When a house cat descends into madness …

Published 9:18 am Friday, March 8, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

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“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

— Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”


One of our cats has gone mad, as in insane, exhibiting signs of extreme emotional instability. This judgment may mystify readers who have always believed that madness with cats is either a condition of being a cat or of owning a cat.

So how could we tell that this particular cat — her name is Peaches — isn’t just doing the kind of bizarre and freakish things normal cats do?

I have to admit, it was hard at first. Peaches has always been one of those skittish cats who, any time she gets startled, bolts under the bed or up into the crawl space over the furnace. That the doorbell and the vacuum cleaner both cause her to startle and bolt makes sense; those things often startle me. But she also startles and bolts if someone makes a sudden move toward her or tries to pick her up.

Last summer, however, she started bolting and hiding all the time for no reasons that we could see — whenever someone got out of or sat down in a chair, tried to pick her up or entered a room where she was lounging. Or when someone called out the name of her brother, Maurice.

Ah yes, Maurice. We’ll come back to him.

At any rate, it got to where she was hiding either under the bed or above the furnace more than she was snuggled up in our laps. What really clued us in to her true state of mental health was when we discovered she had been spraying inside the house.

That’s right. A (formerly) female cat was spraying.

We had all noticed the scent of ammonia in the house after returning from an extended trip out West. I assumed it was a matter of getting used to a house of cats (and litter boxes) after a month being away. We lit some candles. But we caught her raising her tail and spraying a corner cabinet in the living room, and then a bookcase in the family room soon after.

It quickly became clear that she had been spraying — in the same three places — for quite some time. We eliminated physical causes because she kept returning to those three places; it was clear she was marking territory for herself in the house.

A spayed female feline spraying to mark territory was unexpected, but when I went online to search for information and possible remedies, I discovered that it’s not unprecedented. And it had a probable cause: Peaches must have experienced some kind of trauma.

Which brings me back to her brother, Maurice. He must have done something while we were gone on that long trip, something traumatic for Peaches. He can be a bully in his quest for household dominance, but he must have finally gone too far.

Regardless of the cause, the real problem involved figuring out how to deal with it, and this is precisely when things always get complicated with pets: family members without being … well, family members. In the beginning, frustrated and filled with sorrow at the loss of so many precious books (the only option with most was to throw them away), I threatened capital punishment. But I was bluffing. When I caught her about to spray again, I quickly realized I could not have her put down.

However, we were still left with a decision. If Peaches had been a child, I would not have hesitated to pay for counseling or medications that would stabilize her emotions and behavior. We explored using various oils that cats dislike, but that seemed unfair to Maurice (even though he deserved it, the bully).

In the end, we found the most humane response was to lock her in the laundry room each morning when we leave the house. She gets a room to herself — without nasty Maurice — and we don’t have to throw away any more books.

I sure hope that this works, because there is no Plan B if it doesn’t.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.