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Today's Veterinary Practice
Volume 11 | Issue 5 (Sep-Oct 2021)

Managing Compulsive Disorders in Cats

Today's Vet Pract. Sep-Oct 2021;11(5):98-102. 16 Refs
Sara L Bennett1, Michael Z Khan
1 College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27607, USA.

Author Abstract

Sustained self-licking and overgrooming are common behaviors associated with compulsive disorders in felines.

Companion Notes

Overview on managing compulsive disorders in cats


Compulsive disorders

- normal behaviors abnormally repeated, sustained, and out of context

- diagnostic criteria generally include the following:

- abnormal repetitive behavior done excessively and out of context

- difficult to interrupt

- replacing other normal behaviors

- relatively rare prevalence in the cat

- similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in humans

- in humans, intrusive thought predate compulsive episodes

- episodes in animals are often triggered by stressful or high-arousal situations

- behavior can be classified as locomotor, oral, aggressive, vocalization, or hallucinatory

(in cats and dogs)

- rule-outs differ depending on the proposed underlying dysfunction

- oral behaviors may primarily be related to GI inflammation

- rather than just a behavioral cause

- overgrooming by cats is often due to pruritic skin disease

- but overgrooming can be directed to a painful part of the body

- like the abdomen during bouts of lower urinary tract disease

- common behaviors associated with compulsive disorders in cats

- sustained self-licking

- overgrooming

- for hallucinatory behaviors, ocular differentials should be considered

- treatment is often lifelong

- generally aimed at reducing the frequency, intensity, and duration of episodes

- so alternative behaviors can be trained and reinforced

- environmental management

- assess cat’s behavior after environmental enrichment

- some toys may frustrate the cat 

- if cat cannot complete the hunting sequence

- including catching the prey

- look for areas of the environment where episodes are more likely

- identify client-specific situations or locations that trigger the behavior

- relationship building

- compulsive behaviors often seen during acute conflict or high arousal

- punishment or aversive measures are contraindicated

- owners should have predictable positive interactions with cats

(this will reduce overall anxiety and conflict)

- ignore all attention-seeking behaviors from cat

- if you wish to interact, start with behavior cat is already good at

(such as “come” or “touch” or say their name or open food container)

- if cat performs the behavior when cued, cat gets something pleasant

- such as a food treat, play with a toy, or petting

- if cat doesn’t perform the behavior, owner continues to ignore cat

- tools; the right tools will dramatically aid in the success of steps above

- such as just switching the spray bottle for a wand toy and some catnip

- cats with high levels of frustration may benefit the following:

- window film, blocking view of potential prey or other outdoor cats

- food puzzles and food toys that allow cat to complete the predatory sequence

- white noise machine could help if outdoor noises are a trigger

- clicker training

- behavior modification

- recent research shows cats are just as capable as dogs of mastering cues

- given via positive-reinforcement training

- start by developing a strong foundation

- using positive reinforcement–based training for simple behaviors

- such as look, touch, and sit

- which can be used for the following:

- cue-response-reward interactions

- response substitution

- after cat knows 1 or 2 simple behaviors, behavior modification can be started

- interrupt behaviors associated with a compulsive episode without scaring the cat

- distract by whistling, clapping hands, or making a kissing noise

- then ask cat to perform an alternative behavior and immediately reward cat

- alternative behavior should make compulsive behavior impossible

- this technique is often referred to as the following:

- response substitution

- operant counterconditioning

- differential reinforcement

of alternate or incompatible behavior

- local trainers can be helpful

(International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants)

- medication

- there’s limited information on medications for compulsive disorders in cats

- fluoxetine and clomipramine show most efficacy for treating compulsive disorders

- fluoxetine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)

- in human medicine, it’s approved for OCD

- clinical effects often not seen for 4-6 weeks

- start fluoxetine at 0.5 mg/kg PO q24h

- can be increased to 1.5 mg/kg q24h

- side effects include the following:

(discontinue if side effects are severe or last longer than 1 week)

- loss of appetite

- vomiting

- sedation

- increased irritability

- clomipramine is a tricyclic antidepressant

- in human medicine, only drug in its class approved for OCD

- veterinary formulation labeled only for separation anxiety in dogs in USA

- approved for dogs with compulsive disorders in Australia and Canada

- start clomipramine at 0.25 mg/kg PO q24h

- can be increased up to 1.3 mg/kg total daily dose

- may take several weeks before any appreciable effect seen

- consider consultation with a specialist

- for cat’s refractory to initial treatment

- for cat’s requiring multimodal medications


Common compulsive disorder behaviors and medical differentials

- Locomotor behavior category

- behaviors include the following:

- tail chasing

- light/shadow reflection chasing

- freezing

- skin rippling

- circling

- noncompulsive-behavior differentials

- partial/focal sensory seizure

- pain (neurologic, orthopedic, or generalized)

- primary dermatologic (ectoparasites, allergies, or infection)

- normal nonpathologic behavior

- Oral/Ingestive

- behaviors include the following:

- overgrooming

- self-chewing of legs or feet

- licking objects

- wool sucking

- pica

- noncompulsive-behavior differentials

- primary GI/nutritional

- primary dermatologic (ectoparasites, allergies, or infection)

- pain (neurologic, orthopedic, or generalized)

- Aggression

- behaviors include the following:

- self-directed

- often a component of feline hyperesthesia syndrome

- noncompulsive-behavior differentials

- pain (neurologic, orthopedic, generalized)

- primary dermatologic (ectoparasites, allergies, infection)

- partial/focal sensory seizure

- Vocalization

- behaviors include the following:

- rhythmic, persistent, monotonous meowing or yowling

- noncompulsive-behavior differentials

- partial/focal sensory seizure

- cognitive dysfunction

- pain (neurologic, orthopedic, or generalized)

- Hallucinatory

- behaviors include the following:

- avoiding imaginary objects

- stargazing

- startling without trigger

- noncompulsive-behavior differentials

- primary ophthalmic

- hypertension

- primary neurologic


“Overgrooming by cats often results from pruritic skin disease and cannot be diagnosed without a complete dermatologic workup… Alternatively, overgrooming can be directed to a body part that is painful, such as the abdomen during bouts of feline lower urinary tract disease or chronic pancreatitis…”

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