Cat Aggression: Hyperesthesia

Cute gray cat standing on hind legs on the grass
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Cat aggression due to hyperesthesia may not seem to have an identifiable cause and is referred to as “idiopathic” aggression. In most cases, though, the cats have a very good reason to aggress (based on kitty sensibility).

Understanding Hyperesthesia

Hyperesthesia syndrome first appears in cats one to four years old and Oriental type cats (Siamese, Burmese, Himalayans, and Abyssinians) seem to have the highest incidence. Three kinds of behavior patterns are associated with hyperesthesia syndrome.

  • Affected cats may exhibit “rippling skin” along the back and indulge in excessive grooming that targets their own tail and lower back. In extreme cases, the cat self-mutilates and attacks her own tail.
  • Inexplicable aggression is the second pattern of behavior. Cats seem friendly, and even beg for attention, then furiously attack when the owner attempts to pet them. This is more explosive than petting aggression where the cat initially tolerates attention but may cut it short with a leave-me-alone bite.
  • The final pattern reported by the veterinary literature is a seizure.

Some behaviorists believe stress triggers psychomotor seizures that cause the behaviors. Other researchers believe the syndrome parallels human panic attacks and obsessive/compulsive disorders. These supposedly happen as a result of the individual cat's personality in combination with the pressures of her environment, frustrations, and stress levels. When hyperesthesia syndrome is suspected, a veterinary neurological workup is advised.

Stopping Episodes

If you can identify and avoid stress factors that trigger incidents the syndrome may be eliminated. Some cats can be jarred from the excessive grooming or self-mutilation behavior by an unexpected sudden noise like clapping your hands or slapping a newspaper against a table.

Cats in full-on attack mode must be avoided, and dropping a thick towel or blanket over top of the cat helps contain teeth and claws. Cats may also respond to anti-seizure medication or human anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants that act on the cat's brain to put on the behavior brakes.