Ask Amy: Can Cats Be Mentally Challenged?

How Can I Help my Slow Cat?

Cat Reflection
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Question: Can Be Mentally Challenged?

TMJ is concerned that her two-year-old intact male cat, Cookie, is mentally disabled. “We also have three dogs, another cat, a guinea pig and turtles and Cookie has no problems with the other animals. We got Cookie from a feral cat colony at about four months of age. He was very tame and friendly. He hasn't grown much since we got him, and he suffered a head injury when he was young, but he walks fine and only falls sometimes when jumping onto things. He's not been to the vet since last year, for routine shots.

“Cookie doesn't learn. He'll jump on a counter over and over, in the space of minutes, despite getting a squirt of water. He still acts like a young kitten, kinda shaky on his feet and plays most of the day, usually with the dog. Simple, repetitive behaviors seem best for him. He's excellent about using his litter box but will spend several minutes burying his mess. He doesn't seem to know his name or much of anything else. He only comes when called if he sees the other cat running to us, or the dogs. If his litter box is moved, he won't use it. Waiting a couple days, or showing him the new location, doesn't help, he just doesn't get it. We moved his food bowl months back, but he still jumps up to where it used to be at feeding time and doesn't understand why it's not still there. He often knocks things over when climbing on shelves, then seems rather afraid when they make noise. He has jumped up on the hot stove many times, and it seems to take him a minute to realize his paws are hot.

The vet says not to worry too much, but I’m curious. If he is slow, is there any real hope of teaching him the simple things like not jumping up on the counters? I fear Cookie will get hurt if he can't learn not to touch the hot stove, or that soapy water tastes bad. He goes back to the same stupid, possibly dangerous things over and over and over. I worry that one of these days he'll do the wrong thing and really hurt himself. Anything you can tell me (or even reading you can direct me towards) would be a big help.

Amy’s Answer

Of course, no two cats are alike and some are more intelligent than others. Yes, cats can develop so they act and react in an abnormal way. Early nutrition greatly influences kitten development and an inadequate diet can impact development both physically and mentally. Congenital brain injury such as loss of oxygen during birth, or traumatic brain injury (you mentioned he’d hurt his head as a kitten?) also can result in slowed development or damage to cognition.

Normal Cat Behavior

Frankly, some of what you describe could be normal cat behavior. I don’t recommend squirt guns because so many cats just don’t care about getting wet. My cat Seren seems to enjoy the squirt gun. If a cat isn’t given a more attractive alternative, they’ll often continue to repeat the behavior—in this case, Cookie jumping onto the counter—again and again.

Cats also have a very high tolerance for heat, so it’s not particularly a red flag that he takes a moment to realize his paws are hot. I also know many cats that seem to obsess over burying their waste. It may be different than the other cat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a mental deficit.

Not responding to his name also is quite common. Cats tend to only come when called when they know there’s something in it for them, and perhaps Cookie has learned that the dog or other cat has the best instinct for this. That’s actually pretty smart, for Cookie to have learned to cue off the other animals! Even if he is mentally challenged, cats seem able to compensate in many ways.

Abnormal Cat Behavior

Cats learn by remembering. His early head injury may have damaged the portion of the brain that affects short term memory which could account for his difficulty remembering the location of food bowls or litter boxes. Count your blessings that he’s faithful to the box (especially if he’s not neutered) when he knows where it is! A traumatic brain injury could also explain unsteady gait or balance issues, and the perpetual "kittenish" behavior. If he truly was a feral kitten, the same head injury that left him a bit “different” may also have made him the sweet, affectionate cat you know—and that’s a very good thing.


If Cookie is slow, it depends on the degree of the deficit how much he might be able to learn. The key to dealing with countertop cruising is offering the cat better opportunities. A cat tree in the kitchen that’s higher than counters or the stove top should help enormously. Other than that, management will be your best option. You know Cookie’s limitations. He may be able to learn but just takes a much longer time to retain the new lesson. So what one cat learns in an instant (you show the new cat food location) it may take Cookie daily repeats for six months. Therefore, this is a cat that will thrive and do well on routine as long as you don’t change the routine.