This article was originally published on VICE France.
With most of Europe in lockdown, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But staying at home for months on end hasn’t been quite as horrendous for some pet owners.
As a study published by the science journal PLOS Medicine found, our domesticated friends – be they cats, dogs, bunnies or raccoons – have been a huge help in getting us through the day and generally boosting our mental health in lockdown. “Owning a pet seems to lessen some of the lockdowns’ more harmful psychological effects,” noted the study’s authors.
However, it seems that some animals – cats, mainly – haven’t had such a great of time of it. “Obviously, pet owners have been super happy to have their animals with them; it’s kept them from being all alone,” explains Dr Emmanuelle Titeux, a vet specialising in animal behaviour. “But if pets had been able to respond to a questionnaire, some of them would definitely have said, ‘All day long, I have to put up with this big stupid meathead who won’t quit poking me. I can’t take it anymore.’”
In recent months, social media has been full of anecdotes from people whose cats seemed to have become “depressed” – or just unable to stand looking at them any longer. One owner of four cats told Vox that one of her pets had started “running into walls”, and that all four had begun “hissing and growling” during lockdown. It should come as no surprise that cats, like their human companions, are “finding the sudden disruption to be a stressful experience”, M Leanne Lilly, a professor of veterinary behavioural medicine at Ohio State University, told the site.
However, Dr Titeux – a graduate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine – cautions that the term “depression” isn’t appropriate for animals. “The thing is, animals have never really demonstrated depression. What we call depression in animals is actually a sort of ‘resignation’,” she explains. “Basically, the animal finds itself in a situation where it has no way of adapting, so instead it enters a state of apathy. It might lounge around in a corner, or eat its food, but it won’t do much else.”
Dr Titeux says she hasn’t treated many cases of cat “resignation” in her Paris-area office. “But since the first lockdown, I’ve seen a lot of cats who’ve become aggressive toward their humans,” she says. “During the first lockdown, I even saw people who wanted to have their cats euthanised because they wouldn’t stop attacking them.”
As far as Dr Titeux is concerned, this type of cat behaviour has an obvious cause: the lockdown, and, more specifically, being endlessly confined with humans. Those worst affected are indoor cats, who can’t leave their homes and are forced to coexist all day with their owners.
“Some cats have really had it with humans. They’re going crazy being stuck with them all day,” says Dr Titeux, who’s also seen an increase in cats exhibiting repetitive behaviours, such as excessive licking and scratching, or “signs of distress”. Since the lockdowns started, she has also seen more cats that are obsessively clawing at people or scratching things.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about all cats here. “We shouldn’t generalise about this,” says Dr Titeux. “There are so many cats who love humans, who love playing with their owners – obviously those cats have been delighted with the circumstances. But then you have cats who aren’t really close with their humans. And when they end up stuck with people who insist on interacting with them all the time, well, that doesn’t go so well.”
For the anti-social felines, there’s no miracle solution. “Sometimes we’ve put cats on fluoxetine, an ingredient you find in [the anti-depressant] Prozac. That can reduce aggression,” says Dr Titeux. “But again, just because you’re giving animals depression meds that humans use, it doesn’t mean the animal is actually depressed.”
For those struggling with an unhappy cat, one solution – if possible – is to change the cat’s environment. Another is to change the way you interact with your pet. “Letting them come to you is a good start,” advises Dr Titeux.