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!