Can Cats Have Special Needs?

Feline behavior can be hard for humans to understand and can just be down to cats being cats. To determine if your cat needs more help, you’ll need to rule out everyday explanations for unusual conduct, such as anxiety. However, feline behavioral abnormalities can sometimes be ascribed to special needs.

Cats can be born with physical or mental disabilities if their brain or body does not develop adequately as a fetus. Some cats inherit genetic abnormalities from their parents. Others develop special needs due to their lifestyle and anxiety. A diagnosis will need to be made by a vet as feline special needs manifest differently to humans.

A cat with special needs will require additional care, and you’ll need to do more to meet these needs. Your cat will still have everyday requirements, such as food, affection, and routine, of course. However, cats with mental or physical disabilities will require additional assistance to live their lives to the full, depending on the diagnosis.

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 “Grumpy Cat.” The unique appearance of Grumpy Cat was due to dwarfism as a prominent underbite.

Special needs, whether mental or physical, do not need to impact the quality of life negatively. Mental disabilities in felines are less commonplace and rarely discussed but 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. 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 due 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, seek a vet’s opinion.

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 cats and will result in eccentric behaviors. Take your cat for regular veterinary check-ups once a year. Explain any concerns you may have to a vet as 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 or 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 as it only affects humans. Despite this, cats can display symptoms commonly associated with the autistic spectrum, including obsessive behaviors and hypersensitivity to stimulation.

Hypersensitivity is more common in cats than many people 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 is designed to accommodate light. This means that excessive illumination can cause distress.

Touch can also cause a strong, negative reaction. Some cats loathe being handled, while others have a skin condition that makes petting painful. This will result in an aversion to touch. None of this means that a cat is autistic.

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 discussed, cats cannot be diagnosed with autism. Asperger syndrome is part of the autistic spectrum and thus cannot be attributed to cats. 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, but 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 is 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, so provide treats and pleasures in moderation. Routine is key. If a cat knows when to expect something, it is more likely to wait patiently.

Can Cats Have Schizophrenia?

The closest diagnosis to schizophrenia 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.

symptoms of special needs cats

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 fine line between pleasure and pain when it comes to handling felines. The tender skin of a cat can only take so much interaction before it starts to feel sore.

Equally, some cats can seemingly change their mood and become aggressive for no reason. We must remember that cats have superior 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 as they mask physical illness and injury well. You may be inadvertently hurting your cat. Investigate the possibility of pregnancy in unspayed females, too, as 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, although it’s unlikely.

Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?

Down syndrome is a human-specific condition. 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 not possible. 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, but there will always be limitations to their understanding. 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.

Cats with learning difficulties can learn basic tasks, such as feeding and using the litter tray. Such a cat will need more encouragement and retraining. You must also keep the cat home as the outside world will be dangerous.

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 more 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 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 and balance energy levels.

Neurological Problems in Cats

Your cat may not have 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

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.

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. A vet may prescribe the cat anti-anxiety medication.


Cats can grow depressed. Typically, a depressed cat will become withdrawn and lose all interest in interaction with its owners. If your cat is hiding all day, be wary of depression. Causes of this include:

  • Bereavement
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness

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.

Managing Physical Abnormalities in Cats

Some cats require special assistance with physical limitations. Some ailments are impossible to hide, no matter how hard a cat tries. Your cat may be visibly struggling to see or hear, for example. Equally, injury or illness can lead to the amputation of the tail or limb. In such cases, and others, the cat will require special care and attention.

Birth Defects

Some cats are born with congenital defects. Sometimes, these are inherited from parents. A queen that experiences consistent stress while pregnant may give birth to kittens with defects, too.

Sometimes, a queen will reject a kitten that is born with defects. This is most common in larger litters. In the mind of the queen, it is the only logical choice. She has many kittens to feed and is prioritizing those most likely 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

Cleft palates are comparatively rare in cats. Statistically, a Siamese kitten is the most likely 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 try to save the life of a kitten with a cleft palate. The cat will need to be bottle-fed every 2 hours and respiratory performance monitored. If safe, surgical correction will be attempted after around 4 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. This is a genetic mutation.

Usually, a polydactyl cat will have 6 toes, although it can be more. These toes are not always functional, although this can happen. If the additional digits are likely to cause injury, amputation is recommended.

Some breeders have taken to mating polydactyl cats in the hope of birthing polydactyl kittens. This is discouraged.


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 most likely 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 descend, making cryptorchidism easier to detect.

A cat with cryptorchidism will 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.

can cats have mental disabilities?


Cats can start to lose their vision as they age. Feline eye muscles deteriorate over time, while some cats are born blind. This is most likely 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

Cats rely more on their senses of smell and hearing than vision. 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, as 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. Flicking lights on and off will announce that somebody is home. 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

The 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.

A cat will adjust to life without a tail but may struggle for balance when perched on high surfaces. You will also need to be studious about a cat’s verbalizations as it can no longer communicate through the tail.

Loss of Limbs and Lameness

Most cats will not struggle with life on three legs. After a period of adjustment, it will live as normal. Just make allowances for limited mobility and keep everything your cat needs at ground level.

Your cat may also experience stiffness and lameness in its limbs. 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. Ensure your cat has a soft bed.

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.

Cats with special needs are no different from other cats. They may require more attention, but they have the same basic day-to-day requirements. Cats need to be fed, kept safe, and above all, loved.

Photo of author

Richard Parker

I'm Richard, the lead writer for Senior Cat Wellness. I'm experienced in all cat health-related matters, behavioral issues, grooming techniques, and general pet care. I'm a proud owner of 5 adult cats (all adopted strays), including a senior cat who is now 20.

Leave a Comment