Does Our Anxiety Affect Our Cats' Behavior and Health?
Anxiety points to life's undercurrent of existential crisis. Which is to say, everyday worries, if we looked at them closely, would often respond with a deferring "You need to see that guy over there" look that leads up the chain of command all the way to, well, death. Sure, you might not have a big showdown every day with Mr. Reaper, yet a lot of daily stress and turbidity is the first step on the walkway leading to the graveyard. Fears about social interaction, work performance, money, or that aggravating neighbor who's never really liked you for no reason -- all these things reflect our need to maintain our vitality, our viability, our footing in the world. To lose any of it, part of us fears, might start the slide toward the abyss.
Anxiety can also be more brash, more overt. Let's say you get laid off. That's a four-alarm fire in Anxietyville, because even if you know you could get by for a while on unemployment, there's a voice, seemingly just behind you, that alarmingly repeats, "Next stop, the homeless shelter!" or "You'll never work again in your life!" whether or not it's accurate.
Or how about when a close friend gets sick and dies way before his time? That gets you a front-row seat with The Big Ruh-Roh. Or, maybe, you're helping your mom or dad in their later years of life, and the situation and people involved (including other family members) gets confusing, cruel, ugly and unfair in ways you never contemplated. In such times, anxiety might seem to switch off, but it doesn't, really. Instead it wanders toward something more treacherous, the nihilistic mantra of "Life is meaningless."
OK hold on. Before you draw the curtains and set that Joy Division record to repeat, know that even though there is darkness, there is also light. We bipedal mutant apes hold the capability to remind ourselves that life can have meaning if we choose to seek it. We're complex beings who can see beyond the all-or-nothingness. We can do yoga. We can try breathing exercises. Or meditation. We can engage with a therapist. We can live with joy among the sorrows of the world. Just the same, to live among the sorrows we must acknowledge them. To lessen the effects of darkness, we must engage it. Even if we become expert in this, when we're under tremendous stress, we can't hide the turmoil within. It's part of existence, part of us.
I know these things because I have a cat.
Preface: This year has thrown me some pretty big curves. First, my mom has suffered several strokes in recent years, she's in assisted living thousands of miles away, and her situation worsened in the spring. Second, around the same time, my dad had a cancer scare. Surgery revealed a benign tumor, but for weeks beforehand, his physicians' stone faces and insistent silence foretold the possibility (probability?) of something dire. Third, as some of you might know, Catster recently gained a new owner. This is a good thing, for sure. Yet the happy ending was preceded by months of creeping anxiety brought on by not knowing, as well as a few days when we all had reason to believe that these jobs were done.
Now let's bring in Thomas.
Thomas has a surplus of happy as big as the bed of a dump truck. He gushes feelings of security. When Daphne and I walk in the front door after being gone all day, on our second step toward him he falls down and surrenders, saying, "I'm so glad to see you," even before demanding dinner. He similarly flips over on his window perch when we pet him. He trills. He purrs. He sleeps next to us. He's happy and social around first-time visitors. He engages us like a voracious little house tiger when we play with him. He later lies down near us and does the slow-blink I-love-you. Do you remember the song by Oingo Boingo called "Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me?" Daphne and I sing that to him. It's one of his theme songs.
Yet a few weeks ago, Thomas was seized by what I believe were several episodes of feline hyperesthesia syndrome. If you've not witnessed it, feline hyperesthesia can be terrifying to see. When he's in its grip, Thomas runs from things that aren't there. He twitches and rolls the skin on his back excessively as if trying to shake off an unwanted passenger. He licks his paws and flanks with rapid-fire urgency. His eyes go wide. He meows hollow, round wails of desperation. He ducks when a loving hand moves slowly, carefully near him. He hides under the bed for hours at a time. With some cats, this condition gets so bad that they pull out the fur on their hind quarters from excessive licking.
No one knows what causes feline hyperesthesia, although some animal experts believe it's behavioral and related to trauma. It's diagnosed in a roundabout way -- by eliminating other possibilities such as skin conditions and hyperthyroidism. (Thomas recently had a checkup and blood work, by the way, and all signs were normal.) The one previous time Thomas experienced this predates my time living with him. It was after the loss of two animal companions and one human -- a time of great turmoil and uncertainty. So it was easier to understand why it came on.
This time around, though, Thomas' environment contained no stark changes and no traumatic events. The only thing Daphne and I could point to that might have triggered the onset of this "twitchy cat syndrome" was our state of severe stress and anxiety.
Just the same, we didn't show it in alarming ways. We were calm, carrying on without shouting or weeping. We kept Thomas on normal feeding and play schedules. We kept his litter boxes clean and orderly. We didn't leave town. We looked after our own mental well-being as best we could. Yet somehow he knew. He took on our anxiety and showed us what it did to him. A man who I periodically see in Berkeley for bodywork named Bill Kester (who a friend described as part massage therapist, part spiritual guru, and part psychotherapist) suggested Thomas was trying to help us by carrying some of our stress -- a suggestion I'm more open to believing after giving Thomas a Tarot reading last year. Regardless, I wanted to make it go away. I didn't want my cat to suffer on my behalf.
What Daphne and I found in the Catster archive and elsewhere online about feline hyperesthesia and anxiety in general suggested several potential treatments, most of which are about maintaining a secure environment and consistent interaction. We'd done much of that already, but we put intense focus on doing it more, and better. We were extra calm around Thomas, giving him lots of love and reassurance, paying extra-close attention to adequate playtime. We left him alone when he went under the bed -- but we checked on him every so often with kind words. We got him some calming treats designed to settle his demeanor.
Eventually he came out of it, although for a couple of weeks he'd have two or three good days followed by another relapse. His final bout with this disorder roughly coincided with the day I learned that my job at Catster was secure under a new ownership. I believe there's a connection. I believe Thomas could sense our underlying anxiety -- and our relief -- and that his behavior reflected it.
Have your cats experienced anxiety like this? Was the cause clear or vague? What did you do to help? Tell me in the comments
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About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called "a high-powered mutant," which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster and Dogster.