I have a cat that suffers from anxiety.
His name is Timothy and he is a gorgeous black cat that is fearful of everything. Especially humans.
It means he doesn’t want to be touched – ever- but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to interact.
It’s highly likely that he wants to get involved the same way the other cats do but his body just won’t let him. It’s too preoccupied with ensuring he stays safe from all the dangers around him (us.)
This post is about how we’re looking to help Timothy manage his anxiety so he can live life to the full. And I kind of think the lessons we’re learning from an anxious cat are just as applicable to humans.
I’m a self-confessed cat lady – cats have always been part of my life and that won’t ever change.
A few years ago I re-homed a pair of ginger monsters (no exaggeration, they’re around 8 kgs each) and three summers ago, we decided to grow the family by adopting a pair of kittens from a local animal charity.
We were warned upfront that the kittens had not received the best start in life and had received almost no human interaction.
This lack of socialisation meant they would not be cute and cuddly ‘lap cats’ and would require a huge amount of patience.
Great. One of the more obvious qualities I was born without. Ho hum, I like a challenge…
Nobody else had shown any interest in them and they were absolutely gorgeous, albeit without a friendliness gene.
So we chose to ignore the warning, knowing their fate would become bleaker with each passing day (the older a cat is, the harder it is to re-home, especially those that don’t interact).
24 hours later and they were in their new home with us.
The Story So Far…
Well almost three years have now passed and it would be fair to say the journey has not been an easy one. The tabby cat, Jack, has learned to accept being touched by us although he remains terrified of strangers.
He refuses to acknowledge his name (he’s not deaf, he just doesn’t like it. Miraculously, he answers to his name when prawns are on offer), rarely purrs or miaows and is definitely not a lap cat.
We have since discovered that he is largely blind (he has pinhole vision) and his kneecaps didn’t form properly so he can’t jump. He is, however, a largely happy and laid-back cat and is the success story in this particular tale.
His brother, Timothy, is one of the most handsome cats ever. Sadly, he remains wholly untouchable.
His purr machine didn’t come with batteries and he suffers some form of dysfunctional eating which means he won’t eat if you’re around. And it’s hard not to be when you’re the one doing the feeding.
He knows his name but only to throw you the most disgusted of looks.
Should you manage that rarest of feats – to stroke him – you may be confident that the next 20 minutes will be spent on the meticulous grooming required to remove the evil human stench lest it poison him.
It would be fair to say, a pet, he is not. At least, not yet. But there is hope. Not least because as with all clouds, there is a silver lining.
The lining here is that my relationship with Timothy regularly gives me a kick up the metaphorical backside with some timely reminders I all too often forget.
5 Life Lessons My Anxious Cat Wants Me (And You) To Know
I do already know these things but it never hurts to remember them. I’m guessing you probably know – and sometimes forget – them too. So, if he could speak, these are the things I think Timothy would like you to know.
1. Expectations are all too often based on assumptions, rather than facts.
This is especially true for anxiety. For too long, Mr Annette and I assumed that Timothy was ignorant/naughty/unsociable/[insert insult here].
In the early days there were lots of toilet accidents. It was impossible to get near him. It felt like he just hated the world, wanted nothing to do with it and hated us even more.
Of course, this isn’t true. Not even remotely.
Timothy isn’t a naughty cat, nor does he hate us/the world. He’s scared. He’s afraid.
I don’t know what happened but something clearly tripped his settings as a kitten and now he’s stuck. His eyes tend to be saucer-like. Everything is a potential threat.
It’s not that anything bad happens, it’s that it could happen. That’s enough.
Timothy needs space spaces (read: the wardrobe). He needs routine. He is a cat that has been predisposed, probably biologically and environmentally, to anxiety.
There are reasons for Timothy behaving the way he does. Just because we don’t fully understand them or where they came from, doesn’t make it any less true.
For too long, our assumptions made his anxiety worse.
That’s hopefully something we’ve now addressed.
2. Anxiety manifests differently at different times.
As an introvert, people assume I can’t handle any kind of social situation.
Then they get really confused because I socialise just fine so they think I must be wrong – I must be an extravert.
But it’s actually really simple; sometimes I want company and other times I just need to be left alone.
The same principle applies to anxiety. Of course there are exceptions to every rule but generally speaking, just because you are struggling with anxiety, doesn’t mean you can’t cope with life at all.
It doesn’t mean you can never leave the house. It doesn’t mean you are always a puddle on the floor.
Sometimes it can just be that one day is harder – a lot harder – than another.
If a behaviour doesn’t fit with your expectation of a condition ‘should’ manifest, then that’s about your assumptions and not the c
at’s person’s experience of the condition.
Anxiety, as with any other condition, can present differently at different times.
Know the difference between your expectation and their reality.
