A while back a colleague and his wife took the heroic step of agreeing to re-home a fifteen-year-old cat.  Before long they were broken people after the animal made it crystal clear that their generosity left him cold, as did the fact that nobody had bothered to consult him about the change in his circumstances.

Some cats play games with ping-pong balls or string.  From the get-go this one played games with his owners’ minds.  On day two he began walking out of the room every time my colleague walked in.  This was particularly hurtful as the cat made a huge fuss of the man’s wife.  On day five the cat reversed tactics and walked out every time the wife walked in while purring loudly at her husband.  Subtle signs of jealousy crept into the marriage, as in ‘Well you feed him if you’re so damn popular’.

Terror  tactics

Then the cat introduced random acts designed to sow confusion.   When the current favourite was trying to feed him his eyes would suddenly go crazy and he would hiss at them,  ‘Haaaaaaaa….’, forcing them to hurl the food basin across the kitchen and cower behind a door.

Don’t think that anyone was being unkind to the cat.  His new owners made huge efforts to show love and thoughtfulness.  But after two weeks of unremitting affection, exhaustion began to set in and an afternoon off was critical.  When the couple returned home that evening, refreshed and positive, their feline housemate waited for them to come up the stairs before defecating on the landing carpet.  Other signs of dissatisfaction included trying to bolt through the slightest opening in an external door and climbing up the inside of the chimney.

A lightbulb moment

Four weeks went by.  Four weeks of providing favourite food and comfy baskets.  Four weeks of constant futile attempts to cuddle, play and generally do everything known to humanity to make a pet settle in.  One night my therapist colleague found himself sitting on the floor in the dark, surrounded by two hundred pounds worth of ignored pet toys, feeling utterly rejected and pleading with the cat, ‘Why won’t you like me?’

Then his professional training finally started working.  ‘Hang on a second.  I’m feeling rejected by a cat????!!!’.  And there it was – rejection.  He realized that this was what his furry friend had been feeling all along.  Rejected by his previous owner of fifteen years.  The cat had been suffering seismic emotions and putting them into the man and his wife.

Projective identification

This is called projective identification.  It’s a well-known phenomenon in psychotherapy.   Sometimes people unconsciously put their feelings into other people as a way of communicating what they’re experiencing.  It’s what’s known as a primitive means of communication because it’s first done by babies screaming for food to get their message across when they don’t have the words to ask.  Later in life the hope is that language takes the place of what’s been called a ‘glove puppet’ way of communicating.  Glove puppet because it’s just as if someone has entered into you directly and is controlling you to get what they want.  But as we never grow up entirely we all use projective identification at times and we are all on the receiving end of it on occasion.  Interestingly, it can be a more accurate guide to what’s going on in someone than the words they’re saying.

Projective identification and your cat

I may be inventing new psychoanalytic theory here by attributing what human beings do to what cats (and other animals) do but why not?  It makes sense of the intense feelings the couple in question were having and we know that animals have unconscious processes just like we do.  If you don’t believe that then just watch a cat or dog twitching or grumbling while they’re sleeping.  It’s pretty clear that they’re dreaming and dreaming is the state par excellence when the unconscious mind is let loose.

So it seems that the moggie in question was leaving my colleague and his spouse in no doubt that he was feeling distressed, angry, resentful, frustrated, hopeless, depressed and powerless – all things that they found themselves experiencing.

By the way, the story had a happy ending.  Eventually the cat did settle and make his new surroundings home.  A very young fifteen, he lived for a further five years, apparently enjoying life to the full.

His owners also loved having him as part of the family.  They were deeply sad when he died.  But when I asked my colleague if he was going to re-home another cat, I could have sworn his face momentarily turned white.