Cat Couture as Anxiety Cure

On Facebook, I belong to a couple of cat groups because I enjoy seeing the photos and hearing snippets of stories about cats. On one of the groups, I saw that a woman named Penny Cardino posted adorable photos of her cat Shadow dressed in a Christmas dress. Before you think I am talking about a woman with too much time on her hands, playing dolls with her cat, learn the reason for this. Shadow suffers from a severe anxiety disorder. Wearing her Christmas dress makes her happy. I knew that thundershirts sometimes work for dogs with anxiety, although I haven’t personally heard of a cat who has been helped by one (that I can recall). But this was the first time I had heard about using clothing to comfort an anxious cat. Penny agreed to be interviewed about Shadow and her anxiety problem.

Where did you get Shadow and how long have you had her?

We found Shadow in at a gas station in 2011. Our vet said she was about 7 weeks old and looked to have been abandoned. The first night she would not come to us, but we could tell she was very hungry. She would walk up and then dart away quickly. I went inside and got her something to eat and a cup of water. It took us three days, but we finally managed to get her trapped. A good friend of mine kept her over the weekend for me while we were trying to decide if we could keep her or not (we have a very territorial male Siamese). We decided that she had been through enough and thought that Ashby (the Siamese) would come to accept her. That was almost 8 years ago.

When did you first learn about Shadow’s anxiety?

While we were gone during the day, we kept her in a huge kennel in our son’s room so she and Ashby could get acquainted safely. We would go in and shut the door and spend time with her. She would sleep with William (our son) and then, about four months after we brought her home, we eventually just let her stay out and put the kennel away. She always wanted to go to William’s room at night and sleep with him but she didn’t want to stay in there by herself, especially in the dark. She would follow him to his room, and later we would hear her crying to get out. At that time, I did not think anything about it–I just thought she wanted to be in the living room with everyone else.

Then she would start to cry if someone new came to visit. The crying got worse; it went on for hours and nothing would settle her down. She would pace constantly. Her cries were loud and long. We talked to our vet; I really did not want to medicate her because it was not an everyday thing. Mainly, it happens when the security system goes off, visitors come to the house, or if there is work being done around the neighborhood close to the house. I started letting her go to William’s room when company came, but I would have to turn the light on for her. Occasionally, if the house was very quiet, she would call out intermittently, as if she were looking for someone. We finally answered her one night and said, “we are right here.” She quieted down, and it was as if she were making sure she was not alone.

I started to make mental notes of how frequently she had these episodes and how long they lasted. There are times that we come home from work and she is in the midst of an episode and we have no clue as to what started it. Shadow is strictly an indoor cat; Ashby is as well. Shadow wants nothing to do with the outside, and she panics if we are holding her and open the door to look outside. She will push it shut with her paws.

How does her anxiety show itself?

When Shadow has an anxiety attack, she usually starts to cry back to back. She has different vocalizations, and we have learned them, but her anxiety sounds very distressed. She paces back and forth, she won’t eat, drink, play or get on her cat tree. Her episodes can last from a day to a week, depending on the event that led to it. Her cries will break your heart because they are long and mournful. She does cry in her sleep at times and has nightmares. William says he hears her crying and will wake up and talk to her, stroke her head and let her know he is there until she calms down. What is odd about this is that during her nightmares, her eyes never open.

How did you learn to put the clothing on her? Did you try a thundershirt first and what happened?

I used to swaddle William when he was an infant after a bath or when he would cry. I would rock him until he settled down. So I wondered what would happen if I tried that with Shadow. I saw the thundershirt commercial and tried it, but she started bucking like a bronco and her cries were more piercing. I also tried a little Prozac, but that made her sick as she does not tolerate medications well.

While out shopping for a baby shower gift, I came across a baby t-shirt that was very soft and seemed like it might fit Shadow. I decided to see if this would work better than the thundershirt. When the next anxiety episode hit, I put on her shirt and she jumped down, walked over to her daddy, and jumped up on his lap. She talked to him and her meows were not distressful. She sat with him for a bit, then jumped down but her demeanor was totally different–she was more calm and not pacing. Shadow went and got on her cat tree and actually took a nap. We were amazed that this one little shirt would make such a difference.

I have tried different materials and different styles. She is not a fan of tutus or anything that has a real tight band around the “waist.” Occasionally, she will wear a hat for picture purposes and then I take the hat off. We never leave her clothes on while we are gone; she only wears them when we are home. She last had an episode that lasted three days, our neighbor stopped by to give us some homemade pickle relish and it set off her anxiety.