3. Never assume trust will be given, it must be earned.
Anxiety, broadly speaking, is closely related to fear. In Timothy’s case, we don’t know what he is afraid of or why, only that he is.
His body produces a cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol and a heap of things I’ve never heard of that keep him in a near-permanent state of high-alert. It must be exhausting.
So to ask him to trust us implicitly, with no obvious reason to do so is asking too much. It’s not that he’s withholding that trust, he is genuinely incapable of giving it until something changes.
In which case, it’s up to us to be patient. It may be that time changes things; routines and patterns emerge to form a foundation capable of supporting trust.
Or perhaps the chemical cocktail will shift in some way and allow new behaviours to be adopted.
All I know is that for every ‘Timothy’ out there, there’s a faint but earnest request that goes something along the lines of, ‘If I’m naturally anxious, please give me time to learn to trust you.’
4. Relationships are a two-way street and require commitment.
Timothy says, “If you’re only in this relationship for what you can get from me, you’re likely to be disappointed.”
See Life Lesson One.
5. Time is both a healer and a friend.
“I’m doing my best and if you can give me time, you will see how much I have to offer.”
I feelpretty certain these are the words Timothy would say if he could and wasn’t, you know, a cat.
I’m also fairly sure that there are a number of people around us at any given time that would like to say something similar.
Or maybe you’re that person. It’s something many of us would do well to remember, especially in challenging times.
These are useful life lessons many of us would benefit from being reminded of more often. Even if they are, as the saying goes, simple but not easy.
We tend to take most, if not all, our relationships for granted and struggle when they don’t work out exactly as planned.
But that doesn’t mean we should turn our back on them or stop trying. I’ve been shocked when people in the early days suggested we get rid of or ‘return’ Timothy if he’s so difficult (cat pee on the duvet is not fun and boy, does it stink!).
Except he’s not difficult. He’s scared. He’s fearful. He’s a cat with anxiety.
He had a tough start in life and he’s a particularly sensitive cat – it’s not a combination that was ever going to win him the prize of ‘Best Pet Ever’.
But then, why should it? He never promised to be anything he’s not; we projected our hopes and expectations on to him. Whose fault is that?
He’s exactly the cat he was always going to be.
Opening The Door to Hope
Having said all of that, just because something appears to be set in stone doesn’t mean you can’t be on the look out for options.
In Timothy’s case, a change of vet opened up doors we never knew existed.
Rather than just saying cats can’t change, this vet suggested that Timothy’s body was actively working against him. That it had nothing to do with him being anti-social, or not wanting to be a pet, simply his mind was not allowing him to overcome his fear.
We were given the option of trying antidepressants.
That was new.
It wouldn’t be my ideal option but neither could we discount it. So we did.
Timothy is now on meds, which, it has to be said, he does not enjoy taking. But there are always treats involved.
Have they worked? Well, it’s too soon to tell.
He is a less anxious cat. His large, saucer-like eyes are smaller and dare I say, normal. He enjoys going out into the garden.
And guess what? There is a tolerance to – occasionally – be stroked. He still doesn’t like it and certainly does not seek it but will tolerate it, depending on where he is.
How he sits and how he moves speaks volumes about the mood he is in. He still doesn’t miaow but he has been known to purr.
I’m beginning to understand that he has a huge vocabulary that he communicates through body movement. But it’s subtle and takes time – it’s like learning a new language.
But we’re getting there, slowly. And then, when I remember the lessons above, it all makes a bit more sense.
The world is a scary place for him. There doesn’t have to be a reason and he doesn’t need to justify it. It just is.
And my job, is to be ok with that. To give him the time and space he needs to learn he is safe. To recognise that this is something he needs to re-learn every single day.
Hopefully one day all of this can be spoken of in the past tense. But until then, offering him a routine, guarding his safe spaces, enabling him to socialise and play when he wants to and leave him alone when he doesn’t, those are the things he needs from me.
Are humans really any different? Sometimes we look for answers where there are none to be found. Or we project our expectations on to others and then wonder why they respond differently to the way we want them to.
We all have a Timothy or two in our lives; the relationship that isn’t quite the one we were hoping it would be.
I guess the question is, do you resent it or choose to accept it?
Were your expectations fair and reasonable or were they based on misplaced assumptions?
Are you actively looking for the relationship to work or are you just hoping the other person will change?
If you know someone with anxiety, don’t just assume you know what’s best for them.
It may be the help you want to offer is not quite the thing they need.
At the very least, remember that we are all at the beck and call of our biology, it’s just more obvious in some of us than others.
If a relationship is worth investing in, then time is your friend and you can figure it out together. Support can be as simple as just showing up and being there.
And if relationships occasionally crop up in a ‘challenge-y’ sort of way, I strongly suggest you hanging out with a cat* or two. They have more to teach than you think.
*other animals are available