Roughly a week ago, a new reader, Rooksaar, stumbled across my blog while digging for information about behavioural changes in cats, and in particular, about personality changes that occur after illnesses.
Her newly adopted shelter cat had taken ill with an upper respiratory infection almost immediately after being taken home, and on his successful road to recovery, he sadly transformed from the loving, affectionate lap cat she fell in love with to a discontented kitty who bit quite frequently and preferred to be left alone rather than being cuddled or petted – as he used to like.
Not finding much on the net about behavioural changes post-illness specifically, she asked me to write up a post on the topic. Here’s her question:
Hi Elise. Thank you for your blog, its an amazing read!
I adopted a shelter cat and within days he contracted an upper respiratory infection. He is all healed up now, but his behavior has significantly changed.
When he first came home, I couldn’t take a seat without him trying to get onto my lap. He also slept with his head on my pillow and his body stretched out – just like us humans.
However, when he was sick, he became more withdrawn – which is completely understandable. He had to endure a few vet visits along with nasal congestion, difficulty breathing and the use of a humidifier to assist with all of the above.
When he started to feel better, he started biting. It started when I used the vacuum machine and he wanted to play. When I packed the machine away, he rolled over to show me his belly, but when I reached to touch his face – he bit the heck out of my hand.
He had never done this before.
Then he started biting me whilst I slept. He would come to bed, sleep till 3am and then bite me awake. He also started biting if I tried touching him in ways that he previously seemed to enjoy.
The biting is slowly subsiding with persistent training but he does not enjoy sitting on my lap anymore – at all! He does follow me from room to room and we play at least 3 times a day but there is still a hint of distrust in our relationship.
I read your post on behavioral changes following the adoption of another cat, but please could you write a blog post about behavioral changes following illness. I haven’t been able to find anything about this online.
Thank you so much!
I’m going to say here for the record: I am not a vet or pet expert. Just your run of the mill pet parent who likes to research things and test things out to make for optimal cat happiness in her home. I don’t even have a crazy amount of first-hand expertise with cats, only have the one and in my particular case, one who’s never been ill or sick in his time with me (roughly 3 years). But I do have some thoughts on the matter, and these are my own opinions but I’m happy to change them if you can show me they’re off anywhere. Have any corrections or don’t agree with something in particular I’ve said? Bits and pieces resonate with you? Please leave your input down in the comments – your wisdom could really help other pet parents and their pets. Now let’s jump into my thoughts on this topic.
The Connection Between Feline Illness & Behavioural Changes in Cats
Do a quick search on the internet about behavioural changes or personality changes in domestic cats and you’ll get long lists of types of these changes to look out for in case your cat is sick. There’s an obvious connection between illness and change in a cat’s personality and behaviour, and when the problem is patched up, it makes sense that a cat would not immediately return back to normal.
That being said, personally, I think it’s completely possible to get a cat’s initial personality back – with effort and prodding on a pet parent’s part for the speediest recovery to a cat’s normal state. There should be a full return “back to normal” over time in my mind so long as the cat returns to tip-top health after the illness, and here’s why.
Cat Behavioural Changes During & After Illness Are Co-Related With Discomfort
When it comes to behavioural changes in relation to illness, it’s pretty obvious at first glance why a cat’s behaviour changed in the first place.
Being sick is not fun. It’s uncomfortable, annoying, and frustrating all in one. Not being able to breathe (in this particular case) is certainly something to be bothered about, and the discomfort from the illness by itself likely would have caused behavioural changes. I know if I had issues breathing temporarily, I’d probably act out and suffer an enormous behavioural change; with a cat it’d be the same thing.
On top of being agitated by the illness itself we have the fact being lugged to and from the vet’s is also not fun for a cat. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s still pretty exhausting for our furry ones. Cats also hate big changes and, let’s be honest, things always change in quite big ways when pets are sick. We have to give cats their medicine or change their environment in ways that will help them recover from their illness or diseases. In your particular case you said a dehumidifier your cat hated was helping with the breathing – again, a necessary evil, but any source of agitation definitely can contribute to the overall discomfort a cat feels, and thus temporarily cause a change in behaviour or personality.
Why Cats May Not Go Back to Normal Immediately After Being Cured
You might think all this is fair enough, but when humans get sick, then are patched up and return to perfect health, we’re essentially back to our peppy selves immediately. And while for the most part, I’d have to agree that this is the case – it isn’t always true.
Let’s say a human gets cancer. But it’s very early stage, and a surgery can remove all the cancer cells. The surgeons manage to cut absolutely everything cancerous out in one go, but even after the cancer is 100% gone post-surgery, that human is still going to feel exhausted – tired, probably irritated, and completely wiped out. It may take weeks or even months for that human being to feel back to normal – your cat after being remedied is probably in a similar boat.
