Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Feline_hyperesthesia_twitchy_cat_syndrome

By Dr. Karen Becker

I often write about the uniqueness of felines. Your kitty is not only very different from dogs – she stands apart from most other species.

Her physiology is distinctive. Her nutritional requirements are unique among mammals. Even the way her body is constructed – her incredible physical flexibility – is distinct from most other creatures.

Another thing that is very unusual about our kitty companions is their tendency to develop a weird disorder called feline hyperesthesia. This is a medical term for what is more commonly referred to as “rippling skin syndrome,” “rolling skin syndrome,” or “twitchy cat syndrome.” Other technical names for the condition include neuritis and atypical neurodermatitis.

Signs and Symptoms of Feline Hyperesthesia

The word hyperesthesia means “abnormally increased sensitivity of the skin.” It’s a condition in which the skin on a cat’s back ripples from the shoulders all the way to the tail. The rippling is visible in some cats, but more difficult to see with others. What many pet owners notice first is the kitty turning toward her tail suddenly as though something back there is bothering her. She may try to lick or bite at the area. And most cats with this condition will take off running out of the blue as though something scared them or is chasing them. Kitties with hyperesthesia also have muscle spasms and twitches, and twitching of the tail.

If your cat has the syndrome, he may show sensitivity when any point along his spine or back is touched. He may chase his tail, bite at himself, turn toward his tail and hiss, vocalize, run and jump. He may also seem to be hallucinating – following the movement of things that are not there – and he may have dilated pupils during these episodes.

In severe cases of feline hyperesthesia, cats will self-mutilate by biting, licking, chewing and pulling out hair. These poor kitties suffer not only hair loss, but often severe skin lesions from trying too aggressively to seek relief from the uncomfortable sensations they experience.

Causes of “Twitchy Cat Syndrome”

No one knows for sure what causes hyperesthesia in cats, but one of the first things you should do if your kitty is having symptoms is to rule out other causes for itching and twitching.

It’s important to investigate flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) as a cause or contributor to your cat’s behavior. In pets with a severe flea allergy, the bite from a single flea can cause serious, long-term itching and skin irritation. A bad case of FAD can cause your cat to lick and scratch so aggressively – most often at the base of the tail or hind quarters – that he loses a significant amount of hair on that part of his body.

Sometimes dry, itchy skin can induce or aggravate a hyperesthesia condition. This is more common in cats fed a dry food diet.

Another cause of the condition might be seizures. Or more precisely, feline hyperesthesia may be a type of  seizure disorder. Some kitties experience grand mal seizures during an episode of hyperesthesia or right afterwards. Experts theorize the syndrome might be caused by a problem with electrical activity in areas of the brain that control grooming, emotions and predatory behavior.

It may also be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, with the obsession being fearfulness and/or grooming and/or aggression. Also, seizure activity is known to lead to obsessive compulsive behavior.

Another theory is that certain breeds are predisposed to develop mania as a result of stress. Oriental breeds seem to have more hyperesthesia than the general population of felines, and stress often seems to be the trigger for these kitties.

Also, cats with the condition have been found to have lesions in the muscles of their spine. It’s possible the lesions cause or contribute to the sensations and symptoms that are a feature of hyperesthesia.

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of feline hyperesthesia is arrived at through eliminating other conditions and diseases that cause similar symptoms and behavior, including:

  • skin conditions (allergies, parasites, infections
  • hyperthyroidism
  • poisoning
  • underlyking painful conditions of the back, spine, joints or muscles; also, pain associated with bite injuries, abscesses, anal sac disease, organ damage or cancer
  • a problem in the brain (trauma, tumors, infection)

It could be beneficial for you to video your kitty during an episode of what you suspect is hyperesthesia, and take the video with you to your vet appointment.

The vet should perform a physical exam on your kitty, take a behavioral history, and order a complete blood count, chemistry profile and thyroid hormone level test. Other diagnostic tests might also be required, for example, skin tests and x-rays. It’s possible your vet will make a referral to another DVM who specializes in dermatology or neurology.

When all other potential causes for your pet’s symptoms have been ruled out or treated, feline hyperesthesia can be confidently diagnosed.

