How Some Cats Work Through Past Trauma

Feline responses to past trauma may include temporary deafness.

Stray cats’ past experiences can leave them with phobias that persist long after their rescue. By: Orias1978

Oliver, an 11-year-old Siamese rescue, acted for all intents and purposes as though he were deaf.

His foster mama, Sue, said, “I placed his food dish just slightly outside the protection of the bed,” she wrote. “I left as usual [but] snuck back down the hall. He was out eating with his back to me. I stood and watched for a minute, then used my pinky nail to make a tiny scratching noise on the screen. He instantly spun around and looked to where my finger was. He can hear — he had just been too traumatized to respond to anything!”

Was Oliver’s temporary deafness a response to his abandonment? Or had he used it, in Sue’s words, as “a coping mechanism, being so scared outside”? Either way, it suggests that the feline psyche’s response to trauma is far more involved than I’d realized.

Life on the Streets

Nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton once observed that the life of a wild animal always ends in tragedy. The same can be said for the stray and feral cats who don’t manage to find safe haven.

And if you look at the book Urban Tails: Inside the Hidden World of Alley Cats, you see only too vividly what this means. Many of the strays or “little street warriors” that writer Sara Neeley and photographer Knox observed and took care of over a 2-year period were dead before the book was published. The culprits? Cars, coyotes, disease and human cruelty.

“Many stray cats experience some degree of psychological trauma, whether it stems from their time living as a stray, or the events that lead up to it,” writes Chris Marshall, of ALStrays Re-homing & Transport. “These experiences can render the animal unusually timid, frightened, aggressive, or cause them to develop fears of certain things (environments, situations, or sounds, for example) which are reminiscent of past traumatic experience.”

Provide a safe room for your rescue stray, where he can disappear when he wants. By: brenkee

Love and Patience

There is, as Marshall admits, no “solid cure for a cat that has experienced psychological trauma.” The only things that work are love and patience, as I learned with Tikvah, a sickly stray that we took in many years ago.

Her anxiety never disappeared completely; over time, however, she became a pretty contented furball. I always felt that Tikvah appreciated her life as an indoor cat all the more because of what she’d gone through in her homeless days.

You have to provide cats like Tikvah with “plenty of one-on-one playtime,” as Marshall says. And make sure they have a safe place or “a ‘bolt hole’ in your home — somewhere they can run off to and feel safe.… In some situations the cat may become anxious if you’re not present. If this is the case then place an item (such as clothing) in their favorite spot, where they’ll find great comfort in your scent.”

Deafness as a Survival Mechanism

Cats get phobias, such as fear of loud thunderstorms or festive fireworks. Their hearing is extremely sensitive, and loud, harsh noises can be extremely frightening.

Some studies done in Spain in 2008 showed that “sudden deafness may be a side effect of stress” in mammals. The last study focused on felines; cats who’d had exposure “to acoustic trauma and sound stimulation” didn’t experience deafness or other hearing-related problems, whereas those who hadn’t had that exposure did.

This cat lived through the horrors of abuse. Now she has a second chance at life:

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But can a stray cat actually use deafness as a survival mechanism? “I would think it’s the same as in human medicine,” reflects Dr. Thomas Morganti, DVM of the Avon Veterinary Clinic in Connecticut. The deafness could result from a dietary problem or a physical “trauma of any kind. Once they come back to health, things start coming back to normal.” In other words, Dr. Morganti doesn’t “believe in psychosomatic illnesses” in cats or other animals.

However, quite awhile back, a fellow cat rescuer adopted a feral cat who, like Oliver, appeared to be deaf. “[Hazel] was like that for months,” my friend remarked. “I would clap my hands, make loud noises, use a loud voice — and there would be no reaction.”

But the deafness “went hand-in-hand with her socialization.” So as Hazel was tamed, her deafness dissipated. “I just wonder if they shut down because they’re overwhelmed,” my friend mused.

I wonder this, too.