is the bond so strong and what goes wrong when cats become
over-dependent or under-attached?
Halls - a report from FAB Conference 2000
all know someone who we think is slightly 'over-the-top' in
the way they behave towards their cat (not counting ourselves
of course!) but it is usually harmless fun that gives pleasure
to both the cat and the owner. However, occasionally these
relationships can cause problems, particularly when either
the cat or the human or both become 'over-attached'. Over-attachment
could be defined as 'having an emotional bond with a pet that
is so intense that it is detrimental to the physical and psychological
wellbeing of either the human or the animal'.
are mainly 'behind closed doors relationships' that many of
us will never fully appreciate or understand. Veterinary practices
may see the aftermath of over-attachment problems when the
animal dies or is euthanased and the owner is unable to cope.
Some people exhibit extreme emotion and tend not to progress
through the stages of grieving in the usual way which leads
to acceptance of the loss. The over-attachment may itself
have been a result of an unresolved emotional trauma in the
owner's life. These relationships are sometimes not about
the cat at all.
job as a cat behaviour counsellor means I see a lot of cases
on referral from vets in the South East of England. The bulk
of my work involves indoor urination/defecation, urine spraying,
aggression etc, and only about 10 per cent of cases relate
to behavioural problems caused by over-attachment. The most
common presentation is unusual cat/owner responses on both
sides. For example, a slightly incompetent and nervous cat
goes to live with a caring, solicitous, emotional owner -
the result can be learned helplessness in the cat and over-attachment.
The other scenario tends to be highly intelligent, sensitive
cat (eg, Siamese, Burmese) meets caring, solicitous, emotional
owner resulting in undesirable attention-seeking behaviours
there a particular type of person that finds themselves in
this predicament? In my caseload of over-attachment problems
there are elements that these cases have in common. Of course
all of us will recognise something of ourselves in some of
the categories and that is only to be expected. However over-attachment
problems occur when many of the elements occur together.
elements in over-attachment cases
- Owners are women.
- Owners live alone or with a partner
or companion with whom they spend little time.
- Owners have been or are on Prozac
or similar psychotropic drug or have been treated for a
psychological problem, or experienced a bereavement or divorce.
- Owners are anthropomorphic about their
cats (refer to their cats as if human). Many conducted the
consultation by talking to the cat rather than make eye
contact with me.
- Owners didn't go on holiday or visit
friends or family overnight because they didn't want to
leave their cat.
- Cats are kept exclusively indoors
or allowed restricted access to outdoors under supervision
for reasons of 'safety' owners worry that their cat would
be exposed to unacceptable dangers if he or she were to
- Many referred to themselves as being
perfectionists, eager to please and desperate to do the
- Lives often revolved around the daily
requirements of their cat. If working, owners made incredible
provisions for the wellbeing of their pet during their absence
and they couldn't wait to return home.
information is volunteered to me. It may or may not be relevant.
However, knowing the intensity of emotional dependence is
vital if a behaviourist needs to tell a person that she needs
to change her relationship with her beloved cat. Often on
initial discussion where a bonding problem is suspected, owners
will be asked to keep a diary of interactions and of the problem
for a couple of weeks before the appointment. This can be
very helpful in highlighting the issues.
are a few genuine examples:
- One lady left the heating on
all night in case the cat got cold and stayed awake for
most of it because it was too hot to sleep.
- One lady placed seven bowls
of food down every day with different varieties in case
the cat wasn't in the mood for one particular variety on
that particular day.
- Many of these owners kept their
cats in 24 hours a day for fear of some harm coming to them,
even though they desperately wanted to go out.
- One lady got up at 3 am to cook
fish because that was when the cat asked for it.
- One lady put an Elizabethan
collar on her cat permanently and kept it in a tiny 10 foot
x10 foot room because it had scratched its ear 18 months
previously and she was concerned that it might hurt itself
if it got out of the room or out of its Elizabethan collar
and started scratching again.
such people are in desperate need of something to care for
and something to love and they all have different life experiences
and different genes that have made them all very unique individuals.
To an extent we all have some similar, but perhaps not so
extreme, elements such as these in our own relationships with
other people or pets. A behaviourist is not there to judge
but to try and help.
are a few examples of the sort of case I see and the techniques
used to resolve the problem that the over-attachment or under-
attachment has caused. Written down, the programmes themselves
look relatively simple. However, the most challenging aspect
is to get people to listen to you and trust you enough to
change the way they behave towards their beloved pets. The
cases can be very time-consuming because owners may need a
great deal of emotional support after the consultation to
fulfil the programme that is put in place.
is not uncommon for cats to manipulate interaction with their
owners by using various attention-seeking methods. Although
usually seen as a territorial or anxiety-related behaviour,
spraying urine is an extremely effective way of getting attention!