Treatment of True Feline Hyperesthesia

The treatment for feline hyperesthesia syndrome involves reducing stress on the cat. However, I recommend looking at what you’re feeding your cat first. She should be eating a balanced, species-appropriate diet that contains no carbs, moderate amounts of animal fat, and high levels of animal protein. This will help eliminate any food allergies she may be dealing with, and will improve the condition of her skin and coat. You can also consider supplementing with a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids like krill oil.

To address stress-related triggers, you’ll need to take steps to make your cat as comfortable as possible with his living arrangements. This means building a great deal of consistency in your cat’s daily routine, while at the same time enriching the five key areas of his environment, including:

  • Safe, secure food, water and litter box locations.
  • His own place to climb, scratch, rest and hide.
  • Consistency in all your interactions with him.
  • Appropriate sensory stimulation.
  • The company of another or other non-adversarial cats.

Set aside time each day to play with your cat. This helps him get aerobic exercise and gives him the chance to flex his hunter muscles. Use interactive toys like a feather wand or a toy at the end of a string. Many cats also love chasing laser toys, ping pong balls and even rolled up bits of paper. Since cats have very short attention spans, try to break up playtime into three or four short sessions a day.

Drug Therapy

Giving your cat anti-depressants, anti-convulsants or drugs to curb obsessive behavior should be considered only as a last resort.

A species-appropriate diet, environmental enrichment, and natural remedies like Spirit Essences or OptiBalance pet formulas should go a long way toward alleviating the stressors in your cat’s life that may trigger episodes of hyperesthesia.

I have had good success in reducing symptoms using adjunctive therapies. Acupuncture can commonly reduce the “nerve wind up” many of these cats experience. Chiropractic care can also reduce the dermatome neuritis hyperesthetic cats are plagued with. Tellington Touch, a special form of massage, can also help reduce skin sensitivity in some cats. I’ve also had good success with kitties using homeopathic Aconitum and Hypericum orally to help dampen emotional and neurologic reactivity that can lead to physiologic symptoms.

This post was republished with permission. Dr. Becker is the resident proactive and integrative  wellness veterinarian of HealthyPets.Mercola.com. You can learn holistic ways  of preventing illness in your pets by subscribing to Mercola Pet’s free newsletter. 

Photo by Luke Hayfield Photography, Flickr Creative Commons

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134 Comments on Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

  1. Melinda Garman
    March 30, 2016 at 3:24 pm (1 month ago)

    Two weeks ago I adopted a 3-legged cat, he was feral and got right front leg caught in a trap. Sadly he was injured and outdoors for a while before my petsitter friend trapped him and got him to a clinic. They amputated the leg in two separate surgeries (first to elbow then to shoulder) and he also had surgery on some of the arteries under the arm. First few days here were ok. Then on day 5 he suddenly started cry/hiss behavior as described in this feline hyperesthesia article. He will cry and turn to bite at his butt and hop away as fast as he can and will hiss at me if I am anywhere near him. I thought he was having phantom pain and so took him to the vet. They found no one point of pain but gave him a pain shot and 2 weeks of gabapentin. So far he is still having some of these cry/hiss episodes. Thinking he was doing too many stairs here so close to surgery dates (first week of March) I now confine him to one floor and try to limit jumping. Twice he has entered the bathroom and spun crazy circles almost like a dog chasing his tail. First one freaked me out, second one was not as scary. I just turned off the light and left the room and he stopped spinning. Being as he has only 3 legs he spins til his back legs go out from under him then gets back up and spins more, alternating directions. I was sure he was hallucinating. My guy has almost all of the “symptoms” described in the article above, I have not witnessed hair pulling although he still is growing hair back from the surgeries. I am going to mention this to my vet at follow-up and see what they think.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 30, 2016 at 3:34 pm (1 month ago)

      I’ll be interested to hear what your vet thinks, Melinda. It sounds like hyperesthesia symptoms, but I also wonder whether this may be a reaction to adjusting to being without the leg, and/or possible nerve damage during the surgery? And bless you for taking this guy in and giving him a chance at a happy life!

