Cat behavior is frequently inexplicable to humans. It is important not to write off strange actions as just cats being cats. Eradicate everyday explanations for unusual conduct, such as anxiety. Feline behavioral abnormalities could be ascribed to special needs, though.
If a cat’s brain or body does not develop adequately as a fetus, it may be born with physical or mental disabilities. Some cats inherit genetic abnormalities from parents. Others develop special needs through lifestyle and anxiety. Such a diagnosis will need to be made by a vet as feline special needs often manifest differently to humans.
A cat with special needs will need particular care, and it is your duty to meet these needs. The cat will still have everyday feline requirements, such as food, affection, and routine. Cats with mental or physical disabilities may require additional assistance, depending on the diagnosis.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Can Cats Have Mental Disabilities?
- 2 Signs of a Special Needs Cat
- 3 Signs of a Special Needs Cat
- 4 Can Cats Have Autism?
- 5 Can Cats Have Schizophrenia?
- 6 Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?
- 7 Can Cats Have ADHD?
- 8 Neurological Problems in Cats
- 9 Managing Physical Abnormalities in Cats
- 10 Can’t Cope with Cat’s Special Needs
Can Cats Have Mental Disabilities?
The term, “special needs cat” is ascribed to felines that have particular care requirements. This may be due to mental or physical deficiencies. Ordinarily, these will be present from birth. An example of a physical disability was the popular internet meme, “Grumpy Cat.”
The unique appearance of Grumpy Cat was due to dwarfism as a prominent underbite. Despite this, Grumpy Cat lived a full and happy life. Special needs, whether mental or physical, do not need to negatively impact the quality of life.
Mental disabilities in felines are less commonplace, and rarely discussed. They can arise, though. Such Special needs are often genetic. This is why it is inadvisable to breed a feline with physical mutations or mental disabilities.
Signs of a Special Needs Cat
The term, “special needs” is a broad church. As discussed, it could incorporate physical or mental concerns. Signs of special needs in felines really depend on the problem at hand.
There are certain signs to look out for in your cat. Exhibiting any of these behaviors merits further investigation:
- Poor memory or lack of basic cognition
- Lack of muscle coordination
- Failing to respond to basic stimuli
- Staring into space
- Growing increasingly distressed when left alone
None of these are surefire signs. Your cat may be experiencing cognitive decline as it ages. A sudden behavioral change is unlikely to be ascribed to special needs. Ordinarily, such a concern will be present from birth.
Equally, as per Animal Cognition, the true inner workings of the feline mind remain a mystery. All the same, if you are concerned, there is no harm in seeking a vet’s opinion.
Signs of a Special Needs Cat
Do not automatically assume that a cat acting strangely has a mental disability. It may be stressed or in pain. Both of these issues are common in felines and will result in eccentric behaviors.
Take your cat for regular veterinary check-ups. Once a year is advisable. Explain any concerns you may have to a vet. Tests can be run to identify any issues.
If the cat is physically healthy, you may be referred to a specialist. This could be an animal behavior professional or a mental health expert. Feline special needs, especially those of the brain, are beyond the understanding of the average vet.
Can Cats Have Autism?
Cats cannot be diagnosed with autism. This is a condition that only impacts humans. Despite this, cats can display symptoms commonly associated with the autistic spectrum. This can include obsessive behaviors and hypersensitivity to stimulation.
Hypersensitivity is more common in cats than many realize. Some cats react negatively to any form of touch, noise, or light. This, understandably, leads to concerns that a cat is autistic.
In reality, cats just have heightened senses. A cat’s hearing, for example, is vastly superior to that of a human. Equally, the shape of a cat’s eyes are designed to accommodate light. This means that bright, excessive illumination can cause distress.
Touch can also cause a strong, negative reaction from a feline. Some cats loathe being handled, period. Others have a skin condition that makes petting painful. This will result in a strong aversion to touch.
None of this means that a cat is autistic. It rarely dictates any special need. As an owner, you will need to adjust to your cat’s unique personality. A cat needs to live comfortably, not according to your wishes and whims.
