I’ll admit, it’s a bit weird seeing the word “autistic” next to the word “cat.”
Similar to schizophrenia, some cats seem to exhibit behaviours that are very similar to this developmental disorder, but does that mean that cats are actually autistic?
Today I’m going to cover the reasons why folks seem to believe that some cats exhibit autistic behaviours and whether or not licenced vets agree with these claims.
WHAT DOES AUTISM REALLY MEAN?
According to dictionary.com the meaning of autism is as follows:
A pervasive developmental disorder of children, characterized by impaired communication, excessive rigidity, and emotional detachment: now considered one of the autism spectrum disorders.
SO WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH CATS?
Well, there are actually a number of similarities in the way that some cats interact with humans and each other that suggests that they are autistic.
Even in the definition of autism, some things stick out to me, such as excessive rigidity and emotional detachment.
These are two behaviours or traits that the majority of cats get lumped in to, especially for cats who run away from their owners whenever they try to get cuddles or some lap time.
The following is a breakdown of some of the behaviours some autistic folk exhibit that are similar to the ways cats behave.
Due to the fact that autism is an extremely nuanced developmental disorder, the following list is going to be fairly general and is not going to be fully accurate to an individual’s experience with autism.
COLD BEHAVIOUR OR LACK OF COMMUNICATION
Sometimes folks who have autism may be perceived as having “cold behaviour,” being antisocial or may be perceived as being disinterested in communicating with others.
Now, this may sound very similar to many cats, especially cats who are more independent and don’t require extra attention.
If you have a cat like this, it’s important to know that this behaviour has nothing to do with you, but has to do with the overall temperament of your cat.
That being said, it is believed that the amount of exposure to social interactions (also known as socialization) plays a very big part in the development of a cat’s temperament, especially if they are not an adult yet.
Due to the fact that cats can be conditioned, it is believed that all cats have the ability to be cuddly or will desire human interaction. However, as the saying goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” it may be more difficult to get your cat to become cuddly when they’ve passed the threshold of being an adult, especially because by then they will already have a decently concrete temperament.
Now, that isn’t to say that there is absolutely no chance that your cat is going to become cuddly after they’ve become an adult, but it will be more difficult.
As much as cold behaviour and being ignored are two very unattractive behaviours that cats can have towards their owners, they are not behaviours that are considered unhealthy or inappropriate for cats.
It is important to allow your cat to do what they need to do, and perhaps over time they will continue to warm up to you.
Kalista, our youngest, wasn’t the fondest of me when we first adopted her, because I’m someone who is immediately ready to cuddle cats and play with them.
Kalista would ignore me and would spend lots of time with my partner, so I completely ignored her… and guess who’s her favourite now? Me!
Well, I guess it helps that now she wants lots of belly rubs and head scratches from us! Though Kalista is much warmer than she was when she was younger, she is still much more independent than Beau is.
You can pick Beau up at any time and pet him and he’ll be happy. Kalista will squirm her way out of being held every opportunity she can get.
EXCESSIVE MEOWING OR LACK OF VOCALIZATIONS
Many folks who are autistic have a difficult time or are unable to communicate with many other individuals, especially strangers.
On the flip side, many autistic individuals have an extremely easy time sharing or talking to one individual with little to no problems.
Cats have been known to exhibit similar behaviours, becoming overly chatty with one of their owners and avoiding individuals who are new to them or that they dislike.
The main difference is, the majority of cats will warm up to their owners or strangers, especially if they are properly socialized.
Not only that, but meowing, chirping, purring and other forms of vocalizations are not the only forms of communication cats use to talk to their owners.
You may notice your cat rubbing themselves against you, headbutting you, kneading you or even biting/licking you. These are all forms of communication that cats opt to use whenever they aren’t feeling the need to vocalize.
In our family, my mom’s cat Walker is the most chatty kitty.
He’s constantly talking and asking for attention, though he’s also a kitty who doesn’t want you to pick him up or really give him too much attention. He just wants to be pet or fed every so often.
If you try to give Walker attention that he doesn’t want, he will immediately run away from you and hide.
Walker has also completely bonded with my mom and isn’t very fond of any other family members, though he does play with my dad every so often.
To many people, this behaviour is considered closed off behaviour and can be classified as “autistic tendencies.”
The truth is that some cat breeds are actually much more social than others, whether it be vocal or not.
Breeds such as the Oriental Shorthair are extremely chatty in comparison to other breeds, however, vocalizations aren’t usually an issue unless they are excessive and/or in response to an illness.
If you are concerned with the amount that your cat meows I recommend checking out this post and/or asking your vet whether or not they think you should be concerned.
HYPER FOCUS OR THE MASTERING OF A SKILL
A lesser-known fact about autism is the fact that many autistic folks are extremely hyper focussed on specific topics, instruments, themes, stories, etc.
Using a pop-culture reference, if you’ve seen the show Atypical (which features individuals on the spectrum) the main character, Sam, has a hyper-focus on penguins.
This hyper-focus manifests itself in both his knowledge about the types of penguins but also is exhibited in Sam’s artwork.
Sam is a brilliant artist who has a deep amount of focus and investment in his work. To put it simply, he’s the visual artist I wish I could be!
Similarly, some cats hyper-focus on specific toys or objects, often seeming like they obsess over the toy or object.
Cats like this can be seen staring at objects, taking toys to bed, or may even be seen trying to break into cupboards, rooms or other “off-limits” areas.
I definitely recommend grabbing yourself a Tower Feeder if anything. It’s a fairly simple slow feeder and has been all of our family cats’ favourite! Although I’ll be honest, we never got the opportunity to try it with Kalista, especially because she was a very tricky eater.
Now, before you chalk this behaviour up to autism, it’s important to understand that cats express a fairly high level of intelligence and are able to figure out how to solve puzzles, flush toilets and open doors.
Intelligence will depend on the breed of cat, as well as whether they have a curious nature or not.
Just like not every cat is going to be friendly, not every cat is curious about their surroundings.
For instance, Kalista loves exploring our apartment’s hallways, while Beau doesn’t care about getting to know the outside world.
Sensory abnormalities are caused when the brain has trouble interpreting or sending information regarding your senses.
This leads to people, or cats, being uncoordinated at times or may have a lack of focus.
In extreme cases, there will be an extreme amount of unresponsiveness from the individual in question.
When it comes to cats this may be seen when a cat falls off a ledge, bed, shelf, etc. Another example is when a cat misses a surface while trying to jump onto it.
Now, the thing about sensory abnormalities is that they are not completely related to autism, however, it can be a sign of many serious health problems such as kidney or liver failure.
If you notice your cat behaving in a weird way or take notice that they are having some difficulty getting around, I would recommend getting them checked by a vet.
Again, sensory abnormalities or incoordination can be a sign of a serious health problem.
SO CAN CATS ACTUALLY BE AUTISTIC?
No, to this date, no vet has classified a cat as autistic, nor have there been any studies conducted to prove that autism is a real experience for cats.
Though cats exhibit many behaviours that fit into the psychiatric profile of an autistic human, this doesn’t mean that the behaviours are exhibited for the same reason.
Many of these behaviours that are derived based on instincts the cat will have based on keeping themselves safe.
So to put it short, your cat may be showing tendencies of an autistic individual, however, your cat is absolutely not autistic.
I’m curious though, which of these behaviours does your cat exhibit? Let me know in the comments below!