Bob Denny: My cat has ADHD

Published: Friday, November 1, 2013 at 2:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 at 2:22 p.m.

Yes, the symptoms are present. My cat T.C. sits in my lap, constantly grooming and fussing. She stops to purr and bump my chin with her head. She loves to be petted, then sometimes switches her tail indicating “hands off.” Instead of slipping off my lap softly, she digs in claws and makes a record leap to a nearby table. A drop of blood slowly appears on my pants leg.

Do the symptoms indicate what I suspect, a diagnosis of ADHD? (That’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.) Typically, those of us in the mental health field refer to the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (the DSM) for help. The DSM lists mental health disorders in broad categories like anxiety disorders, mood disorders, antisocial personality disorders, drug abuse and addiction, dissociative identity disorders (multiple personalities), disorders common in children, and schizophrenia.

I quickly rule out drug abuse and alcoholism (not available to T.C.) I then check for symptoms typical of the ADHD disorder in the DSM. If enough of the symptoms typical of the disorder are found, and if they are serious enough to significantly interfere with her life, then the DSM can support a mental disorder diagnosis as “any behavior or emotional state that causes an individual great suffering, is self-destructive, seriously impairs the (person’s) ability to work or get along with others, or endangers others or the community.” (From Psychology, tenth edition, Carole Wade and Carol Tavris, Prentice Hall, 2011)

Hmm. T.C. apparently meets some of the criteria. She is often driven, as if by a motor — particularly when hungry or in need of attention. She is easily distracted by anything that goes on around her—noises in the room, other animals, a string drawn across the floor, a ball rolling by near her. She is hypersensitive, and the smallest surprise is likely to cause a knee-jerk reaction like jumping a couple of feet into the air. She can’t maintain focus for more than a minute or so, and quickly abandons play or attempts to get her attention. She has difficulty calming down, and with the slightest provocation (or, yes, if I tease her a little) her tail begins twitching and waving in a display of frustration, impatience, or aggravation. As a test, I scratch her tummy. She lunges at my hand, bites, and kicks with her sharp little claws.

The DSM calls for a judgment: Is the problem serious enough to interfere significantly with one or more parts of her life? Well, maybe not hers, but mine is definitely “influenced.” I wash off a little blood, and ponder her situation. Her behavior could interfere with one or more major areas of her life: There’s a risk that she could lose her warm cozy home, her free meals, and shelter from the storms. I’ve even considered de-clawing.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with a lot of children in my career as a counselor for troubled youth. Fifty years ago teachers didn’t diagnose ADHD diagnosis, and didn’t have special classes in school or prescription drugs like Ritalin to deal with active kids. Teachers dealt with hyperactive children by using rules, training, and discipline. It was commonly understood that sometimes “kids will be kids,” and they need to be allowed some slack, tolerance, acceptance, and love.

Hey, I’m thinking that cats are people, too. Maybe I should use heavy work pants to protect my legs, go treat my wounds with hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin, and learn to give T.C. a little slack and accept her for what she is: a domesticated predator who chooses to live with us because she judges the benefits -- free meals, lots of attention, a safe and comfortable home -- to be a better life than the wild outdoor alternative. I guess I’ll keep her.

Bob Denny has been a licensed mental health therapist in Florida for the last 15 years, and teaches psychology at Florida Gateway College. Your comments are welcome at

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