I lie down under or over the covers to go to bed, she goes crazy. The first night I had her, I had my hands above the blanket and she latched onto my arm with her teeth. This has been a recurring thing every night when we go to bed. Even if I don’t sleep with a cover, she still does this. Last night out of nowhere, she clawed onto my face and wouldn’t let go. I don’t know what to do with her. I’m thinking she might have some type of PTSD from being abandoned and maybe abused by her first two owners. If you have any suggestions about what I should do, please let me know.
Tara: Let me start here, because I know a little bit about post-traumatic stress in cats. As you can see above, I still sometimes get stressed and have to go hide in the closet to calm down.
Bella: But you’ve gotten so brave over the past year! For the first six months you were here, you hid under the couch, and now you come out and sit on the desk, and on Mama, and even on the top of the cat tree!
Tara: Thank you, Bella. And thank you for being nice and not chasing me when I’m feeling really scared.
Thomas: I love you too, Tara. And I appreciate that you’re letting me touch noses with you sometimes.
Tara: Oh, purrrrrr.
Thomas: Anyhow, Erica, you’re correct that cats can manifest symptoms that look a lot like PTSD, especially if they’ve been through a lot of change and possible trauma. We’ve even talked about it before!
Bella: It doesn’t necessarily mean that your cat’s previous owners abused her. The abandonment would be hard enough for any people-bonded cat. But any kind of trauma can trigger PTSD in a cat.
Tara: Some of the symptoms you’ll see in a cat with PTSD include uncharacteristic aggressiveness, agitation, hypervigilance, sudden changes in behavior, and hiding without any apparent reason.
Thomas: So, what do you do about it? Well, Mama tried a lot of things with Tara: herbal calming collars, pheromone diffusers, Bach Rescue Remedy for when she was really scared…but the thing that finally worked was medication.
Bella: Our vet put Tara on alprazolam (brand name Xanax), and Mama gives her a quarter of a tiny tablet with her breakfast and dinner.
Tara: Oh, is THAT what’s in those kitty treats Mama gives me with my meals? Maybe I should stop eating them!
Thomas: Oh no, Tara, don’t do that. You know how you get if you don’t have your medicine. The reason you were hiding in the closet today is because Mama forgot to give you your special treat last night.
Tara: I suppose you’re right, Thomas. I do like being out in the living room with everyone else.
Bella: So, Erica, we’d recommend a three-prong approach to Peaches’ issues. First, talk to your vet about her symptoms and see what he or she has to say. A prescription of anti-anxiety medication could really help if she’s suffering from PTSD (or any other form of anxiety, for that matter).
Thomas: Second, we want you to play with Peaches using an interactive toy. By playing with her, you’ll build her confidence, which should help her deal with anxiety.
Bella: We recommend a good 15-minute play session twice a day–once in the morning and once just before bedtime. Get her panting and worn out, then give her a small treat. That will activate a cat’s natural “hunt, kill, eat, sleep” cycle.
Tara: The other thing that play will do, if you get Peaches really tired, is that she may be more inclined to sleep through the night.
Thomas: Finally, we suggest that you buy some plug-in pheromone diffusers. Use one in your bedroom and the other in a room where Peaches spends most of her time. These are marketed as tools to stop inappropriate urination, but they stop the urination by helping cats feel less stressed.
Bella: You see, these diffusers issue a synthetic “happy cat” pheromone.
Tara: One more thing we want you to do, separate from our three-prong approach, is to see if your cat could be getting freaked out by other cats or wild animals coming into your yard. If you’re living in a house, that could very well be an issue. We recommend using ultrasonic or water-based wildlife repellents.
Thomas: Please keep in mind that the products linked above are just examples of what we mean. We haven’t used these products and can’t say for sure how well they work. We do know that celebrity cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy has recommended these types of products as stray cat repellents.
Bella: They’re non-toxic and they don’t cause any extra problems for you, your cat, or your neighbors.
Tara: We hope these recommendations help you and Peaches. Please let us know how things turn out!
Thomas: What about you other readers? Have you had a cat with PTSD or who was aggressive seemingly without cause? What did you do to help your cat change his or her behavior? Please share your stories and ideas in the comments!