Can Cats Have Asperger’s?
In 2006, the author Kathy Hoopmann wrote a book called, “All Cats Have Asperger’s.” This book explains the nature of Asperger syndrome, and how symptoms are similar to feline behavior.
As we just discussed, cats cannot be diagnosed with autism. Asperger syndrome is part of the autistic spectrum, and thus cannot be attributed to cats. As mentioned, a cat’s preferences are similar to a human with Asperger’s.
In fact, this is arguably a better comparison to the feline mindset. Autism in humans frequently results in the inability or unwillingness to communicate verbally. This does not apply to Asper syndrome. Even cats that dislike handling will meow and purr.
Cat Cats Have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Cats can develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder. This will manifest as repeated, increasingly frantic actions. Grooming to excess is a common sign of OCD in cats.
Feline OCD is not a special need, as such. Instead, it likely to be a stress reaction. Cats groom to soothe themselves. If the cat is barbering itself through grooming, something is upsetting it. This trigger must be identified and removed.
Cats can also grow obsessed with pleasurable activities. A cat can have too much of a good thing. Keep all treats and pleasures in moderation. Routine is key to this. If a cat knows when to expect something, it is likelier to wait patiently for it.
Can Cats Have Schizophrenia?
The closest diagnosis to schizophrenia in cats is feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS). This condition can result in explosive changes in temperament. Also, cats with FHS display behaviors linked with schizophrenic humans. These include:
- Rolling on the floor and fleeing from touch
- Reacting to unseen threats, as though it is hallucinating
- Sudden, unprovoked seizures
- Bursts of energy and excitement, bordering on hyperactivity
A better comparison to FHS is borderline personality disorder (BPD). This condition was formerly linked to schizophrenia, though it has now been assigned a separate diagnosis. A cat with FHS will display common signs of BPD. The cat is seemingly convinced that others – including owners – are seeking to harm it.
Depending on the severity of the FHS, different treatment plans are available. Ordinarily, this will involve medication. A vet will prescribe drugs to balance the cat’s mood, and if necessary, prevent seizures.
Can Cats be Bipolar?
A cynical dog lover might claim that all cats are bipolar. Cats can seemingly experience mood swings at any moment. A cat may enjoy petting one moment, then suddenly swipe and scratch at an owner.
This is not due to bipolar disorder. Rather, the cat is finding the petting uncomfortable. There is a thin line between pleasure and pain when it comes to handling felines. The tender skin of a cat can only take so much interaction. Touching a cat can quickly become sore.
Equally, some cats can seemingly change their mood and become aggressive for no reason. We must remember that cats have excellent senses. Your cat may hear or scent a potential threat that you are unaware of. It is reacting to this, not a hormonal imbalance.
It is also possible that your cat is in pain. Cats mask physical illness and injury well. You may be inadvertently hurting your cat. Investigate the possibility of pregnancy in unspayed females, too. This will cause hormonal surges.
The International Journal of Bipolar Disorders confirms that inadequate research into potential animal bipolar disorder exists. Ergo, it remains possible that cats can experience this issue. It is unlikely, though.
Give your cat space and let it decide when it wants to interact. This will reduce the likelihood of mood swings. In turn, you are now less likely to be scratched or bitten for seemingly no reason.
Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?
Down syndrome is a human-specific condition that is not ascribed to cats. Humans have 23 chromosomes. Down syndrome occurs when a baby is born with two sets of the 21st chromosome. Cats have 19 chromosomes, so Down syndrome is an impossible diagnosis.
All the same, some felines will display similar physical symptoms to Down syndrome. These include:
- Broader nose than usual.
- Misshapen eyes – set apart and slightly upturned.
- Ears that are smaller than expected.
- Weak muscle tone, leading to difficulty in movement.
- Struggle to eliminate cleanly and efficiently.
Cats can be born with an extra chromosome, though. The American Journal of Veterinary Research compares the result to the similar Klinefelter’s syndrome. This means that, as with Down syndrome, the cat will pair physical abnormalities with learning difficulties.
Cats with Learning Difficulties
Cats with learning difficulties can be trained. There will always be limitations to their understanding, though.
