Do Cats Remember Abuse?

by Nicholas DeMarino, Demand Media
    Abused cats need patient, loving, gentle owners.

    Abused cats need patient, loving, gentle owners.

    Why does your cat hide under the bed every time you close that creaky cabinet? Why does he scurry away every time you wear boots? Maybe there's a reason he's such a scaredy cat. Maybe he's been abused. Cats have amazing associative memories, especially for things that've harmed them.

    Feline Flashbacks

    Your cat's short-term memory spans about 16 hours, on par with most 2- and 3-year-old humans. In a laboratory setting (mad scientist optional), he can probably solve mazes from memory. Sudoku puzzles are probably out of the question, though.
    Your cat's long-term memory is more difficult to gauge, but it's undeniably more distinguished. In the wild, these solitary hunters can only rely on their own wits to assess threats -- there's no submission to pack mentality, a la dogs.
    Cats forge strong emotional associations with the positive and negative effects of people, places and things. Whether or not such associations are memories, in the human sense, is a technical, semantic issue. Your cat reacts to new things because of past experiences -- for practical purposes, that's memory.

    Scaredy Cats

    Physical abuse can leave physical scars on pets, but it also leaves emotional wounds.
    A clap, a tone a voice or even a smell -- the slightest cue can spur your cat into defensive mode after a negative association is cemented. Abused cats often run or hide when they recognize anything related to that abuse. They may become aggressive and take out their anxiety on other animals or people.
    Breaking down and changing these behaviors can be a difficult, lifelong process. If you're adopting a cat that you know has been abused, make sure you're in it for the long haul, otherwise it's not fair to you or the animal. If your cat suddenly displays signs of abuse for no apparent reason, schedule a veterinary checkup and question other family members.

    Helping Hands

    You can help an abused cat live a normal life, but sometimes love and good intentions can't dispel the effects of horrific trauma.
    If your cat is distrustful of people, in general, take things slow and give him time and space. If he gets anxious and bolts, don't immediately pursue him. Your cat needs safe spaces. Make sure he has plenty of perches and covered nooks to hide and survey the area.
    Use affection, treats and toys to lure him out of hiding later. You may spend a lot of time on the floor quietly petting your cat at the edge of a couch or bed to build rapport. Frequent short sessions are preferable. If he's totally averse to touching, try using a brush first and don't take it personally if you end up with a few scratches.

    Triggered Behavior

    If your cat has a particular stress trigger related to abuse, it's best to avoid it.
    You may be able to recondition him via positive reinforcement, but you can inadvertently cause more harm than good. Clicker training is possible, but many traumatized cats don't respond well to it. If you decide on the reconditioning route, first consult a veterinarian or animal behaviorist who has experience with abused animals.
    As cats age, sometimes they lose their mental faculties or get dementia. A reformed abused cat may revert to old behaviors when he becomes disoriented and confused. Minimize triggers, use a gentle voice and try to make your cat comfortable. Schedule a veterinarian appointment to rule out diseases or disorders.

    About the Author

    Nicholas DeMarino is a journalist and former newspaper associate editor and reporter. His work has appeared in "The Arizona Republic," "The Billings Gazette," "San Antonio Current" and in other publications. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.

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