What do you do for a person who’s recovering from surgery, or for a person who’s still recovering from the process of being cured of an illness or disease? You give them space and time, spoil them with their favourite things, treat them as if they’re fragile for the time being (which they likely are), and slowly test things out they might like because there are always things a person typically likes that he or she won’t when ill or exhausted. Will they return to normal? Absolutely – slowly but surely they will be back to their good ol’ self once the discomfort – the pain and exhaustion – are alleviated.
Technically, I guess I’d say that if your cat’s personality hasn’t returned back to normal, but he or she is better, that your cat has been cured, but has not fully recovered from the illness yet. It’s still taking it’s tole. Still felt in terms of wear and tear. Your cat will need time to feel better, even though he or she is better.
How Can You Help Recovery Along to Get Kitty Back to Normal Speedily
Again, I’ve never had an ill cat (though my brother and mother have both had sick cats), but I have dealt with a few short-term personality and behavioural changes in my cat Avery. These specifically happened after we moved houses – which we’ve done quite a lot, and the two times we flew with Avery on a plane when emigrating to a new country.
The following are some of the tricks I used to help along his recovery from exhaustion, shock from too much change, and in general being withdrawn or excessively hiding. I hope these will also help a cat recovering from illness to get back to normal in the quickest way possible.
- Keep your cat confined to one small-ish room. Essentially a recovery room.
- Make sure it’s a room kitty can see out of a window very well from, extra points for a window that’s got a nice view or vantage point of birds, but no people, cars, or dogs that may stress your kitty out. Make sure absolutely everything kitty needs (food, water, litter, scratching post) is in the room, and keep food in ample amounts even when it’s not being eaten. Cat can’t get to the window easily? Place a chair next to the window sill, and if the sill isn’t wide enough for your cat to sit comfortably, drag a dresser or another piece of furniture that’s the right height next to it. Place a sweater or a blanket on top to make a perfect kitty-napping spot with a view. Chances are high this is where your cat will spend most of his or her time.
- Make sure the room is quiet, and if you need to drown out noise from renovations, traffic, or whatever else, invest in an air purifier and blast it on low, medium, or high (depending on how much noise there is to drown out) to create white noise that will keep kitty calm.
- Create a space for your cat to hide if he or she wants to. Easiest way to do this: drape blankets over a chair or a table to create a little cave of sorts for your cat. Lots of renovations or stressful things going on? Keep the air purifier just outside the hiding spot, so kitty can feel really safe and not hear much of the commotion when inside his or her hiding spot.
- Fill the room with your cat’s favourite things – blankets, pillows, cat beds, yours sweaters – whatever you have that kitty used to love or you think your cat might love to snuggle and nap in. Provide plenty of toys, offer to play, but no pressure, and if possible, keep kitty company passively by sitting with a laptop or browsing on a phone near your cat, but without pressuring your cat to interact for a number of hours each day.
- Try to figure out if there are ways you can pet your cat that he or she is okay with. If something’s not working, don’t do it again for a few days. If something is working, continue to do it but don’t overdo it, as over-stimulation when a cat is exhausted is no fun.
- Be patient and play things by ear. If your cat suddenly begins sniffing at the door, it’s time to let your cat out of the room to explore (don’t immediately move things in the recovery room, he or she may want to come back) because he or she’s ready to tackle inspecting the rest of the house. If he or she’s content to be left in the room, let him or her stay until activity levels are high again.
Signs You’re On the Sure Road to Recovery
Because it’s always nice to have little milestones to feel progress is being made, watch out for some of these signs your cat is returning to normal (again, based on my limited experience with personality changes in cats):
- Kitty’s stopped hiding.
It may not feel like a big deal, but cats that are hiding are definitely scared, and being rid of that fear is a definite step forward. Cat never hid? That in itself is a great sign.
- Your cat takes a nibble of food, drinks, and uses the litter box.
For a lot of people, this will be the first huge sigh of relief, because cats will when stressed often decline to do any or all of the above for what feels like ages to us pet owners. All three checked? Next awesome milestone…
- Your cat isn’t just napping, but also enjoys looking out the window.
I’ve always felt like looking out the window is the best distraction to get cats back on track to being less stressed. I feel it pulls them out of their head and helps them recover faster than anything else, so if your cat is spending his or her days looking out windows for hours instead of simply napping and resting endlessly in a hiding place, this is amazing.
- Kitty’s happy to be petted in specific ways.
Even a little petting being tolerated is a huge step forward. Keep petting your cat in short bouts and don’t overdo it. But take this as a great sign.
- Your cat’s begun to move around, sniff, inspect, and even “explore.”
Again, a really big step forward, though you might not feel it is. Exploring means your cat is really coming out of his or her shell. Encourage this with positive words and affirmation, as well as petting if any physical contact is tolerated.
