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Carolyn's cat gets really sick at the same time every year. She's wondering if he might have PTSD. Yes, PTSD in cats is real, and we can help.

There are things you can do for PTSD in cats. Photo CC-0 via Pixabay

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have a male 12-year-old cat. He’s an indoor guy. He’s spunky and healthy for his age. Every year about the same time, October, November, one year in January, he gets really sick. It usually starts with a few days of vomiting a little, a few times. It’s usually about a tablespoon of bile-like liquid, but sometimes his dinner too. If I don’t jump on it and rush him to the doctor, he’ll vomit more and more until he’s dehydrated and his pancreas is involved. His blood work goes insane and my poor doctor can only pump him full of fluids, antibiotics, and anti-nausea meds. He also seems to respond to Denamarin, and only within days. Last year, I asked the doc to check his history for a pattern, because we have no clue why this occurs. Sure enough, it pretty much happens in the fall. It’s October, and my buddy is hiding under the bed again with glassy eyes. He’s not eating today, but there’s no vomiting after two doses of his anti-nausea med. Tomorrow morning I’ll be taking him in. One of these times, he won’t bounce back, and I’m mostly worried he is having pain. Do you have any clue what could cause this? I have no toxic plants around. I’m grasping, but can they get PTSD? We did have a big, traumatic event right after we got him as a kitten. No kitty troubles, just a sad family drama the went on for several months. Could the changing sun trigger some physiological illness. I can’t believe I’m asking that. Any suggestions? We’d all be grateful.

~ Carolyn

Thomas: Yes, Carolyn, there is such a thing as PTSD in cats. We’ve written about it before, as it relates to litter box behavior. Interestingly, as with humans, PTSD can make cats physically ill, too.

Bella: PTSD in animals was first diagnosed in military and service dogs back in 2009. However, some behaviorists are reluctant to diagnose PTSD in animals because they can’t tell for sure whether the animal has the “recurring, intrusive thoughts” that are one of the symptoms of the disorder in humans.

Tara: I can tell you from personal experience that PTSD in cats is very real! I have PTSD myself, from my experience of having to live on the streets. And there’s some bad stuff that happened before, too, but I haven’t shared any of it with Mama.

Thomas: It’s all right, Tara, we love you, and you have a forever home with us!

Tara: You’re so kind, Thomas. And thank you for licking the top of my head for me. It’s awfully hard to groom there.

Bella: So, what does PTSD look like in cats? Hyperarousal is one common symptom. What that means is that cats gets extra-skittish when they’re feeling that post-traumatic distress.

Tara: And that constant hyperarousal can lead to a weakening of the body’s immune system, which can make them more susceptible to illness.

Thomas: Another symptom of PTSD in cats is a change in appetite–either eating more than usual or not eating at all.

Bella: Stress causes cats (and humans) to feel less hungry and thirsty. And the physical effects of low blood sugar and dehydration lead to vomiting, which only makes the cat feel worse. Not to mention that failing to eat can lead to a problem called hepatic lipidosis, where fat accumulates in the liver and keeps it from functioning properly.

Tara: So, what can you do about PTSD in cats? Well, what helped me the most was medication. My vet put me on alprazolam, an anti-anxiety medication, and as long as I take it I feel pretty good.

Thomas: Your cat may need just a short course of anti-anxiety meds that he takes during these stressful times.

Bella: So, maybe next year you can start your cat on some medication around the time when he starts having symptoms.

Tara: We’d also recommend a pheromone diffuser. These products release a synthetic “happy cat” pheromone that can ease stress.

Thomas: And finally, for PTSD in cats, we recommend a program of behavior modification. You can try doing it yourself or consult an animal behaviorist for some ideas.

Bella: If you want to try it yourself, we recommend two things: play therapy and clicker training.

Tara: If you can get your cat to play, the physiological reaction to playing can ease some of the PTSD symptoms. Play helps to counteract the stress hormones being released by your cat’s body and gives them something fun and confidence-building to do.

Thomas: Want to learn how to play with your cat? Check out this post Mama wrote for Catster.

Bella: Clicker training can be a cool way to deal with PTSD in cats. The goal of clicker training is to provide an intellectual challenge and give your kitty some other things to think about.

Tara: The best resources we’ve seen to help you learn about clicker training are Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor and Naughty No More by Marilyn Krieger.

Thomas: Mama, can you clicker train us?

Bella: Yeah, that would be fun because we’d get extra food! … Wait, what do you mean, no extra food? You’d be using some of our regular food as treats and not giving us any more? Well, phooey, then!

Tara: So, Carolyn, we hope we’ve been able to give you some ideas on how to address PTSD in cats. And we sure hope your kitty is feel