Drastic change in cat behavior

by Robert DiTolla
(Miller Place, NY)

Dear Dr. Neely,

I hope you can offer some advice on a change in one of my cats' behaviors. I currently have four cats: Lilo, Stitch, Abby and Fawn. All were adopted at the same time. Lilo, Stitch and Abby were kittens at adoption while Fawn was an adult of approximately 2 years. All four are indoor cats and NEVER go out. My questions concern Fawn.

My cats have been with me since September of 2009. Fawn was a pleasant, overweight cat (12lbs), a mother who was found starving with her litter. She lived in a cat rescue house for over a year (the L.I. Feline Adoption Association). This is not a shelter but an organization that offers both kittens and adults for adoption. The adults are segregated from the kitten in a large, comfortable living room with sofas, condos. etc.

Since I've had her, Fawn was my lap cat: she'd jump on my lap and lick my fingers while I'd pet and groom her. While not an active cat, you were sure to find her in the open sitting anywhere in the living room, kitchen, etc. She was also regular feeding time and would wait for me to feed them. She was a silent cat, but feeding time would always produce a slight "squeak" from her.

About three months ago I noticed a change in her behavior. She stopped appearing at feeding times and she started to become reclusive. She currently hides under beds or in closets all day and feeds secretly. She's also stopped her lap cat behavior and never approaches me, even running away. When I do find her and pick her up, she seems to enjoy being petted but never licks fingers anymore.

I took her to our vet a month ago and she found nothing wrong after a thorough exam and blood work. I should also add that there has been no traumatic event in our home like moving, etc. that would have triggered her change in behavior.

Her behavior is still reclusive. When I pick her up she does seem noticeably lighter than her former 12 pounds. This may be because she doesn't seem to feed with everyone else.

Do you have any suggestions or advice? I miss my lap cat.


Dear Robert,

Since you have noticed weight loss since you last brought your cat to the veterinarian, she should be examined again and possibly have more bloodwork done. Coupled with the change in her feeding habits, the weight loss could indicate a metabolic disease that needs treatment. Weight loss in cats can be indicative of a number of different feline illnesses, including feline hyperthyroidism, cat diabetes, and kidney disease to name a few. Sudden weight loss can result in hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, which can be life-threatening if left untreated, but can be treated effectively if caught early.

Getting a second opinion, or requesting additional bloodwork from your veterinarian to make sure her kidneys and liver are okay, would be my best recommendation before assuming that the changes you have seen recently are strictly behavioral.

If everything clears medically, it sounds as though there may have been a sudden shift in the hierarchy among the members of your cat household. In every multi-cat household, there is a hierarchy established by the cats themselves. It can be fairly unpredictable and it can change suddenly without our having any idea why the change occurred.

Since it seems that she is otherwise healthy, and nothing was found of concern upon physical exam by your veterinarian, an emotional cause seems likely. Shifts in the hierarchy established between your kitties could certainly cause a change in your cat’s behavior.

Stress of any kind in the household can bring about cat behavior changes. This includes everything from larger things such as someone moving in, someone moving out, more or less visitors to the house, and renovations to more subtle things such as a change in your routine, a change in your behavior, a shift in the amount of affection each cat gets, and one or more of the other cats in your household having an illness. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to determining what may cause your cat stress.

I would recommend doing all that you can to create peace and safety for your cat. Make sure she has space to rest that is entirely her own, and, if she is trying to avoid feeding with the other cats in your household, give her access to food and water in a different location if possible. Adding pheromone products such as Feliway may also help to reduce her stress and help her “warm up” to you again.

Best wishes,
Dr. Neely

Return to Comments about Cat Behavior.