DEAR DR. FOX: Was my dad's cat kidnapped by aliens? I'm hoping you can explain my father's -- now my -- cat's abrupt behavior change.
My parents, veteran cat lovers, adopted a brother-sister pair about 12 years ago. The sister got out and disappeared, and the brother became a complete curmudgeon of a cat. Whenever we visited, either with or without my young kids, the cat would hiss, spit and run away, or simply hide under the bed and growl at us. If I tried to pet him, he'd lash out and try to bite me. He behaved this way to everyone except my father and mother.
Fast-forward a bit in time; about four years ago, my mother died and my father developed dementia. My father accidentally let the cat out of the house, and we thought he was gone. Then, he abruptly returned after two weeks and settled back in the house. Soon after that, he spent long periods of time alone as my dad transitioned to an apartment and then nursing home within a few months. I continued to feed him, but could not pet him or pick him up.
In the end, we had to choose either to adopt him or take him to a shelter because he couldn't stay with my dad in the nursing home. We decided to adopt him. Since we had a 4-year-old female cat and 2-year-old dog plus two youngish kids, we figured he'd spend the rest of his life under our beds or in the basement, but that would be better than death (who'd adopt such a mean cat?).
This is where the alien abduction comes in. The cat that we brought into our home is a totally different cat. He purrs, he cuddles without discrimination, he doesn't mind the dog, he plays with the other cat, he hangs out with strangers, he lets us pick him up and he purrs so loud we have to put him out of the bedroom at night.
What on earth could cause such a swing in behavior? We are the same people. But is he the same cat? My explanation is that he was kidnapped and replaced by an alien cat during those weeks of freedom. It's been two years since he moved in, and we still marvel that it is the same animal my parents had in their home. If you have any theories as to how a cat could change so drastically, I'd love to hear them. -- C.T., Webster Groves, Missouri
DEAR C.T.: What an interesting and rather sad feline saga you document!
On my website (drfoxvet.net) is the article "Cat Behavior: Cognitive Disassociation and Social Disruption," which may give you some deeper understanding of cat psychology. In essence, my interpretation of this kind of sudden personality switch is related to the individual cat's situation and degree of fear triggered by a change in the environment and social relationships. The cat seeing your dog and cat being relaxed, friendly and not fearful of you may have facilitated his "recovery." This is one reason why I advocate group housing for shelter cats.
Your letter is also an important reminder that so-called behavioral/temperament tests of cats alone in cages in shelters have serious limitations. Cats who undergo these tests and are considered unadoptable are either euthanized or set free under the dubious banner of trap-neuter-release, when, given more time to adapt and be with other friendly cats in a group might lead to their recovery -- and increase their chances of being adopted.
The Most Animal-Friendly Countries
The animal welfare charity World Animal Protection (formerly known as the World International Society for the Protection of Animals), which has offices in 14 countries, has posted an interactive "Animal Protection Index" on its website: api.worldanimalprotection.org/indicators.
The group ranks some 50 countries on its own animal protection standards, which are based on the following criteria: formal recognition of animal sentience; support for its Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare; laws against causing animal suffering; protecting animals used in farming, animals in captivity, companion animals, animals used in scientific research and welfare of wild animals.
A top grade of A was given to the U.K., Switzerland, Austria and New Zealand. But I was stunned when they gave India a rating of C (also given to Sweden, France and the Philippines), while Canada and the United States were given a lower rating of D.
Having visited and lectured in most of these countries on animal welfare issues, and also spending several years supporting efforts to improve the plight of animals in India, I see yet another major international animal protection organization wasting time and donor money on yet another questionable mission. On the surface it seems laudable, even promising, to help reduce zoonoses (animal-to-human diseases), but it papers over the terrible plight of animals in India, for which I am currently assembling documentation. Ever more laws and declarations are meaningless when corruption, disinformation and lack of enforcement are not addressed.
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