This is seen mainly in Siamese, Burmese and other highly intelligent
and sensitive Oriental breeds. Such as case was Chichester,
a four-year-old male neutered Oriental.
lived with three other cats and his owner, Lucy. He had a
cat flap to allow access to outdoors but this was shut at
night and when Lucy wasn't in `for safety reasons'. Lucy also
fed a stray in the garden. Chichester had virtually nothing
to do with the other cats in the household which were less
reactive and more independent; they just tolerated each other
without being particularly sociable.
was fed a wide variety of proprietary sachet foods and Iams
dried complete cat food and M&S chicken breasts cooked
every day. He had an unremarkable medical history. He was
Lucy's favourite cat, since she felt he needed her more than
the others did. He slept in the bed with her every night.
18 months previously, Chichester had started spraying urine
indoors and this behaviour progressed until he sprayed all
over the house and usually in front of Lucy. She felt it corresponded
with him wanting attention from her. He had also developed
a fussy appetite.
combination of a very loving, over-protective owner and an
intelligent highly sociable and manipulative cat had created
an intense relationship. Chichester constantly approached
Lucy for all his interaction and stimulation. His requirements
for attention had increased since she had shut the cat flap
and deprived him of other activities.
stray cat had come into the house through the cat flap and
it is likely that Chichester started spraying in response
to that. However, his behaviour had then taken a sinister
twist when he learnt that Lucy's response to his spraying
was attention. He had also learned that his frustration was
diffused when he sprayed, so if Lucy was talking to someone
and her response was not immediate, a quick spray of urine
would solve both the attention-seeking and the frustration.
had to try and control her concern for Chichester and understand
that while he continued to be constantly focusing on her,
it was just as disruptive and stressful for him as it was
was asked to stop feeding the stray cat as any further contact
could lead to an acceleration of Chichester 's problem. A
magnetically controlled cat flap would prevent other cats
coming in again. Chichester's spraying was more evident when
the flap was shut at night or during the day, so we discussed
leaving the flap open. Lucy always used to leave the flap
open but he had got into someone's car one day through an
open window and the driver had driven off before realising
he was there. It was suggested that, if she was worried, she
put a mailshot through her neighbours' doors to ask them to
check their cars. This seemed to satisfy her sufficiently
to follow this instruction.
was to feed all the cats twice daily and leave biscuits down
all the time for ad lib feeding. There was a lot of food wasted
in the household because she offered such a variety. A strict
feeding plan listing actual quantities for all the cats was
put into action.
was asked to ignore Chichester if he sprayed urine or was
overly demanding. All interaction in future would be on her
instigation rather than his. When he was quiet and good, she
was asked to reward with love and praise. She was warned about
the frustration factor when Chichester didn't get what he
wanted initially, he would try harder. Asking over-attached
owners to ignore their pets is the most difficult task they
will probably ever perform. There has to be no eye contact,
no verbal communication and a closed body language that is
unfamiliar to the cat so that the signal is clear and can
be understood. Friends were to come round as regularly as
possible and play with Chichester using a fishing rod toy.
A cleaning regime for sprayed areas was advised; a surgical
spirit wipe down and Feliway (a synthetic version of feline
facial pheromones) sprayed over the site.
the cat flap had a profound effect on Chichester. There was
so much to see and do outside that his approaches to Lucy
reduced instantly. Although he was always around when she
came home, neighbours reported that he had been out and about
during the day. He was remarkably quick at realising that
Lucy meant business with her withdrawal of attention. The
key to the success of the programme was consistency in Lucy's
non-reward of Chichester's behaviour. The occasional weakening
and gesture towards him would have made it difficult to extinguish
the behaviour since it would have represented a very tempting
regime of intermittent reinforcement - gamblers will tell
you how addictive random reward can be! Lucy started to go
to Chichester when she wanted affection and not vice versa,
she socialised more with her friends because she was not afraid
of leaving him at home and she even developed better relationships
with her other cats.
can also be a problem for some people, but it is a very subjective
issue since one man's under-attached cat is another man's
normal independent moggy. One case that was actually referred
for an aggression problem illustrates this point.
was a two-year-old male neutered British Shorthair. He lived
with his owners and two teenage children in a large two storey
house. George had access to outdoors but would only go out
if the family were out or it was warm. He had a good appetite
and was fed Iams dry cat food and Whiskas tinned food four
times a day. He loved to play with fur mice and the children
threw these around the house for him. He was very unsociable
with people and withdrew from any physical contact. He was
wary of strangers and jumped at sudden non-verbal noises.
since he was a kitten he had attacked people's feet, usually
after playing with one of his fur mice. When he was young
it was considered amusing, in fact the family were thrilled
that the cat showed some interest in them and actively encouraged
it. The pattern continued but his bites and scratches became
painful as he got older and stronger. They had eventually
stopped playing with him completely.
