How do I know if my cat has a compulsive disorder?

A diagnosis of a compulsive disorder is made when a behavior pattern occurs so often that it disrupts normal daily activity. The action could be a very normal behavior such as grooming, but it is repeated in excess in a ritualized manner. It can be very difficult to distract a cat that is engaging in a compulsive ritual. Some compulsive behaviors, such as overgrooming or ingesting inappropriate objects, can cause physical harm.

What are the most common compulsive disorders in cats?

Compulsive behaviors in cats are often directed toward the cat’s body. Cats may overgroom, licking hair off their bodies until some areas become nearly hairless. Some cats may suck on their skin or bite themselves, especially their tails, causing injuries that can bleed.

“Compulsive behaviors in cats are often directed toward the cat’s body.”

Another common compulsive behavior in cats relates to repetitive and excessive hunting. Cats may hunt and pounce unseen prey or chase and grab their own tails.

A third example of compulsive behavior is sucking or chewing on fabric, especially wool. There may be a genetic predisposition to wool sucking, as it is more common in Oriental breeds of cats. Although many cats suck or chew fabric without ingesting the material, other cats do ingest the fabric and can become seriously ill.

Could an underlying medical problem be the cause of my cat’s compulsive behavior?

If you think that your cat may have a compulsive disorder, it is important to have your veterinarian screen for possible underlying medical causes. For example, the majority of cats that groom excessively actually have a skin condition that can be easily treated once identified. Cats that pounce on invisible prey or that grab their own tails may have an underlying neurologic condition. Sometimes, pain can cause cats to bite themselves or chew on and ingest non-food items.

Can an underlying behavioral condition predispose my cat to develop a compulsive disorder?

For some cats, a compulsive ritual may begin as a self-soothing or displacement behavior. It is important to determine whether there could be anything causing your cat to be distressed or experience emotional conflict. There are many possible causes for anxiety or frustration, including social stress and lack of access to suitable enrichment. If your cat has been examined and it is determined that there is no medical condition, the next step is to consult with a veterinary behaviorist.

What is feline psychogenic alopecia?

Alopecia or hair loss can result when cats overgroom and remove hair. Overgrooming can take the form of excessive licking or pulling out tufts of hair. The diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia as a compulsive disorder is only made when no underlying medical problem is evident. Most cats that lick themselves excessively have an underlying skin disorder, such as fleas or allergies. Your veterinarian may recommend a trial of anti-inflammatory medication and a special diet before considering the diagnosis to be purely behavioral.

What is feline hyperesthesia?

Feline hyperesthesia is a poorly understood condition that has also been referred to as rippling skin syndrome, rolling skin syndrome, or twitchy skin syndrome. Though many cats ripple their skin when their back is scratched, with feline hyperesthesia, this skin rippling occurs independently of being petted and there is no clear stimulus. Feline hyperesthesia may sometimes be a compulsive disorder, but it is also possible that there is an underlying medical or neurological cause—in some cases, the behavior may be related to seizures.

Is there treatment for compulsive disorders?

Once it has been determined that your cat’s behavior does not relate to a medical condition, a behavioral treatment plan can be started. The first step is to examine the physical and social environment for possible causes of stress. Ensure that your cat has safe access to litter boxes and a safe place to relax. If a source of stress or conflict (e.g., conflict related to a household person or another cat) can be identified, it should be addressed.

“Provide a variety of toys, including food puzzles, to maintain your cat’s interest.”

Active cats will benefit from having outlets for appropriate activities. Provide a variety of toys, including food puzzles, to maintain your cat’s interest (see handout “Cat Behavior and Training – Enrichment for Indoor Cats”). Social enrichment is also important; provide your cat with a predictable daily routine that includes play sessions with you.

If you can predict when the ritualized behavior will occur in a specific context, you may be able to provide your cat with something to do in that situation before he starts the behavior. For instance, many cats grab their tails in certain stressful situations and may instead be distracted with a toy that can be chased and bitten.

In some cases, behavioral (psychotropic) medication is recommended to reduce the intensity of the behavior. Medications that increase serotonin levels are routinely used to treat compulsive disorders in people, and these same medications are often prescribed for cats with compulsive disorders, particularly cats that are in danger of injuring themselves.

If there is an underlying physical component to the behavior, additional medication may be needed to address those causes. Cats that overgroom may take medication to relieve infection or inflammation. Cats with hyperesthesia may be prescribed anti-seizure medication.

Medications are never used alone: it is always important to modify your cat’s environment and daily routine to reduce stress and conflict.

“Medications are never used alone: it is always important to modify your cat’s environment and daily routine to reduce stress and conflict.”

Can I punish my cat to stop the behavior?

Punishment is never appropriate. First, punishment can cause fear and increase both anxiety and conflict, making the behavior worse. Second, cats are very sensitive to punishment and can develop long-lasting fears that may include a fear of the people in the home.

When your cat is engaged in a compulsive behavior, try a distraction. You may be able to lure your cat away by capturing his interest with a toy. You may also try to teach your cat to ‘cozy up’ on a soft bed. If your cat enjoys brushing or soft pets, practice petting your cat on that ‘cozy’ bed every day until your cat begins to associate the bed with feeling calm. You can try a dab of Feliway® (synthetic calming pheromone) on the bed for the calming sessions to make it easier to lure your cat to the cozy bed after you interrupt the behavior with a distraction.

© Copyright 2022 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.