- Your cat’s appetite is returning.
If kitty’s not feeling so hot, chances are his or her appetite won’t be so high. You’ll get a nibble or two every once in a while at best. Notice your cat’s appetite returning to normal? Take that as a sign recovery is well underway.
- Your cat enjoys playing in ways he or she used to.
For some reason my cat always seems to not want to play at all whenever he’s withdrawn or in recovery from any type of distress. He is lazier than most, so maybe other cats will play, just not to the extent they used to, but either way, getting your cat to play as he or she did before is a really, really good sign your cat’s recovering well. Take advantage of this by playing with your cat as often as he or she will. Relieving aggression this way and tuckering your cat out “the right way” (the wrong way being attacking humans!) will really help with behavioural issues like biting to be resolved over time. As a side thought, you may also want to try having some of these chew toys around in case your cat has just developed an interest in biting and has nothing appropriate to take it out on.
- Kitty approaches you on his or her own.
Even if it’s just a little bit, if your cat is walking toward you and sniffing or rubbing him or herself on your legs – this is an almost certain sign that bright days are just around the corner.
- Kitty sleeps belly up, slow blinks at you, and acts very comfortable on his or her own.
While you may not yet be able to pet your cat the way you used to, this is a sign that your cat is getting more comfortable around you again and is likely to soon be happy as a clam as he or she used to be.
That’s all I can think of for now, but if you have any other signs of recovery in mind after a personality change – please leave them in the comments down below!
Your Experiences with Cat Personality Changes & Illness?
Do you have firsthand experience with behavioural changes after a cat became ill? How long did they take to resolve themselves?
Did the cat go back to normal completely or not quite? Did anything you did help? Anything not help?
On behalf of pet owners with this problem, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment about your thoughts and experiences!
Mommy of 2 cats says
My cat suddenly became very ill in the middle of the night and I rushed him to the vet. He was in so much pain you could not touch him or he would bite you and scream. The vet kept him overnight and announced he had a blood infection the next day. He is a big boy, 20+ pds, on an antidepressant. He’s been home and recovering for 4 days and his personality has completely changed….but for the better. Before he was always the dominant cat between my 2 cats, he had an edge, and put up with very little from the other cat. He would attack her if he was hungry or tired, any reason. She consequently was scared a lot and was on anxiety medicine. I was constantly concerned for her, trying to make safe places for her all over. Since “big boy’ has been home he just ignores her, no hostility, no attacks. He is so docile, snuggily, loving, I wonder if the vet sent the right cat home! He is eating, using the litter box, walking around normally, so I don’t think he is feeling sick anymore. We are bewildered and glad but worried at the same time. Anyone have this experience?
Our current cat has had a change–albeit minor–since an illness she had last November. It may have been gastroenteritis, she was extremely lethargic and anorexic for about 5 days, then made a recovery over about three days. One thing she did when she initially was sick was she would go to the litter box and sit there, like a human attempting to deficate and then sniffing at the nothing that would come out.
Now she abhors the litter box. Since she goes outside most every night, this must be where she does her business, though I’m not sure where. If she has to, she will use the litter, but it goes unused for DAYS at a time. In fact, this is how I know if she didn’t go outside for a night is the litter has been used. Previously, she would use her unknown spot(s) outside or the litter, whichever was more convenient. She won’t soil the house (that we’re aware of), but she must hate using the litter now.
Never did find out what the problem was, it wasn’t constipation that the vet found, but she only got preliminary tests and then got better not long after that first trip. Even at the height of her illness however she would still accept pets and attention,
Sheldon Troy says
Hi, I just looked up behavior changes in cats after illness and found this blog. I have a female brown tabby named Missy. I got her from the spca..she is still under three months old. When I fist got her she was a very lively playfull girl, literally bouncing off the walls. I took her into the vets for a routine booster vacinations, she almost died from a bad side affect reaction. She wouldn’t move , eat, or drink for two days. The vet said it was likely a fever, she didn’t hide or have trouble breathing. I could best describe her is like a pet rock with eyes. She recovered and started eating and drinking again. And seems to be healthy and loving. Its been a month since her illness/ bad reaction. But her behavior and personality has totally changed, she is now very mellow, sleeps a lot, and doesn’t want to play as before. She is not interested in her old toys, she is very gentle, still snuggles sometimes but not like before. Its like she was the carefree kitty mode, the overnight acts like a mature little female. The point being she is a completely different cat! She is still wonderful , but its like she grew up in one day. Doesn’t act like a kitten anymore.