was very unsociable in character but he also lacked confidence
which prevented him from filling his day with lots of challenging
activities. When he did play a game he got over-excited and
hurt people. This had become a learned behaviour as a result
of the family rewarding it so much when he was a kitten. The
family felt that George wasn't a member of the family and
frankly they couldn't see what purpose there was in his being
there and this was the main problem. He didn't interact with
them at all now since they had stopped playing with him. The
goal was for the family to get pleasure from him and vice
versa in a positive non-harmful way.
first change was George's feeding regime the idea was to make
him work a bit harder for his food. The majority of his dry
food was placed in various locations throughout the conservatory;
quite obvious places at first so that he got the hang of it,
and then in more hidden spots. The teenage children were enlisted
to build a cardboard assault course with lots of hiding places
for food and catnip. They re-assembled his old activity centre
that they had stopped using when George was about six-months-old
and added bits on to give him a high vantage point to watch
the birds outside on the bird table.
games he so enjoyed would now take place on the end of a long
bamboo cane so that the owners were remote from the game and
their feet were so far away that they were no longer a target.
George was fascinated by running water so they installed an
indoor fountain in the conservatory which he loved.
he became more and more enthusiastic about life in general
and all the new activities, George's confidence increased.
After about three weeks, as instructed, his owners left the
conservatory door open one day very casually and allowed him
to make his mind up whether or not he went out. He did, tentatively
at first and at his own pace with no intervention from his
improved enormously and the aggression disappeared overnight.
The family felt more affectionate towards him because he appeared
lively and relaxed in their presence. George was not being
subjected to human contact against his will but discovering
for himself how rewarding interaction with humans could be.
It was just a matter of time before he explored the possibilities
of direct tactile contact.
next case relates to a cat called BF, a sad example of overattachment/bonding
problems on the part of the cat and not the owner and an illustration
that not all cases have a happy ending.
was a one-year-old domestic shorthair castrated male. He was
taken in by the Cats Protection at 10-weeks-old along with
a litter mate. At the age of five months he was rehomed with
another kitten one month older to a couple who were out at
work during the day. All was well until, at the age of nine
months, he went missing for a week. When he returned he started
to defecate when he greeted his owners in the evening. The
owners returned him to the Cats Protection. He then lived
at a Cats Protection foster home with the lady who socialised
him originally and he spent his time partly outside in a cat
pen and partly in the family home.
paced and vocalised continuously in his pen or when he was
not with his owner and he defecated when he saw her, even
on her feet. The faeces appeared to be voided without conscious
control (no loose motions) and the act was proceeded by vigorous
rubbing around the owner's legs. When he was close to her
he hyperventilated and appeared over-excited. He even used
to try and climb up her clothing to place his head inside
her mouth! He never stopped actively seeking her company and
he never appeared still or relaxed. His attentions were definitely
focused on this one person.
was suffering from a severe bonding disorder. Unfortunately
it is not clear what his motivation was for this behaviour.
It may have been frustration and fearful insecurity or a bizarre
form of attention-seeking behaviour which had received inadvertent
reinforcement from the owner. It may also have been a clinical
problem, eg, a neurochemical excess or insufficiency.
vet put him on clomipramine hydrochloride (licensed for use
in dogs as Clomicalm to treat anxiety-related problems) at
0.5mg/kg bodyweight with no obvious effect. An increase to
1mg/kg coincided or caused an increase in the intensity of
programme of other people interacting with him together with
stimulation and interesting feeding opportunities (he had
a big appetite) resulted in his starving himself for two days
rather than exploring the possibility of obtaining his food
in a novel way.
next plan was to try and introduce a diet high in B6 and tryptophan,
an amino acid that converts to serotonin, (a mood stabilising
neurotransmitter) to try to reduce his reactivity by dietary
discussed a programme of clear signals of response should
BF make a low arousal approach to his owner and a method of
displaying non-reward for the high arousal approaches accompanied
by defecation. A full haematology, serum biochemistry, thyroid
function and neurological examination were planned to rule
out a clinical cause.
were too late. The owner had had enough and requested euthanasia.
This is a sad but important point about dealing with bond-related
issues. The success of any programme to resolve the problem
is dependent on the owner being emotionally able to comply
with it. This particular over-attachment problem put an enormous
strain on this very sensible and experienced cat owner and
sometimes the outcome is not satisfactory for just this reason.
who works with cats and their owners, whether in a boarding
cattery, rescue centre or in veterinary practice, should be
aware of the potential intensity of the human/cat bond. If
anyone gets involved in helping owners with relationship problems
with their cats it can be fascinating and rewarding. However
always remember that not all of these problems can be resolved,
sometimes these bonds are stronger than we are!