Do not expect miracles from a cat with learning difficulties. It may never be able to perform some tricks that other cats take for granted. The brain of such a feline has not developed sufficiently to memorize certain activities.
This does not mean that you cannot share a meaningful relationship with a cat with learning difficulties. All cats, regardless of intellectual prowess, are natural imitators. You will need to interact with your cat regularly. Talk to your cat and engage its brain.
Cats with learning difficulties can learn basic tasks, such as feeding and using the litter tray. Such a cat will just need a little more encouragement and retraining on occasion. You must also keep the cat home. The outside world is dangerous for a cat with limited understanding.
Can Cats Have ADHD?
There is no scientific record of a cat being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Anecdotally, though, some owners report symptoms of this condition in their cats.
Cats start to slow down in adulthood. Once a cat reaches double figures, it will become particularly sedentary. Older cats find movement exhausting. They prefer to doze as much as possible, as sleep repairs aching muscles. This makes sudden bursts of energy notable.
Bursts of hyperactivity in an older cat should not automatically be ascribed to ADHD. The Australian Veterinary Journal explains that hyperactivity is a common symptom of hyperthyroidism. Your cat is experiencing a hormonal surge and reacting accordingly.
It’s also possible that your cat is simply under-stimulated. All cats, even the laziest senior feline, require mental and physical stimulation. If your cat has lost interest in toys, find other ways to keep it active. This, in turn, will balance out energy levels.
Neurological Problems in Cats
Your cat may not be living with a mental disability so much as a neurological condition. There is a subtle but important distinction to be made.
Essentially, special needs are lifelong and genetic. A neurological problem can – theoretically – be resolved through medication or lifestyle changes. It depends on the extent of the damage or issue.
Vestibular disease is a condition that affects a cat’s brain. A cat with this concern will become uncoordinated, often walking in circles and tripping over. The cat may also start to vomit and tilt its head.
Some cats are born with vestibular disease. This is often a consequence of the kitten’s mother experiencing stress or toxicity while pregnant. This will right itself in time. Be patient, and care for the kitten’s safety in the meantime.
Vestibular disease can also be linked to ear infections. Check your cat for an infestation of ear mites. More often, though, this condition is idiopathic. It should resolve itself within 48 hours. After which, your cat will be fine. It does not have special needs.
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are a constant concern for cats and will cause behavioral issues. All cats experience stress at various points in life. As an owner, your responsibility is to prevent this stress from leading to acute anxiety.
Keep your cat calm. Routine is essential for this. Ensure that your cat knows what to expect each day. Stick to a rigid schedule of feeding, play, and grooming.
Many unwelcome behaviors from a cat can be attributed to stress. This is not a disability – it is a medical concern. This means that, while it can be treated, stress must be taken seriously. If necessary, a vet will prescribe the cat anti-anxiety medication.
Cats can grow depressed. Typically, a depressed cat with become withdrawn and lose all interest in interaction with owners. If your cat is hiding all day, be wary of potential depression. Causes of this include:
- Bereavement – either a deceased owner or fellow pet
Most cats will bounce back from depression with appropriate care and lifestyle changes. Depression leads to stress, though. As discussed, this is dangerous for felines – especially once older. Do all you can to provide a happy, stimulating life for your cat.
Managing Physical Abnormalities in Cats
Special needs in cats are not exclusively limited to mental concerns. Some cats also require special assistance with physical limitations. Every part of feline anatomy serves an important purpose. One issue can lead to a host of knock-on effects.
Problems with a cat’s internal organs are hard to spot. Felines are skilled at hiding any sign of sickness. This means you must take a cat for regular veterinary checks. Once a year should be a minimum. Once your cat is senior, consider making this a twice-annual trip.
In doing so, a professional will assess your cat’s heart, lungs, and kidneys. Only so much will be revealed without deeper, specialist testing. This will obviously have a price attached. All the same, obvious concerns can be uncovered and investigated further, if necessary.
