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What My Cat With Anxiety Taught Me About Mental Illness in Humans

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A veterinarian told me recently my cat has anxiety. And I had to laugh to myself. Of course me, of all people, would get a cat with an anxiety disorder.

My Calico cat, Katniss, has wounds or “hot spots” on her stomach from excessive licking, which my veterinarian told me is a sign of feline stress. She was given a steroid shot, which cured the hot spots for a few months. Now, within the last week, she’s back to licking off the fur on her stomach. Now, medication is the next step. Just like her mama, my cat is going to have to start taking anxiety medication.

Katniss is more than just a pet to me. She’s family. And, now, looking back on it, I think her anxiety is what made us “click” in the first place.

I will always remember when I first met her. I wasn’t planning on getting a cat. I was just tagging along with a friend who was thinking about adopting a dog. While at the shelter, I went to the adult cat room and sat down in the middle of the floor. Katniss was the first cat to come up to me and sit on my lap. And my jealous kitty would swat at any other cat who came near me.

It was love at first sight.

While I sat there petting Katniss, volunteers came into the room, in awe. They told me Katniss (named “Little Miss” at the time) had been at the shelter longer than any of the other cats there and had never come up to a person before. She had never walked around with her tail held high, the sign of a relaxed cat. Yet she did that with me from the beginning.

The volunteers told me most of the time, Katniss hid in a corner by herself, not even interacting with the other cats. She came to the shelter after someone threw her out of their car and she was lost in the woods behind the shelter for a week. And of course, an experience like that changed her.

I knew right then I had to adopt Katniss.

And yes, she has a funny personality. When it’s just the two of us, she’s the friendliest cat in the world. She sits on my lap, rubs her face against mine, cuddles up to me at night and is always playing or jumping around the apartment. Yet as soon as someone else comes over — even just buzzes up to my apartment or knocks on the door — she immediately hides under the bed for hours until the person leaves.

My cat has social anxiety. She has nervous ticks. When she’s in uncomfortable situations, her body shakes and she meows in a high pitch whine. She’s like a human with an anxiety disorder.

Before, I never knew this was possible. I didn’t know animals could have mental health difficulties. But it makes sense. There are many diseases both cats and humans can have — leukemia, cancer, diabetes, immunodeficiency and upper respiratory infections, to name a few. So why not mental illnesses?

For instance, a pet can have depression after a major change in its life or a distressing event. According to Pet Care RX, symptoms of depression in dogs are becoming withdrawn, low activity levels, loss of interest in the things they once enjoyed and a change in their eating and/or sleeping habits. And, as my cat Katniss proves, pets can also have anxiety.

There are people in this world who still don’t believe mental illnesses are actual illnesses. They think you can just “get over it” or think “it’s in your head” or “you’re just seeking attention.” But, to me, the fact animals can have mental illnesses too proves, even more, they are real. Dogs are innately happy and cats are usually carefree. Do you think our pets actually choose to be depressed? Do you think they’re thinking, “If I just lay here and sleep all day” or “If I lick myself raw then my owner will pay attention to me?” Or do you think they just don’t have the willpower to just “get over it?” No, I don’t think so. Because, just like anyone else who has a mental illness, it’s not a choice.

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Photo via contributor.

Originally published: March 22, 2017
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