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Cat needs time and help to reflect on new decor
Not too long ago, I consulted with a gentleman and his family's 15 year old spayed female cat, a domestic shorthair named "Marty." Marty was found when she was a kitten in the parking lot of a K-Mart department store and was so named. She has since lived her entire life with her owners in their one bedroom condominium. And until about one month ago, Marty had lived a fairly routine, uneventful, and contented life. That was until her owners had a full length mirror installed on the whole of one wall in their den. Marty to this point enjoyed a morning ritual of following her owner into the den to feast on a fresh piece of turkey breast. However, on the morning after the mirrored wall was completed, Marty met with an unexpected surprise. Her owner reported to me that when she walked into the room that morning, and saw her own reflection in the mirror, she hissed, ran up to the mirror and began attacking the strange cat in the den. Her owner, realizing what happened, quickly removed her from the room. Within days she was encountering this same strange cat in other mirrors throughout her home, and she continued in her attempts to attack it and drive it away. Needless to say, she was unsuccessful. Mirrors that throughout her life had no aversive associations, now held the image of her nemesis, herself. The sudden, unexpected sight of this cat in a place where no other cat had ever been, quickly became a source of terror and confusion for Marty and her owners. As time passed, the problem grew worse in the frequency and intensity of her attacks on the cat in the mirror. When I was called in to see her, what I found was a cat who was visibly frightened. She exhibited clear caution and hesitation when being tempted with food to move around a corner where there was a mirrored wall. She was clearly anticipating the sight of an aggressive cat that would attempt to attack her, as she attempted to attack it, and she was scared. In some ways this was very much like a situation where an indoor cat encounters an outdoor cat at a glass door or window, becomes agitated, attempts to attack and drive off the intruder, and be done with it. Only here such attempts are clearly doomed. This was a situation where a short course of an anxiolytic (fear-reducing) medication would have been beneficial. However, this particular owner did not wish to pursue that treatment option if he did not need to. So, what did we do? First, we covered the bottom 2 feet of all problematic mirrors. These were located in the den and a large hallway. We changed Marty's feedings from free-choice to three meals per day, each in a different location. One location was at one end of the hall mirror. The second was at the other end of the same mirror. And the third was in the den at the point when Marty would first see herself as she entered the room (if the mirror was not covered). Meals were picked up approximately 10 minutes after mealtimes to help Marty adjust to this new feeding schedule. Meals were also warmed to make them even more palatable. Marty's owners were also instructed to play chase games (which she avidly enjoys) throughout the problem hallway, and especially around the corners where her anticipatory fear was greatest. Play was also to be encouraged around and under the door to the den (which is immediately adjacent to the problem wall). The idea here is to get Marty relaxed and comfortable, experiencing pleasurable things (eating and play), at locations that have taken on the significance of being fear-inducing. Once Marty became relaxed with the absence of the fear producing stimulus (the sight of herself in the mirror), the covering over the mirror would be removed in 1/2 inch increments from the bottom up on a weekly basis. By doing this, Marty will very slowly be reintroduced to this previously threatening visual stimulus through gradually increasing partial exposures; and this will be done at times when she herself is relaxed and experiencing pleasurable things. So, the cat she will come to know will be one with whom she shares pleasurable experiences and she therefore enjoys being around. So far, all has gone according to plan with no problems.