      Reply
  2. Katherine Torious
    January 15, 2016 at 5:21 pm (4 months ago)

    My 8 year old cat began twitching, biting and pulling the hair out on her back when she was 6. She also began frequent vomiting her food with an occasional hair ball. It was painful to watch her back twitching as if she was being bitten by something. We had moved 6 months prior to the onset of this behavior during which time she was fine. When I had her vetted, they ran several tests, including a thyroid test and a skin scraping looking for possible mites. Though she had been flea treated, they spent a lot of time going over every inch of her body looking for possible fleas and evidence of their development stages. All tests were negative for irritants. Her skin appeared to be healthy, not dry and scaly. Finally, she was diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and prescribed an Rx for Z/D, a low allergen food. She was also given a solution to help with dehydration. After 4 days of weaning her completely off of her old food and feeding her only the prescribed wet and dry food, supplemented with an additional dose of Omega-3 oil, the vomiting stopped. Fortunately, her vomiting was not combined with diarrhea, which is common with this diagnosis. The twitching on her back also stopped and the vomiting changed from daily to several weeks in-between. Recently, I attempted to mix her Rx food with a natural skin and sensitive stomach blend (for economical reasons) but the frequent vomiting returned so the change was not successful. I would be interested to hear what other cat parents have to share re: this issue. Thank you for this opportunity to share my Bella’s story.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 15, 2016 at 5:51 pm (4 months ago)

      I don’t recommend prescription diets, due to the inferior ingredients in these diets. You may find this article about the connection between IBD and diet interesting, Katherine: http://consciouscat.net/2010/09/13/inflammatory-bowel-disease-and-diet/ I would be very surprised if the z/d diet had anything to do with the disappearance of the twitching, especially since you supplemented with Omega-3 at the same time.

      Reply
      • Mary Elizabeth
        April 12, 2016 at 11:47 pm (3 weeks ago)

        My soon to be three year old Sonny has just started showing symptoms. I’m ruling out fleas or mites, as I have three other cats and no one else, except my 6 yr. old Tifa has exhibited signs of this. Sonny’s seem to happen more often, a couple times a day. I’m going to administer omega-3 more often and see what happens, also gonna try plugging in a fresh Feliway. Katherine, I also have an 18 yr. old, Wicket, that has battled IBD and more recent, colitis. He’s gone to an all ‘wet food’ diet for some time now, but a grain free and limited ingredient diet. There are some good ones that he’s done well on at the pet stores. I stay away from chicken and turkey. He gets mostly venison, some duck and lamb. He does take an anti-inflammatory every day but I’ve worked in some other ‘additives’ into his food that I happened across from Vitality Science. They have a protocol for resistant diarrhea and vomiting cats. He’s been using the products for over four years, while battling this since he was 4 – 6 yrs old. It progressively got worse. I can’t believe how well he’s doing, regardless, with the muscle wasting he had. I wish I would have discovered treatment sooner. Good luck! Kitty prayers!

        Reply
    • Kathy
      January 15, 2016 at 10:05 pm (4 months ago)

      Our kitty developed this out of the blue ~ 5 yrs ago. We did all the traditional vetting. No issues found, no treatments successful. Then we Treated w a fab vet acupuncturist for only 3 sessions, changed to grain free food, occasional omega oil on food has been successful. We occasionall have a flare when we have a household change in routine. Will have a re-tweet w acupuncture for flares.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        January 16, 2016 at 6:10 am (4 months ago)

        That’s wonderful that acupuncture helped your kitty, Kathy. And I’m assuming “re-tweet” was meant to say “re-treat.” 😉

        Reply
  3. Gabriela
    August 19, 2015 at 2:42 pm (9 months ago)

    Hello everyone,

    I’ve been reading a lot of your comments, I see a lot of helpful stuff in here and I’m hoping you could direct me in the right path.
    My little 3 year old fur baby has FHS and I’m going to be adopting a foster kitty. I decided my little girl could use the company, since I’m often not at home, due to work and school.

    I’m looking for any articles that would help instruct me for proper introductions for FHS kitty to a newcomer.

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

    Reply

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