Have you swaddled or clothed other animals or seen it done before?

My grandmother had a Yorkie that came from a neglectful situation and had to have all of her hair cut off. The mats were so bad that the groomer shaved her entire body, leaving only the hair on her head and tail. This dog would not come out of the bedroom and looked pitiful if we had to go somewhere. So my grandmother bought her a hair bow and a big open bag. In the bag, along with her wallet with money and ID, she paced a baby pillow. Then she fixed that pup’s hair in a bow and off they would go. They went everywhere: to the mall, Walmart, but Dillard’s was their favorite. Everyone would come peek at “Sandy.” For some reason, that little dog perked up and had a completely different attitude when her hair was fixed. She eventually grew a beautiful coat, but still wanted her hair done up in her bow.

Do you have other animals?

We have two other animals–Ashby, our Siamese and Whiskey, our Black Mouth cur.
Ashby will be 9 in March and Whiskey will be 9 in February. Whiskey will not stay still long enough for a picture. Ashby has many, many pictures.

Shadow and Ashby

What else would you like to say about Shadow?!

Shadow is a special girl; she helped my son when he was in elementary school. While he had many friends, he would still get bullied or made fun of and I would talk with him or try and make the hurt go away. Sometimes a parent just can’t make it better no matter how hard we try. But Shadow could make it better. I heard him talking to her one day; he told her that she knew how he felt. He told her that the person that abandoned her was a big bully and she understood how much it hurt him when the kids would laugh at him for being smart or a little overweight because of what she had gone through. Once in awhile, he would cry into her fur and she just sat with him while he let it out. When he and I would talk again, he would feel better. He has learned how handle the bullies.

William and Shadow

Shortly after receiving Shadow’s help, William wanted to tell Shadow’s story. He said that his peers needed to know how “dumping” an animal is cruel, both mentally and physically, so he created a Facebook page for Shadow called Shadow’s Sanctuary. He says that he did this so he could show people the long term effects of being abandoned have on the animal and the people who care for them. Shadow has about 1,000 followers. He hopes to break the cycle of abandonment. William is now 17 and Shadow is still by his side. She is afraid of the dark, unless we are with her. If we know we are going to be out after dark, we always leave a light on for her so she isn’t afraid. She loves her brother, Ashby, and is crazy about my husband. It takes a long time for someone to gain her trust, but once they do, they have a friend for life. I often wonder though, with Shadow, who rescued whom.


Luanne’s comment: I realized after reading Merril’s comment below that I ought to make a comment about dressing cats in the general, as opposed to the particular as in the case of Shadow. Most cats are stressed out by being dressed up. It isn’t something to try just for the fun of it, unless you are talking about cats who are willing to wear hats and jewelry for photos (as some of mine are). Years ago, my daughter tried to put a sweater on Tiger, and Tiger was so upset it took her four years to forgive her human sister! But Penny’s story about Shadow shows that all cats are different and have different needs. The trick is figuring out what they need and when. That is something that Penny and her family have mastered!


Filed under #writerlife, #writerslife, Cats and Other Animals, Nonfiction

43 responses to “Cat Couture as Anxiety Cure

  1. They are very kind people. I had a cat who as he aged, got fearful. He would sometimes wake up at night and be confused and holler out. I lost many nights sleep calming him. He too had been abandoned when he was very young and was starving when he was found. He was attached to me and a lifelong friend until he passed. Somehow he always knew when I needed him to calm me too.

  2. What a beautiful story. It shows how animals have the same fears and complexes we do and it just takes kindness to help them.

    • Well put, Andrea. That is what I get out of the story, too. If only all animals and humans were treated with the thoughtfulness and kindness that Penny and her family have showed to Shadow!

  3. What a wonderful family and what a fortunate kitty to have found them. I am so pleased to hear medication has been eschewed in favour of finding a way that heals rather than masks. My puppy, who has no emotional issues, loves dressing up too 🙂

    • Pauline, hah, I am imagining dear Siddy in all kinds of outfits! I love Penny’s way of dealing with Shadow’s issues, too! Healing rather than masking–so well said!

  4. Loved the cat pictures (as always). That is one lucky kitty! We have used thunder shirts for dogs before with mixed results. Sometimes they seem to work, and sometimes (like for fireworks) they have no effect. I have never heard of putting one on a cat, though!

    • Laurie, it almost sounds like thundershirts work for some issues in dogs, but not others? Maybe fireworks are just TOO terrifying?! I find them scarier than thunder, for instance, but maybe that’s just me. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. What a beautiful rescue story! How sweet that she could help your son that way. Our cat was like that for me when I was in high school, there are some animals that just can sense when you need comfort. And your Siamese is adorable too!

