Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Gray, long haired cat grooming herself

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Most dog owners are familiar with the behavior of tail chasing, but is it a normal behavior for a cat? What if your cat seems to be attacking their tail out of nowhere? Or maybe your cat doesn't have an issue with their tail, but they act uncomfortable or even painful when you pet them. These quirks may be signs of something called Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, or FHS.

What is Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome?

Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome is a rare, but confounding ailment. Cats that suffer from this syndrome are very sensitive to being touched, especially over their lower back area. In fact, hyperesthesia literally means 'too much feeling and sensation'.

While any cat can be affected by it, Asian breeds such as the Siamese, Burmese, Abyssinian, and Persian tend to be diagnosed more frequently. Most cats affected by Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome start to exhibit symptoms between one and five years of age.

FHS is still not fully understood. Some veterinary professionals believe it is a nerve disorder. Others believe it is purely a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is only in recent years that veterinary professionals have actually recognized Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome as an actual disorder.

Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome Symptoms

One of the most common symptoms of FHS is your cat's skin rippling or twitching when touched. Some cats may even urinate when touched on their back or may not tolerate being pet or held at all. If your cat has Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, they may also start excessively licking and chewing their body, including their front paws, when pet on their back. Cats with FHS may also angrily swish and then attack their own tail.

Some cats may be so uncomfortable that they may run around the house, screaming and yowling. In fact, yowling and loud meowing is another symptom of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, especially in conjunction with tail swishing or paw chewing.

The symptoms are episodic, meaning they arise out of nowhere and then go away just as suddenly as they appeared. If your cat has Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, they will be completely without symptoms in between episodes.

Causes of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Current veterinary research differs on how FHS originates in cats, but there are two main theories.

The first is that it is a disorder that effects your cat's nerves. Whether the nerves are affected because of a pinched disc in the spine or because of seizure-like activity in the brain is unclear.

The second theory is that nerve pain has nothing to do with it and it is truly an obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Diagnosing Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

FHS, unfortunately, is a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that your vet will need to rule out other illnesses before a diagnosis of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome can be made.

Certain skin conditions, including Flea Allergy Dermatitis, can have similar symptoms to FHS. Your vet will do a thorough physical exam to check for fleas as well as to check your cat's skin for small, red, raised bumps (papules) that are telltale for flea bites.

Osteoarthritis is also something that affects cats, especially older felines. Until recent years, arthritis in older cats wasn't diagnosed all that often. This is partly due to pet owners not fully recognizing the signs at home and partly due to the fact that it is hard for a veterinarian to appreciate a cat's gait in an office setting. The lower back, back legs, and tail are the most common locations for arthritic changes in a cat. Your vet will want to make sure that your cat's sensitivity with their back end isn't related to arthritis.

If skin problems and arthritic changes are ruled out, your veterinarian may start to consider FHS as the reason for your cat's sensitivities.

Treating Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Based on the two theories of what causes FHS, there are a few therapies available.

If your vet feels that your cat's symptoms are the results of OCD, they may prescribe a mood stabilizer such as fluoxetine or amitryptiline. Your vet may also recommend behavior modification tactics such as feeding your cat on a regular schedule, interactive play, and environmental enrichment such as puzzle feeders and toys.

If nerve pain is thought to be the cause of your cat's FHS, your vet may prescribe an anti-seizure medication such as phenobarbital as well as a medication for nerve pain such as gabapentin.

Of course, regardless of what camp your veterinarian falls in, they will adjust their treatment plan based on your cat's response.

While Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome cannot be cured, cats that have this ailment can live a happy, healthy life with proper medical management. If you think your cat's behavioral quirks are the result of FHS, speak to your veterinarian.