Some feline ailments are impossible to hide, no matter how hard a cat tries. Your cat may be visibly struggling with vision or hearing. Equally, injury or illness may lead to the amputation of the tail or limb. In such cases, the cat will require special care and attention.
Some cats are born with congenital defects. Sometimes, these are inherited from parents. A queen that experiences consistent stress while pregnant may birth kittens with defects too.
Sometimes, a queen will reject a kitten that is born with defects. This is most common in larger litters. This is not an act of cruelty. In the mind of the queen, it is the only logical choice. She has many kittens to feed. She is prioritizing those likeliest to survive.
Congenital defects can take many forms in kittens. They will usually be evident from the moment of birth. How you should proceed depends on the severity and nature of the birth defect.
Cleft palates are comparatively rare in cats. Statistically, a Siamese kitten is the likeliest to be impacted, especially purebreds. This is because cleft palates are often hereditary. Also, the skull shape of brachycephalic felines makes cleft palates likelier.
A cleft palate is caused by the mouth palates failing to close as an embryo. This leaves a hole in the upper mouth. The mouth of a kitten with this condition is not separated from the nose. This makes it hard for the cat to breathe and eat.
A vet will save the life of a kitten with a cleft palate if it can. The cat will need to be bottle-fed roughly every two hours. Respiratory performance must also be monitored. If appropriate and safe, surgical correction will be attempted after around four weeks.
Polydactyl cats have additional toes at the tip of their front or hind legs. Any breed of cat can be born polydactyl, though the Maine Coon is most common. As with humans that experience a similar condition, this is a genetic mutation.
Usually, a polydactyl cat will have six toes, though it can be more. These toes are not always functional, though this can happen. If the additional digits are likely to cause injury, amputation is recommended. This not essential, though. Polydactyl cats live full, happy lives.
Some breeders have taken to deliberately mating polydactyl cats in the hope of birthing polydactyl kittens. This is discouraged by experts. While a polydactyl cat is rarely in any pain, encouraging genetic mutations is best not encouraged.
Cryptorchidism is a birth defect that affects male cats. This condition sees the testicles fail to descend, instead of remaining in the body. Just 2% of cats are believed to experience this condition. Pure breed Himalayans or Persians are likeliest to experience cryptorchidism.
As explained by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, most cats endure unilateral cryptorchidism. This means that just one testicle fails to descent. This makes cryptorchidism easier to detect. It could be the left or right testicle that is impacted.
A cat with cryptorchidism will typically have its remaining testicle neutered as soon as it is safe. The undescended testicle will also be surgically removed. Usually, this is located in the cat’s abdomen. Once recovered, the cat can live a normal life.
As with humans, cats can start to lose their vision as they age. Feline eye muscles deteriorate over time. Some cats are also born blind. This is likeliest to happen to cats with white fur and blue eyes.
Severe stress can also temporarily render a cat blind. The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine describes this as spontaneous systemic hypertension. As the cat’s heart rate spikes beyond safe levels, the eyesight is lost. This can be treated, if caught early. Signs that a cat is losing its eyesight include:
- Lack of interest in hunting or play
- Bumping into objects
- Reluctance to jump or climb
- Walking slowly with nose and whiskers close to the ground
- Jittery disposition and clinginess
If you suspect that your cat is blind, run these tests at home.
- Drop a feather, watching to see if the cat tracks the descent
- Switch lights on and off in the room. The cat’s eyes should dilate
- Place a soft item in your cat’s path. If the cat walks into it, it cannot see
A blind cat can continue to live a happy and full life. Cats rely more on their senses of smell and hearing than vision. Just make the cat as safe and comfortable as possible.
Avoid reorganizing the layout of a room. The cat will memorize safe paths to food, water, and litter. In addition, never sneak up on a blind cat. Announce your presence before any petting or handling. This will prevent you from being scratched or bitten.
As with eyesight, cats can lose their hearing as they age. Equally, some cats are born deaf. While a cat without hearing experiences challenges, it can still live a normal life. You will need to accommodate this missing sense.
