Behavior

When Touch Hurts: Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

There is no silver bullet to treat this syndrome

March 21, 2016 (published)

cat being petted BigStock

Last summer, I looked out the window and saw our cat, Mikey ― he of the cauliflower ear, stubby tail and facial scar from his previous life on a horse farm ― sitting on our front porch with several of the neighbor kids. Nora, who lives next door, was giving her friends the rundown on Mikey and I heard her say: “He’s a really nice cat, but you gotta watch him, ‘cause he’ll nail you.”

Nora’s warning to her friends was very apropos, as Mikey can lash out without warning, especially after a good amount of petting on his lower back. We typically warn first-time visitors about this, as his overall fluffiness and friendly demeanor make him an instant people magnet. Mikey’s habit of nipping the hand that strokes him is, we believe, that he has feline hyperesthesia syndrome, which is poorly understood. Cats with feline hyperesthesia syndrome have a variety of unusual behaviors, including: rippling of the muscles along the back; running through the house as if being chased; and biting at various parts of their body, including the tail and flank. Severely affected cats can have episodes that look like seizures, with paddling of the feet, crying out, and – apparently - hallucinations.

We say that Mikey has presumed feline hyperesthesia syndrome because there’s no test for it. Instead, it’s a diagnosis that veterinarians back into after ruling out some possible causes that can mimic the clinical signs. These possibilities include: orthopedic problems (arthritis, for example); a bad back; flea bites and an allergy to them; seizures; spinal cord problems; and food allergies. Depending on the type of clinical signs, a veterinarian might recommend the cat be referred to a veterinary neurologist, dermatologist, or behaviorist. The problem with hyperesthesia syndrome is that it has parts that cut across many body systems, including neurology and dermatology, so sometimes it’s unclear what we’re actually treating.

Most cats with feline hyperesthesia syndrome are diagnosed based on patient history. Clients often remark that they see the skin rippling on their kitty and/or see the cat running through the house as if being chased. Of course, not every cat who suddenly takes off down the hallway has it; many cats, especially younger ones, just like a romp from time to time. I have had a few clients complain about their cat biting them after being petted and those cats, rather than having anger issues, seem to better fit the hyperesthesia syndrome “box.”

Unfortunately, there is not one silver bullet to treat this syndrome. Various medications, including anti-seizure drugs (like phenobarbital and gabapentin) are typically used. Sometimes a behavioral medication, like Elavil (amitriptyline) or Prozac (fluoxetine) is tried. Flea treatment and control should be used, even if no fleas are seen. Being fastidious groomers, cats often remove evidence of fleas and flea dirt, so treating for fleas make sense. If after a sufficient amount of time with one medication, there is poor or no response, another can be tried. To confuse the issue further, just because a cat responds to, say, phenobarbital, that doesn’t mean he has feline hyperesthesia syndrome. It’s just as likely that the signs were due to a seizure problem and the anti-seizure drug stopped the episodes.

For clients who don’t wish to try medications for their cats with presumed hyperesthesia syndrome, and for cats who are not severely affected, the owners can manage the environment around the cat. As with our Mikey, the best medicine can be knowing a cat’s limit to petting and stroking and not over-extending those sessions, avoiding areas of the body where the cat does not wish to be touched, and enjoying the cat’s company in ways that don’t provoke a response.

9 Comments


Sonja Williams
February 19, 2020

My cat Harley who is 1 1/2 years of age, was recently taken to the emergency clinic for what we thought were anal glands, as he was excessively licking in that area, come to find out the doctor had diagnosed him with spinal feline hyperesthesia. It has caused him to become very constipated as the pain down his back hurts too badly for him to defecate. She prescribed him two pain meds and one that is more of an anti anxiety medication. I'm at a loss about this, as this is the first I've ever heard of this syndrome. I'm heartbroken for my Harley, he can barely walk, and has struggled with walking now for 3 days due to the pain. I'm at a total loss.I just want him to get back to his old self again.


