A primer on Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Hi, Sinéad and Siouxsie,
A few years ago, a cat named Duncan owned me. Duncan was a black cat who was separated from his mother, who I believe was killed when he was a day old. At the time I worked for a veterinarian and Duncan came to our office where everyone took turns caring for him. At two weeks old, I adopted him and took him everywhere I went, in order to make sure he was fed on time. When Duncan was about three years old, he developed symptoms of Feline Hyperesthesia, which was the most awful thing to watch. The vet put him on all kinds of medications, none of which worked. In the end, we amputated his tail, which was the best solution. Actually, he looked quite cute with a little stub, and was pretty much back to being a normal cat after the amputation. Poor Duncan was in such agony that, if the amputation did not work, we were considering euthanasia. He was a very loving cat and slept on my pillow curled up beside my head. Also, I have a friend whose cat was diagnosed with the same condition. Mona was also black (not sure if there is any predisposition for this condition in black cats). She also had her tail amputated and is now living a normal cat life. I bring this subject up because I think cat owners should be aware of this condition. People might see their cat running and screaming, thinking it is a cat thing or that it is funny, when there may be something else going on. Would you mind writing about Feline Hyperesthesia?

Cat Lover

Sinéad: Thank you so much, Cat Lover, for bringing this condition to our attention. It is certainly a very difficult and painful disorder, and although it looks funny to watch a cat running and screaming and goggle-eyed, it's not funny at all to the cat!

Siouxsie: I know a little something about hyperesthesia myself. I never heard it called that, but I do know that if Mama pets me for too long, it stops feeling good and starts hurting, and then I claw and bat. I don't like to do that, but I can't help it when I get overstimulated and someone's hurting me. I know Mama doesn't mean to hurt me, so I try not to claw too hard. Mama's very good to me and pets me or brushes me in little spells so I don't get too wound up. She also makes sure other people know not to pet me for too long. I've been this way since I was a kitten.

Sinéad: Speaking of Mama, she did do some research on the subject of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, and one of the things she found out is that it's more common in Siamese and other Oriental breeds than in the general cat population. I don't know if hyperesthesia is more common in black cats than in other colors, but it is odd that the two hyperesthetic cats you know are both black...and of course, Siouxsie and I are black, too. However, since we (and probably quite a few black cats) have some Siamese or Oriental heritage, there could be a correlation.

Siouxsie: It seems that most of our sources agree that hyperesthesia episodes are triggered or exaggerated by stress, so if your cat friend is under stress (because of a move, introduction of a new animal, etc.), the symptoms might start or grow worse.

JaneA: The clinical signs of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome (FHS), as documented in an article on Petplace.com, include:

As Siouxsie said, she has had episodes of tail swishing and hyperesthesia on her back, but fortunately, it doesn't occur every day--or even all that frequently. The milder form of this disorder is sometimes referred to as "petting-induced aggression," and, understanding Siouxsie's proclivity to hypersensitivity, I remain aware of her body language to make sure I stop petting her before she gets so overstimulated that she wants to attack.

Sinéad: Some experts feel that there are nutritional and environmental factors that cause FHS, too. Poor quality diet (cheap cat food full of chemical additives and processed gunk), heavy metals (lead poisoning from licking old paint), and things like that can play a role in causing hyperesthesia-like symptoms.

JaneA: There's apparently no definitive test to say, "yes, this cat has FHS," but when you take a cat with hyperesthesia symptoms to the vet, your cat will get blood tests to rule out medical causes. Medical conditions that may be confused with FHS include hyperthyroidism [thyroid gland overactivity], brain infections, brain trauma, and brain tumors, some poisonings (e.g. lead, strychnine), heavy parasitic infestations of the skin, nutritional deficits (e.g. thiamine), and severe allergy.

Siouxsie: Some cats have to take medicines for FHS. There are vets who think FHS is a mental illness, and they prescribe drugs that are given to humans for this, um...what is it, Mama?

JaneA: Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Siouxsie: Oh, yeah.

JaneA: Sometimes, vets use tricyclic antidepressants like clomipramine or SSRIs like fluoxetine (Prozac) to treat the brain chemistry issue. However, like Cat Lover said, sometimes the medications don't work. And you may not want to give your cat heavy prescription drugs.

Sinéad: If your cat companion's FHS is mild, you may find that vitamins and interesting activities help. Play with your cat a lot to get all that predatory juice out in a constructive way, and consider getting your kitty another cat friend so they can play together. Mama found a drug-free prevention plan for treating feline hyperesthesia syndrome at PurelyPets.com, and maybe you'll have good luck with that.

Siouxsie: Besides, I know my little hypersensitivity issues isn't a mental illness. I'm not crazy, I just have sensitive skin!

JaneA: Even if it were a mental illness, Siouxsie, you wouldn't have to be ashamed of it. Lots of cats and dogs and people have mental illnesses, and they live good lives as long as they follow their treatment program.

Siouxsie: Still, I'm not crazy.

Sinéad: Methinks the kitty doth protest too much!

Siouxsie: Will you stop reading Mama's books, Sinead? Next time you quote froofy stuff to me, I'm gonna bat you!

Sinéad: As Cat Lover said, though, sometimes the diet and medicines don't work, and you're forced to make a drastic choice to give your cat friend a decent quality of life. In the case of Cat Lover and her friend, both of their cats had to have their tails amputated because the hyperesthesia caused them so much pain. Tail amputation is hard to deal with at first--after all, we cats use our tails for balance when we walk on narrow surfaces, and our tails are also a major conveyor of our language and moods. But I know Duncan and Mona both felt relieved to be rid of a source of constant pain and irritation so they could live reasonably normal lives again. I'm sure they adapted quite well to the tail-less life.

Siouxsie: The important thing here is that Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome is a real and very painful problem for the cats who suffer from it. So if you have a cat who freaks out when you touch its back or runs screaming around the house or chases its tail, you should have a talk with your vet, and maybe a veterinary nutritionist and a veterinary homeopath, to see if you can do something to help your kitty friend feel happier and less painful.

Sinéad: Thanks again, Cat Lover, for suggesting that we write about FHS. If any of our readers have had cats with FHS and want to share information about how you helped your suffering cat friend, please feel free to e-mail us. The articles Mama found on the Internet have lots of information about FHS, and we encourage you to look at those sites and to talk to your vet if you think your cat may be suffering from FHS.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.