To test your cat’s hearing, stand behind it and out of sight. Once you are on position, make any of the following noises:
- A loud, sudden noise, such as a clap of the hands
- Tearing a sheet of paper in half
- Hissing. This universal sound of danger to a cat will usually gain a reaction
If your cat fails to respond, it does not always mean it is deaf. The cat may acknowledge your scent and thus feel safe. Alternatively, it may just be sleeping. A professional hearing test is advisable.
Cats that cannot hear will rely on other senses, such as sight, scent, and touch. The delicate paw pads of a cat can feel vibrations on the ground. Your cat cannot hear your approach, but it can feel you. To avoid frightening a cat, announce your presence.
You can do this in one of two ways. Flicking lights on and off will announce that somebody is home. This will prepare the cat accordingly. Alternatively, stamp our feet at the door. This will create vibrations that the cat’s paw pads detect.
If your cat is deaf, it must stay at home. The outside world can be dangerous for any cat. For a deaf cat, it is especially so. Cats cannot hear predators, oncoming traffic, or other hazards. For the cat’s own safety, entertain it at home.
Loss of Tail
A cat’s tail is an essential part of feline anatomy. While the Manx breed is born without a tail, most cats rely on this appendage. A cat’s tail is primarily used for balance and communication. The tail reveals key body language to humans and other cats.
Your cat may need to have its tail amputated. This is not a surgery that will be undertaken lightly. The tail is an extension of the cat’s spine, though. In the event of spinal damage, the tail may become limp and useless.
This is dangerous and unhygienic. The cat may trip on its own tail, or struggle to eliminate cleanly. In such instances, amputation is the only answer.
A cat will typically adjust to life without a tail quite quickly. You will need to oversee the cat at first. It may struggle for balance when perched on high surfaces. You will also need to be studious about a cat’s verbalizations. It can no longer communicate through the tail.
Loss of Limbs and Lameness
Much like the tail, a cat may lose a limb through injury or illness. Most cats will not struggle with life on three legs. After an initial period of adjustment, it will live as normal. Just make allowances for limited mobility. Keep everything your cat needs at ground level.
Your cat may also experience stiffness and lameness in its limbs. This will usually be attributed to arthritis, especially in senior cats. Any cat older than 10 will likely experience some degree of arthritis. This is caused by constant wear and tear on the cat’s limbs.
If your cat is arthritic, make it as comfortable as possible. Offer a regular massage. Also, ensure your cat has a soft bed, ideally orthopedic. Heat relieves discomfort, and you can find supplements to improve mobility in a pet store.
Be aware that respiratory infections can also provoke acute, temporary arthritis. Research in Veterinary Science links limited mobility with feline calicivirus (FCV). Vaccination against FCV will reduce this risk.
Can’t Cope with Cat’s Special Needs
Caring for a cat with special needs can sometimes feel overwhelming. It is advisable to keep the cat, though. Unless your inability to cope impacts the cat’s quality of life further, rehoming causes further upset.
All cats are creatures of routine. This goes double for a cat with special needs. The feline will have grown to rely heavily on human owners. By taking the cat into your home, you took it into your family. This responsibility should not be easily relinquished.
Put any thoughts of euthanasia out of your mind. You may consider this a mercy. A vet is unlikely to agree. A vet will refuse to euthanize a physically healthy cat. Even then, a second opinion will likely be sought. The cat’s quality of life needs to drop substantially before this to be considered.
A shelter is an option, but again, rarely successful. Many cat shelters are already overpopulated. As per the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, homing large numbers of cats in the same location is troublesome. Special needs magnify these challenges.
What’s more, if you are struggling to cope, what makes you think somebody else can? A stranger is less likely to rescue a cat with special needs. This means the cat will remain in a shelter, possibly for life. That’s no way for a cat to live.
If you really cannot cope, investigate a personal rehoming program. Search the internet for cat experts that are willing to take in the cat. This way, you can ensure it will go to a loving and understandable home. If this is not an option, focus on caring for the cat yourself.
Cats with special needs are no different from other felines. They may require a little more attention but have the same basic requirements. The cat needs to be fed, kept safe, and above all, loved. Do what you can to aid your cat, seeking professional help where necessary.