A couple of years ago, I was talking to a fellow cat-owner about our kitties and their general health. Since we’re conscientious pet parents, our cats get their annual checkups and vaccinations on schedule every year. My friend was worried, however. She didn’t want to leave her sweet orange tabby unprotected — but she was also concerned about the potential negative effects of the vaccine. Could her cat become autistic? Fortunately, I was able to ally her fears. Side effects are rare and usually minor. Even the possibility of a serious reaction is outweighed by the benefits of regular vaccination.
Can cats be autistic? No, they can’t. Autism is a complex neurological condition found in humans. It is not relevant to cats. While a cat may exhibit a range of behaviours that seem similar to aspects of autism, it is simply not possible for a cat to be autistic.
You’ve arrived on this page because you have questions about your cat and her neurology. Is there such a thing as an autistic cat? Is my anti-social cat autistic? Can pet vaccines cause autism? Why are some cats friendly and outgoing, while others are reserved and shy? Perhaps you’re concerned about a cat who doesn’t like interacting with others. Maybe you are about to get your cat or kitten vaccinated and are worried that your pet might develop autism. Don’t worry anymore — we have the answers you need. Just keep reading to find out everything you need to know about cats and autism.
Can cats be autistic?
The short answer is that no, cats cannot be autistic. Autism is a condition that affects humans; it does not apply to cats. It’s really not something a cat owner ever needs to worry about.
Many autistic people note that they can relate to their cats in certain specific ways. Like autistic people, cats can often suffer from negative reactions if they’re over-stimulated. This is a light-hearted joke among some autistic people, however, rather than anything resembling a clinical diagnosis.
When people talk about a cat having autism, they typically mean that this particular cat is not as sociable as they’d like. Supposedly “autistic” cats may also be generally rather nervous and perhaps given to fixating on particular activities. While these are traits that might be seen in some people with autism, they don’t mean the cat is autistic.
Cats exhibit a very wide range of behaviour. Normal feline dispositions range from the very friendliest kitties who desperately want to be on your lap at all times, all the way to remote and reserved cats who prefer to sit a little distance away and observe your activities. Some cats are actively afraid of humans and avoid them altogether. Any and all of these behaviours may be “normal” for a particular cat.
It’s also possible for a cat’s personality to change over time. The most dramatic changes tend to occur when a cat is maturing from playful kittenhood into an adult cat. It’s normal for cats to become rather more reserved and less sociable when they stop being kittens. This isn’t usually something to worry about unless the adult cat shows severe anxiety and panic around people.
Another thing that can make a cat less friendly and amiable is belated de-sexing. This is particularly obvious in “entire” toms, who can become quite hostile and difficult to manage if they’re not neutered in a timely manner. To be fair to toms, it’s not just boy cats who have this problem. Female cats who aren’t spayed can also become flighty, intractable and even violent, especially when they come into heat. (They also become almost impossible to keep indoors, which is a big headache for a conscientious cat owner.)
For this reason, along with many others, you should really get your kittens de-sexed as soon as the vet says they’re ready. Reputable breeders will always spay and neuter their kittens. If you have rescued a cat or come by her in some other way, you will need to get it done yourself. You may find that the behaviour you’re worried about disappears over time once the source of the hormonal disruption is removed.
A cat who is reserved and standoffish may simply not be the cuddly type. It’s not a syndrome — it’s just the nature of some kitties to show their affection in different ways. Some breeds are known for their affectionate natures, while others are famously reserved. Even within a particular breed, you will see variations in temperament. Usually, this is nothing to worry about.
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What is autism and why can’t cats develop it?
Autism is the name given to a large group of different conditions which all share certain features. Because these conditions are so varied, the term “autism spectrum disorders” (ASDs) is widely used to talk about these conditions.
People with ASDs may have problems with social and communication skills. They might have difficulty managing their emotions and may struggle to interact with others. Some people may be unable to speak or may have very restricted communication. Others may exhibit repetitive behaviours and find it hard to cope with changes in routine. Many people on the autism spectrum are especially sensitive to light, sounds and other stimuli, experiencing a great deal of discomfort and sometimes a strong psychological response.
People with very severe symptoms may be significantly disabled while others can live normal, and even highly successful lives. Proper support can make a big difference.
So why can’t cats have autism? Because cats simply don’t have the same kinds of social and interpersonal interaction as humans. They have their own ways of being social and of communicating, both with humans and with cats or other animals, which aren’t really subject to the kinds of variance we see in people with ASD. Autism as a diagnosis simply isn’t relevant to cats.
Will vaccines make my cat autistic?
I see this question with increasing frequency nowadays, and it makes me so terribly sad. The people asking are always loving pet parents who really do want what’s best for their beloved fur-babies, and here they are being so badly misled. No, vaccines cannot ever make your cat autistic. Regular shots are absolutely vital for your pet’s well-being. Without vaccines, your cat could become gravely ill with a preventable disease.
It is too easy to be dismissive of these kinds of fears. People aren’t ignorant for wanting to be sure that vaccines won’t hurt their pet; there’s simply too much misinformation around today for anyone to avoid it entirely. I find the best thing to do is to break the issue down piece by piece.
First of all, cats can’t become autistic; therefore it’s impossible for vaccines or anything else to cause autism in felines. Second of all, vaccines do not cause autism in the one species that we do know can develop autism (human beings).
The next question is usually something along the lines of but vaccines can cause health problems, and health problems can sometimes affect feline behaviour. Even if vaccines don’t cause autism, can I be sure that they won’t cause some other issue with my cat?
This is a more complex question. The fact is that out of the many millions of cats who are vaccinated every year, a small number will develop reactions to the vaccines they’re given. These might be a mild fever and some fussiness for a day or two. They might be more serious, causing long term consequences. This risk is vastly offset by the much more frequent, and much more serious, rate of disease among unvaccinated cats. If you failed to protect your pet and she became ill or died from a preventable illness, could you ever forgive yourself?
My cat’s behaviour has changed recently. Has she developed autism?
There are many things that can cause behavioural changes in cats. While these changes are not really autism, some of them can superficially resemble the differences that we see in people with autism.
If your cat has always been friendly, tractable and affectionate, and then suddenly becomes hostile and aloof, this is cause for concern. Cats sometimes become aggressive when they’re sick or in pain — they can’t communicate what’s wrong so they lash out. A sick or injured cat may also begin avoiding people. Cats who are seriously unwell often decide to find somewhere quiet and concealed to hide away in.
When a previously friendly and trusting cat suddenly becomes hostile to human company, it can sometimes be a sign that someone has harassed or hurt the cat. Check our pet for injuries and keep an eye open for any mistreatment. This kind of problem usually settles down as long as the abuse isn’t repeated.
Increased sensitivity to noise and light can also indicate a problem; all cats have very acute hearing and are sensitive to bright light, but if your cat seems unusually distressed by light or noise you might want to check in with your vet. There may be a problem with your cat’s eyes or ears, or she may have an infection that’s making her more sensitive to light and noise.
A cat that has experienced stress recently may also become less friendly. If you’ve recently moved house your cat might be less amiable than usual while she gets used to her new surroundings. If you’ve brought a new pet into the home, this can cause a similar reaction. Show your cat lots of love and support and give her time to adjust.
Sudden and dramatic changes in behaviour are always cause for concern. If your cat seems very different from her usual self, talk to your vet and make sure she doesn’t have an underlying health problem.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.