  6. Fascinating story and great pix!!

  7. Such a sweet story. I can’t imagine trying to put any clothing on one of our cats (the one who I’m sure has a big file with warning marks all over it at the vets’.) 🙂 One of our daughters sometimes dresses up her dogs and cats for holidays, but I don’t think it comforts them.

    • I did laugh about the file. My cat Mac (the dearly departed) had a file like that at one vet office. A lot of cats are severely stressed out by dressing them. I think I should probably put a comment about that at the end of this post. It shows me how cats are all individuals and need to be treated as such!

  8. Gosh, this was such a great story, Luanne. And of course, you were the perfect person to share it. My dog Spike is very anxious during thunderstorms so I am going to try to figure out something for him to wear.
    Good for Shadow to find such a wonderful home and kudos to this sweet family for rescuing her.

  9. What a wonderful story, Luanne. Thank you for sharing it with us. I remember once, I tried to put a collar with a bell on my cat, Rudy. She tore around the house for half an hour before crawling under the bed long enough for me to remove it.

  10. Penny

    Thank you everyone! Shadow is an amazing girl. She loves unconditionally and has been such a joy to us. She has my husband wrapped around her paw though. She can be such a clown, she chases her tail, picks on Ashby and sometimes falls off the cat tree (like she meant to do that!!). Thank you Ms. Luanne for sharing her story.

    • Penny, thank you so much for sharing Shadow and her story with us! She’s a delight–and her story is so unusual and heartwarming. Give her a hug from us, if she will let you!

  11. Beautiful kitties and very interesting story. I’m glad they found something that soothes Shadow. So many animals are treated for anxiety these days. My grandpuppy wears a thunder shirt and has separation anxiety. He spends a lot of time with Gma, so he’s not alone.

  12. That was a touching story. I personally am comforted by weight (blankets — and the x-ray bib at the dentist, I ask them to leave it on) and I know a few dogs who need their sweaters, so it seems to me their might be other animals who are comforted by this as well.
    When our kitten was his kittenest, Moo put many an American Girl Doll clothes on him and he seemed to enjoy it. He wore one of the sweaters for days and days, maybe even a week and then I caught him trying to groom it, and decided prolly not good lol.
    I am sad for Shadow’s start in life, but so glad to know she has a loving family <3 Aren't they so devoted to her happiness? It makes me smile.

  13. What a great story and photos! Shadow is gorgeous. I might have to try this on Junior, our boy kitty. He is an anxious cat, runs and hides during thunderstorms and from guests. He also howls and paces when we go to bed. I had read that baby t-shirts are better than cones in keeping cats from aggravating wounds. I’ll have to give it a try. Perhaps Junior just needs to swaddled 🙂

  14. Aw, what a sweet cat! It is amazing how animals can help children and adults too with emotional situations!

  15. Luanne, what a beautiful story. Thanks so much for sharing it.
    My Crystal developed Inflammatory Bowel Disease a year after I moved to DC (we moved 10 years ago). She has her own kind of anxiety. She’s finally been doing better… when a few months ago the spoiled young couple next door (it’s a town house) brought home a pup that don’t know how to handle. He barks loudly, yelps, whines, and growls for hours on end. With so many weeks of that, Crystal started pulling out the fur on one ankle. Now most of the leg is bare. I’ve done everything I can (which isn’t much) about the situation. They don’t care. I really hate to see what kids they’ll produce, because the dog is a practice baby.
    Anyhow this post touched me. Warm hugs to you, to Shadow, Penny, and William — and Ashby and Whiskey.

  16. I learned a lot here today and thank you for sharing it. While I no longer have a furry family member, I love to read about people that go to great lengths to see to their fuzzy family’s well being. Just a wonderful story.

    • Oh, I’m so glad you liked it! I too feel positive about the world when I see people making life better for anyone, animal or human, although I’m partial to animals ;). Now if you ever know anyone whose animal has anxiety you can always suggest they try a soft baby Tshirt!

  17. Pingback: Cat Couture as Anxiety Cure — Luanne Castle’s Writer Site – Pet Portraits by Pasha

  18. What an interesting read! I had no idea clothing could help anxious cats, or dogs for that matter. It sounds like Shadow couldn’t have been rescued by a better family.

  19. Pingback: Cat Couture as Anxiety Cure — Luanne Castle’s Writer Site – SEO

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