• Nicole Salter

Effects of Early Trauma...Not Just for Humans Anymore

If you start talking about childhood trauma in 2022, there are still people who will tell you to just 'get over it' because 'our parents did the best they could with what they had' and 'at least they put a roof over your head, fed and clothed you' and even 'My dad beat the shit out of us, but everybody got hit back then. I turned out just fine!' If this sort of rationale makes you roll your eyes so far back in your head that you look like the zombie kid from Super 8, I've got a counter-argument you can use on those who insist childhood trauma has nothing to do with adult outcomes. It's not the usual psychobabble about the correlation between ACE scores and ill health, attachment theory, or Cluster B personality disorders - in fact, it's very simple to sum up.


She is small, furry, and adorable, and she likes to poop in the closet.


Green eyed tabby cat lying on pink blanket
What has four legs, a tail, and well documented early life trauma? Our edgy new cat.


Does poor kitty hate everyone, or just me?

Yes, after the tragic death of Coco several months ago, we were finally ready to welcome another cat again - but as anyone who has tried to adopt a fur-kid lately knows, some animals are getting harder to come by. The days of kids giving away free kittens in a box by the side of the road have been replaced by overpriced purebreds on Kijiji and long waiting lists for remote adoption at local shelters. A few years ago we had a pet overpopulation crisis and the animal charities were pleading for foster parents; now the donation requests are for cold, hard cash to buy expensive surgical equipment and improve facilities.


After weeks of looking, I came across an online listing for a cat that was literally being given away (her cat parents, devout Muslims, would not accept money for her or for her transport). A lovely two year old female, she came already vaccinated, spayed, and even microchipped (perhaps by Bill Gates himself. That was a little conspiracy theory joke.)


"She's really shy," said the owners, who were visibly sorry to let her go. "But of course, she will get used to you. She's not aggressive at all!"


As a trauma survivor, it's not that I don't see red flags, it's that I tend to ignore them. A free, beautiful cat, fully loaded? I'll take her! And I only have one regret: not going through her vet paperwork page by page, right away.


Like any cat adjusting to a new environment, she hid at first. For 24 hours. Well, cats feel as though they have been deposited on the moon when they're introduced to a new environment, and she was probably really homesick: so, normal. I didn't have her preferred brand of food the first day, so she didn't eat: normal. I tried to tempt her with tasty tuna, salmon and dairy, but she doesn't like human food: normal. She wasn't using the litterbox: normal? Not in my experience. She was still hiding days later: normal? Nope. I read everything BUT her actual veterinary paperwork, seeking information and tips on how to socialize your new cat, a problem I had never encountered as all my kittens were, well, kittens when I got them. But as the days went on and I saw my new family member approximately thirty seconds per day - she spent longer with the children, but still inexplicably disappeared for twelve hours at a time, often to poop under beds and in closets - I began to question whether she hated everyone, or just me.


Behaviour disclosure form revealed early trauma

Finally, I turned to her original Humane Society paperwork and, at the very back of the file, came across the letter I should have read first: the Behaviour Disclosure. The ominous heading, "Undersocialized cat", was followed by the words, "This cat did not receive adequate socialization prior to coming to the shelter. The first 2-7 weeks of a cat's life is referred to as the socialization period...when cats have had little or no positive interactions with people during this time frame, they will instinctively be fearful when approached or confronted with a person."


The letter goes on to say that "Since this cat did not receive positive exposure to people when she was young, it is unlikely to interact with people the same way a typical house cat would." It provides tips for conditioning the cat to feel more comfortable with people, but warns that the cat may never - ever - feel comfortable...


-receiving petting from people

-being picked up and held

-being touched

-sitting in your lap

-being approached by people without running away and hiding


Sound familiar? I, too, am wary of all of the above. Sorry for all the jokes today.


The formative years set the tone...forever

Thank goodness human beings have a much longer window to develop social skills and healthy attachment styles than cats, for whom the die is cast in the first seven weeks of life. However, there is no doubt that experiencing caretakers as unsafe in early childhood sets the tone for our attachment styles for the rest of our lives. There are two important differences between us and our feline friends: We are more adaptable than cats. And, as adults, we are also less dependent than cats.


As survivors of childhood trauma and abuse, we may require treats, play, soft voices and lots of time - or the CBT equivalent - to come out of our shells. We can learn to trust people and situations, and become more comfortable around strangers, groups and unfamiliar environments. Our attachment styles can change, but only with great difficulty; we have to work slowly and consistently to counter the natures we developed early on, and that work is impacted by the quality of the people we form relationships with. Getting into an abusive relationship, which is common for trauma survivors, can be yet another setback on the road to recovery.


On the other hand, unlike pets, we often don't need other people to provide our food and shelter. If we choose, we can live alone and take care of ourselves without relying on others. We may not have close friends, family or partners chasing us around, pleading with us to come out and socialize, and, like the traumatized cat, we may not 'solicit attention' to find such people. So, we may not have an incentive to learn to trust people or open our hearts to the risk of hurt that comes with loving.


Toffee, as we have named her, is warming up - very, very slowly. Watching her discover that no one is going to hurt her, then seeing her retreat again and again, is wonderful and painful at the same time: wonderful, because I can see she's getting better. Painful, because I can imagine what led her to feel this way, and I mourn how much time she has already wasted hiding in a closet instead of living her life.


Knowing Toffee's background makes me a lot less uptight about why she is being such a fraidy cat. She's not antisocial and I'm not a bad cat mom. She's a kindred spirit, and we are both healing.