Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition in humans that causes challenges in speech, nonverbal communication, social interaction, and restricted and/or repetitive behaviors.
Based on feline behavior and the book ‘All Cats are on the Autism Spectrum‘ by Kathy Hoopman, some people may believe that cats have autistic tendencies. But are cats autistic, or are we anthropomorphizing?
What Are The Signs Of ASD In Humans?
ASD is a complex condition that affects each person differently. In humans, ASD is usually diagnosed when children are very young, is more common in boys than girls, and is a lifelong condition.
Asperger’s syndrome is a form of ASD. There are no physical clues to ASD, autistic children look the same as any other human. Signs of ASD can range from mild to severe.
Autistic people have been reported to have the following:
- Challenges in social interactions, such as difficulties holding a normal conversation, lack of eye contact and facial expressions, and difficulty understanding and maintaining human relationships.
- Repeating behaviors
- Intense focus on things that most children aren’t interested
- Indifference to temperature or pain
- Fascination with lights and movement
- Easily overloaded with sensory stimuli
- Unique or repetitive speech patterns
- High intelligence
If you would like to learn more about ASD in humans, visit the Center for Disease Control website.
Can Cats Be Autistic?
While cats can have some behavioral quirks that mimic some signs of autism in humans, there is no evidence that cats have autism. As humans, we love our cats and deeply enjoy the relationship we have with these creatures, and we often give human meanings to their behaviors as a result (that’s called anthropomorphizing).
This can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of feline behavior, including misinterpreting normal feline behavior for behaviors associated with autism in humans. Cats don’t see or think about the world the same way we do. Let’s look at this in more detail.
How Feline Behavior May Resemble Autism
1. Anti-social behavior: One common trait seen in autistic people is a tendency to be anti-social. This usually has less to do with a desire to be alone and more to do with an inability to understand human social cues and engage with typical social interactions.
Cats also like to be alone, but that isn’t because they don’t understand our social behavior and cues, sometimes they just prefer their own company. In the wild, cats tend to be solitary hunters, so it would make sense that they would bring the instinct to be a loner with them into the home.
Not all cats like to be alone, some cats are extroverts and prefer to be social and snuggle. Other cats like to be alone – we hold space for them all.
2. Vocalization: One reason why cat owners think their cat might be autistic is excessive vocalization. Some human beings with ASD may only direct their vocalization toward one person: the same happens in some cats who only meow, purr, or chirp when they are near certain people.
This is not autism, this is catism (see what I did there?), and is usually perfectly normal in cats. Cats may only vocalize around the person they are bonded to, or the person who feeds them. In fact, some cats have trained their humans very well and know that when they yowl at their person, that person will feed them.
Some cats, like Siamese or Oriental Shorthairs, have a breed specific tendency to be vocal.
If your previously not-vocal or moderately-vocal kitty suddenly becomes vocal, however, that is a sign that something is wrong. One of the signs of hyperthyroidism, a common hormonal condition in older cats, is excessive vocalization.
If your cat starts talking a lot out of nowhere, schedule a veterinary check up to make sure something else isn’t going on.
3. Fascination with Lights and Movement: Anybody who has used a laser pointer to play with a cat knows that cats are fascinated with lights and movement. This has nothing to do with autism and everything to do with a cat’s predatory instinct to chase whatever is moving.
In the wild, cats have to hunt for their food, therefore they have a strong predator instinct to chase anything that moves. Bring that instinct into the home, throw in some laser pointers, and you have a great way to exercise your cat.
Just make sure to land the light on a treat or toy so the cat can actually ‘catch’ his prey on a regular basis to prevent development of shadow and light chasing.
4. Sensory Abnormalities: Humans with ASD often present with sensory abnormalities. Cats can also demonstrate decreased responsiveness or be excessively clumsy, but this is not autism. When it happens in cats it is indicative of another underlying problem that is negatively impacting the health of the cat.
Advanced kidney disease, diabetes, liver disease, toxins, cerebellar hypoplasia, and brain tumors can all cause sensory abnormalities, and lack of focus in cats. If you notice that any sensory or coordination problems in your cat, call your vet immediately.
5. Strong Preferences: Children with ASD often demonstrate strong preferences for one particular toy or food. Cats are also known to obsess over one toy, and they are notorious for strong food preferences, even preferring one particular shape of kibble over another, i.e. will eat star shaped kibble but won’t eat triangular kibble.
Again – these aren’t autistic tendencies, they are just cats being cats. Cats have a poor sense of smell, and rely on other senses, including vision and touch, to identify their food.
If they have been conditioned to eat star shaped kibble, it can be difficult to convince them that triangle kibble is also food.
If they have eaten dry food their whole life, then a bowl full of canned food can be very confusing to them. You can prevent strong food preferences by feeding a combination of dry and canned food to cats from a young age. When it comes to toy preferences – just let them have what they want to have.
Hopefully, this article has reassured you that cats don’t have autism, at least they don’t have the human form of autism, and most of the behaviors seen in cats that look like autistic behaviors are actually normal feline behaviors.
If, however, your previously normal cat suddenly develops abnormal behaviors or is hiding more, acting sick in any way, or if you are concerned in any way about your cat’s behavior or psychological state, don’t hesitate to call your local veterinarian and ask for advice.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can cats have special needs?
Yes, cats most definitely can have special needs! Any cat that has a disability, whether it be a missing limb, mental or neurological disabilities, or other disease, cats can and do have special needs which require extra care.
Can animals be autistic?
As far as we know, non-human animals do not have autism. Animals can have mental or other physical disabilities that can have symptoms that mimic the signs of autism in humans, however the underlying cause is usually another diagnosable disease.
Can cats have mental illness?
Cats can have psychological and mental disabilities. Conditions like fear aggression, anxiety, feline stress cystitis, seizure disorders, and compulsive disorders are all seen in cats.
Can cats have sensory issues?
Humans with ASD often present with sensory abnormalities. Cats can also demonstrate decreased responsiveness or be excessively clumsy, but these are affiliated with ASD. When this occurs in cats it is indicative of another underlying problem that is negatively impacting the health of the cat. Advanced kidney disease, diabetes, liver disease, toxins, cerebellar hypoplasia, and brain tumors can all cause sensory abnormalities, and lack of focus in cats. If you notice that any sensory or coordination problems in your cat, call your vet immediately.