Cassandra Riling says
My cat Sneezy is my baby. She has been very attached to me her whole life. I have had many cats at one time because I had 2 that both were pregnant that I took in. That is neither here nor there, but sneezy was one kitten I kept because I loved her to pieces and she loved me the same. Slept right on my chest everyday, followed me everywhere. She is called sneezy because she has had repeated bouts of uri virus. So illness was common for her. She was the weakest in these litters. Now I took her to get her spayed when she was 6 months old along with 2 others. After her stitches came undone and it was an emergency rush to the vet and after surgery and staples she was saved. Brought her home and after 14 days took her to get her staples removed and this was when I saw a change in her behavior. She was scared to death just getting in the car and when we got home and I let her out of the carrier she would have nothing to do with me. Her personality changed. Through all of the other illness and vet visits and surgeries she was her old self. It has been a year and she is only sometimes allowing me to pet her. And never shows affection to me. Other people yes, me no. I am sure that she’s traumatized by these things and its almost like a grudge against me. I love her anyway. That’s all I can do.
Elise Xavier says
Poor baby 🙁 I got choked up reading this – she’s been through so much so early in life, it’s heartbreaking!
I hope she can get back to her old self. Yes, I’m sure she’s traumatized and somehow associates you with the vet visit and surgery. I hope over time she’ll dissociate the anxiety and pain of that time from interactions with you and re-associate running to you with cuddles, and happiness, and security.
Good on you for doing so much for her, and for being so understanding of her change, and loving her anyway. She has an amazing cat mommy ❤
Cassandra Riling says
Thank you! I love your blog.
Elise Xavier says
Thanks, Cassandra 🙂
This happened to my cat.
He started pooping green when he was about 6 months old, after rescuing him from the street as an orphaned kitten. We took him to the vet, they found some abnormalities in his liver but never told us exactly what it was, they told us it would pass, gave him some medicine and told us there was nothing else they could do for him. His illness passed, but his personality never came back. Almost 4 years latter his personality still didn’t came back. Today he passed away suddenly. I am not sure if the two were related, I know we fed him well, took him to regular vet checks, vaccinated him always on time, he was an indoor cat and grew into a big and beautiful fluffy cat who was the leader among our other cats. We have an 18 year old cat who has lived with us for the past 10 years, so I really don’t understand, but I wonder if the personality change was because of something physically wrong that we never found.
Elise Xavier says
This is so heartbreaking. I would personally have believed the same thing you ended up concluding if it were my cat – that there was something physically wrong all along that the vets never found. Poor thing 🙁 Absolutely dread that we can’t get diagnoses 100% of the time.
Sharon Towry says
I have a male cat that got a blockage in his bladder. Had to go to emergency clinic for overnight stay, then vets for a couple of days. Very sick. I brought him home, but it happened again and I had to chase him and put him in a towel “sack” to get him into the kennel. The last time he had to stay a week with a catheter and be in a nosey environment with dogs barking etc. When I finally got him home I needed to give him shots daily. All this is to say that it’s been 6 months and he still is afraid if I look like I’m going to pick him up. I brush him and pet him while he’s lying down, but he gets up and runs if I get too close. I’ve been giving him different (diet) food for treats and have a ball that he rolls around to release the treats. Often he’ll roll the ball to where I am if it’s empty! I’m going to try your hint of giving him treats when he’s in my lap or lets me pick him up. Thanks for the blog. I’ve felt like I traumatized my poor kitty and didn’t know what to do.
Elise Xavier says
That’s too sweet about him rolling the ball back when it’s empty 🙂
I have an article up about how to get cats to stop running away from you that I think would really help. Essentially right now he definitely associates you with shots and all the unpleasantness of being sick. That’s okay though, because it needed to happen to get him better. Your goal is to, slowly over time, get him to associate you with catnip, kibble, playtime, fun, and as many happy things as possible.
You can absolutely do it, and while it will take time, I have complete confidence you guys will get to a point where the illness is completely past you. If you need any more help let me know, but basically the advice in that article, plus some of these tips to help make your cat more cuddly for afterward will absolutely do the trick in the long run. It just takes time and some effort. ❤
Best of luck!
The Swiss Cats says
Good advice ! Purrs
Elise Xavier says
Thank you, 🙂
Good Post. I have a question for you though about cats. My cat is 12 now and she does a lot itching, bite, licking, rubbing and more. She has rubbed her muzzle raw, up by her ears and between her eyes and more. She’s been to the vet but the vet couldn’t really help her. What should I do now?
Elise Xavier says
I think you asked me this way back and I said I would look into it for you and forgot! I will try to do up an article for you this week. Thanks for bringing it up again, Crystal! I needed the reminder.
Eastside Cats says
Oh I wish I had words of wisdom for this situation, but I haven’t been through it. However, going back to basics seems like such a great idea. As if he’s a new cat in the house again, smaller room, less stimulation, etc. may make him feel confident again. I hope this reader keeps you up to date on this precious furbaby!
Elise Xavier says
Hope so, too! Poor lil’ thing!