Dear Doctor: Mental Illness in Cats


Q I have lived with cats most of my life, and while I have experienced some of the expected behavioral issues — inappropriate elimination, hard-to-control scratching, etc. — I am curious if there are levels of mental illness in pets, too.

Do we automatically assume certain traits are behavioral issues or can pets — like humans — be born with certain psychological issues, as well?

Elaine Bondwell

A Dear Elaine: Animals, including cats, can certainly have mental illness. Whereas some behavior problems are a normal response to challenges imposed by life as a pet, some behavior problems are caused by pathology. Pathologies include medical and/or psychological. For example, an elderly cat that vocalizes continuously may have hyperthyroidism. A cat that is excessively fearful of people may have an abnormal level of anxiety.

Psychological problems in cats may be due to genetics and/or experience, particularly experiences during the first nine weeks of life. Trauma at any age can also cause psychological problems in cats as in humans.

Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM

Clinical Instructor

Cummings School of

Veterinary Medicine at

Tufts University


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