For many of us, our cats are furry little people to whom we are bonded in extraordinary ways. Our conversations are full of references to our cats in much the same way as new parents and grandparents bombard anyone they encounter with baby stories.
We don’t need scientific studies to prove to us that our cats are as self-aware, moody and emotional as humans are.
But if cats do have discrete personalities and emotions, is it fair to say that they can also suffer from mental illness?
My Siamese, Mao, was the most emo, sensitive and expressive cat I’ve ever known. He was heavily bonded to hubby and me, and suffered severe separation anxiety whenever we were apart, even if just for an evening. Once, when we went away for a weekend, we took him to a kitty spa. He wailed, he refused to eat or drink, and they took him to the emergency vet thinking he was sick (this despite my detailed history on file for him, stating that he might not eat or drink much, and since it was only one night, not to be concerned about it). An in-home sitter wasn’t a good option for him because he had a history of sneaking out the door and running off to look for us if we weren’t home.
When I was preparing to go on a 10-day trip abroad (leaving hubby at home with the cats}, many long discussions were had about how Mao would react to my absence. I had heard about cat owners who’d had success in calming cats with Prozac*, so we talked to our vet about it. He agreed that it would be a good way to avoid a 10-day anxiety attack for Mao.
Long story short, it was a perfect solution. Mao spent the time I was away chillaxin’. When I returned, we tapered him off, and he was back to his old cranky self.
Some people react in horror when I describe my Prozac experience with Mao; I might as well have said that we gave him a lobotomy. Inevitably, some suggest one New Age snake oil product or another as an alternative to drug therapy — after all, Prozac is just for “crazy people.”
But here’s the thing: psychopharmaceuticals work on humans, so it’s not a huge leap to think they might also work on animals. As with humans, behavior modification and non-drug therapies should be the first step, but if that proves to be insufficient, medication can fully help resolve any mental health issues.
Laurel Braitman studies non-human animals who exhibit signs of mental health issues — from compulsive bears to self-destructive rats to monkeys with unlikely friends. Braitman asks what we as humans can learn from watching animals cope with depression, sadness and other all-too-human problems.
I’m addicted to TED Talks, which is how I discovered Laurel. Here’s her TT: “Depressed dogs, cats with OCD — what Animal Madness Means for us Humans.”
* Yes, we tried Feliway, and it had no discernible effect.