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Dear Doctor - Our experts address how to win back a traumatized cat’s friendship

Medicine-giving episode has changed our catís personality

[From Tufts December 2011 Issue]

Our 10-year-old domestic shorthair Stormy, who has been a loving companion and highly affectionate since we adopted her as a stray when she was 6 months old, recently had a bad cough and was sneezing perpetually. Our veterinarian diagnosed it as a cold. He gave us some antibiotics, which my husband administered faithfully twice a day.

Unfortunately, Stormy hated the taste of it or something else about it turned her completely off, because she fought my husband every time he gave it to her. She even bit him in the hand and drew blood (something she has never done). We’ve given her pills before and never had this kind of reaction from her. Now that we are done with the medicine and her symptoms are gone, she continues to hide in a dark room and rarely sits with us. If we pick her up and bring her to us, she immediately runs away.

Before this, Stormy followed us around the house, jumped in our laps when we came home and slept on our bed every night. Now she runs away the minute she sees my husband. While a bit more tolerant with me, she is not the cat we know.

Obviously, she has been traumatized by the treatment, but we don’t know how to get her back to her lovable self. What should we do? And what if she needs medication in the future?
Sandi Sonnenfeld

Dear Sandi: What has happened here is that Stormy really did not appreciate being given that medication. Either the medication tasted disgusting or the physical restraint that your husband was forced to impose in order to administer the medication was highly aversive. Either way, just look at it from Stormy’s point of view — here’s a person, your husband, whose company she formerly enjoyed, who suddenly, apparently, goes completely berserk, grabs her two or three times a day, and starts ramming unpleasant liquid down her throat. No wonder Stormy, who had no idea your husband was trying to do something to help her, now thinks your husband is psychotic, and it seems Stormy’s mistrust has even diffused to include you to some extent.

I don’t know when exactly all of this happened, but I do believe that in time and with the right treatment, Stormy will slowly improve. The right treatment means neither one of you imposing yourselves on Stormy in any negative way in the foreseeable future (perhaps ever). Rather, you should be your normal, quiet, kind, considerate selves, allowing Stormy to regain trust and move closer to you. Hopefully in time, she will eventually come back to sitting in your laps and sleeping with you at night.

Specifically, you could both arrange to be in the same room with Stormy, pretty much ignoring her, reading a book or watching TV, while occasionally sliding a delicious food treat across the floor for her attention (or not, as she pleases). This works much better if you arrange to have Stormy hungry at the time. Progressively sliding the food treats a little less far across the floor will eventually cause Stormy to come out of hiding and approach closer.

Any progress is worthwhile, and as I mentioned, the entire process may take quite a while, several months or even up to a year. You will know when you have achieved your goal as Stormy takes food treats from your hand or jumps up next to you, perhaps even on your lap. This process is called “habituation” and, in the program I described, is facilitated by counter-conditioning (the food treats).

If a year of rehab seems too long for you, you could expedite the process by asking your veterinarian to prescribe the mild anti-anxiety drug buspirone. Buspirone increases friendliness, affection, and attention seeking in cats, but beware, buspirone is bitter to taste and certainly, in Stormy’s case, should not be pilled. Instead, ask your veterinarian to have the buspirone made up in a tasty liquid by a compounding pharmacy and mix it in with some delicious canned food twice daily and pray Stormy eats it of her own accord.
Nicholas Dodman, BVMS
Director, Animal Behavior Clinic
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
at Tufts University

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