Sara
November 17, 2019

RE: the hemp oil option. My cats name is nugget. he is the third cat i have had in 15 years that has suffered from this affliction. Nugget is literally all i love in this world. and im in michigan so i can totally try this. thank you. im literally in tears of hope that i can help him. thank you and to all of you who love a cat suffering with this ailment. I send my heart and will that you may find relief for your companions


Rebecca
May 1, 2019

We have found that using a back scratcher is extremely helpful. I read this on another sight and thought it was worth a try. We use a somewhat vigorous stroke down his back and sides and he sits there almost mesmerized. He lets us know when he needs a good “scratch” by standing in front of the dresser where he has his “sessions.” I hope this will be as helpful for some of the beloved kitties suffering as it was for our boy.


Sheila Black
April 12, 2019

Re the comment at the end of this article..."For clients who don’t wish to try medications for their cats with presumed hyperesthesia syndrome, and for cats who are not severely affected, the owners can manage the environment around the cat" My five year old male cat has mild to medium hyperesthesia....extreme back rippling, chasing his tail, slicing open his tail with his claws, looking behind him as though he sees something there. He does not attack me or hurt my other cat.This began slowly with just tail chasing and escalated to his present level of symptoms over about 10 months.Two vets saw him early on with his tail sliced open and did not seem to understand what was happening to him. Not blaming them. I did not figure out what was wrong with my cat for quite some time. I bought him a Thunder Shirt and starting reading about CBD Hemp oil. He has been on two daily doses of  CBD Hemp oil for about five months now and it manages his symptoms quite well. There are several facebook groups about feline hyperesthesia.


Kathreen Miller
May 19, 2018

A cat that is arthritic may show many different symptoms. Essentially, arthritis causes pain. The symptoms that result from arthritis are a result of that pain.I used supplement for my cat who was suffering from joint pains.It turned out to be very effective as it is a natural pain relief for pets.


Bob
March 29, 2018

My cat is four years old and was rescued ast a 3.5 week old. He was bottle fed with kitten formula ( which we did not know even existed). As a result, our cat never imprinted and learned all cat skills. There have been four major episodes of intensified symptoms of feline hyperesthesia involving self injurious tail biting. In between these episodes, he is experiencing back ripples in the skin,air bites at his tail, and running as if something invisible is chasing him. It has been a long journey since his last major incident in which we realized separation anxiety is the essential trigger. There is an overall of physical and neurological component which is difficult to manage. This poor guy was not living a high quality of life at one point recently and that created major discussions. At one point he had bitten his tail, while we were at work and was so anxious that he had peed in the closet ( which is unheard of for him). Reluctantly, we acknowledged that he needed medicine beyond our homeopathic approach and we rely on the Thunder jacket, which is essentially a cat swaddle. He is on the road to maintaining a healthy life and we long for medicines for pain and anxiety to slowly be phased out. We have found that zyklene ( homeopathic) is a positive factor for Him as well.  I have found for all of my research, there is not one thing that will facilitate your cats wellness with feline hyperesthesia and for a bit on our case... giving him the medicine was another anxiety trigger. Good luck all!.


Amy Arandus
February 2, 2018

My cat recently has to come to some sort of possible disc injury or we definitely know she has arthritis and one of her hips and she cracked her sternum somehow she's heavyset we think she jumped off and fell onto something else or was already on something and fell off we're not sure when it happened but in the process here she's become paranoid hallucinating her eyes are Pitch Black it's just heartbreaking I'm going to try anti-seizure medicine but I feel so bad that she never seems to get a break doesn't this come and go?


Barbara
January 31, 2018

My cat just went through a bout with fleas but was experiencing the symptoms of this before that. It could be both in your case so I'd suggest taking him or her to the vet and discussing this with him. My vet thought of this because he wasn't getting better after being treated for fleas. He was still sensitive to touch. My vet just started mine on prednisole (not sure of spelling) today so we will see.


Amanda Snow
October 25, 2017

My cat just started showing symptoms of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome after a couple of days I noticed he has fleas!!  So could he just be reacting to the flea bites or could it be both.  I will be taking him to the vet as soon as I can get an appointment.



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