Cat Compulsive Disorders or Cognitive Conflict
It can begin as a simple issue, but then manifest into several issues rolled into one with many interdependent variables — anyone for a game of chess? Schedule with Harvard-trained, certified cat behavior expert and author, Mieshelle Nagelschneider. Help your cat with an issue that you probably didn’t realize has turned into a complex one where cookie cutter advice isn’t appropriate.
October 21, 2016 — “Our cat Pip hasn’t chewed on or eaten any clothing items or toilet paper for 3 weeks. This is literally a miracle, you have no idea. He seems so much happier and content and this all makes sense now after speaking with you. We can’t thank you enough for all your wisdom and for literally saving our cat’s life. Pip can NOT have another exploratory surgery! Talk to you in a few weeks on Skype after we return from our vacation.” — Katherine D. Fairfax, Virginia.
First off, let’s understand that cats are not “obsessive” like humans can be. This term needs to be removed when describing a cat with compulsive behavior issues. The correct term for cats with issues like chasing or attacking their tails, chewing or ingesting non-food items, or overgrooming, is compulsive disorder.
Compulsive disorders in cats are not among the most common. For a variety of reasons, some of them similar to those that afflict people, cats and other animals can develop behaviors that we categorize as compulsive. The main cause of compulsive behaviors in cats is stress, especially when cats feel highly conflicted by two opposing courses of action. One compulsive behavior is what we call “wool-sucking” or wool-chewing – sucking or chewing on non-food items including not just wool, but cotton, synthetics, paper, and even more surprising materials.
More commonly, cats may groom excessively or pull out their own fur, which is called overgrooming. Or they may attack their own tails or paw at their own faces (as part of “Rolling Skin Syndrome,” or feline hyperesthesia). Some compulsive behaviors appear to be passed on from parent to kitten. Other behaviors may develop because a cat was weaned too early, or because he’s now experiencing anxiety, frustration, separation anxiety, or cognitive conflict.
This is especially true if such conflicts or frustrations recur frequently or persist over an extended period of time, such as when a cat who has separation anxiety is left alone every day with nothing to occupy or entertain him and no companionship, human, feline, or otherwise.
What do I mean by “cognitive conflict”? Your cat is conflicted when she feels the urge to perform two opposing behaviors, such as an urge to greet you and an urge to avoid you for fear of punishment. Or when she wants to run away from another cat and she wants to confront him. Similarly, if you call a dog and he wants to come but can’t tell if you’re angry, his brain may short-circuit and his response may be to start spinning around.
A cat gets frustrated for the same reasons you do. He wants to do or have something and he can’t. Maybe he’s indoors, looking out a window, and he wants to attack the cat walking across his territory. Maybe he wants to play, hunt, stalk, kill, eat, but he has nothing to play with or no food. All animals have their characteristic ways of responding to boredom, frustration, and stress. In zoo environments, wolves, foxes, and polar bears may repetitively pace, crib, and self-mutilate, while giraffes sway and big cats pace. Gus, the famously neurotic polar bear at the Central Park Zoo, compulsively swims back and forth. Horses may chew repeatedly or weave as they walk, and pigs will bite their bars. Cats with separation anxiety may grow upset when their owners leave home, and if left alone for too long may overgroom themselves.
Compulsive behaviors in cats, including overgrooming and wool-sucking, are based on behaviors that are already a part of the cat’s natural repertoire, but that have become abnormal because they’re performed repetitively, out of context, with no apparent goal, and sometimes in ways that are destructive, not just to the environment they live in (yours!) but to the cats themselves. If you allow the stressor to continue, the behavior may be triggered by not only low amounts of the original stressor, but by totally unrelated stressors and eventually, no stressor is needed at all for the cat to perform the compulsive behavior.
In short, one cat may develop compulsive behaviors because she’s been weaned too early, another because she’s anxious, and another because of a genetic propensity for, say, chewing on non-food items.
Some compulsive behaviors may be harmful to your cat, and others may damage your property. Watching or listening to still others – lick, lick, pause. lick, lick, pause – may simply feel to you like Chinese water torture. Most cat owners and even most vets are at a loss as to how to intervene effectively to remedy compulsive behaviors. The most common compulsive behaviors are overgrooming and wool-sucking. These are some of the most difficult behavior issues to diagnose and treat, because they can be or act like physical health issues (like food allergies for instance).
Solving this kind of behavior issue takes a very high level of expertise and of all the cat behavior issues, we strongly recommend never attempting to solve it on your own. We have worked with many clients whose cats had various forms of compulsiveness, and with great success. We invite you to book your consultation today in order to give your cat, and you, relief!
Excerpt from Mieshelle Nagleschneider’s book, The Cat Whisperer, on Cat Compulsive Issues
FELINE HYPERESTHESIA SYNDROME
Eek! Your cat may seem to see things you can’t, dash around the room
for no reason, and even morph from calm to fierce in an instant.
Maybe the skin along his spine suddenly ripples, he starts pulling at
his own tail, or biting his own leg. Is he possessed? Schizoid? It’s more
likely that he suffers from Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome (FHS),
also known as Rolling-Skin Disease. No one knows for sure what
causes it, but it can manifest in seizure-like behaviors that may have a
neurological basis, or in behaviors similar to the compulsive activities
described earlier in this chapter, or in both. Hyperesthesia means,
essentially, hyper sensitivity—to any sensory stimuli. I’ve included a
discussion of it in this chapter because it is often mistaken for compulsive
behaviors, even though its causes, insofar as we understand
them, are different.
Here’s what hyperesthesia looks like: One moment a cat will be
resting peacefully, when suddenly his skin starts to twitch or ripple.
His eyes may become dilated, he may twist himself around to frantically
groom or chew at his hind quarters or even attack a region of the
lower half of his body, or he may suddenly take off running, as if to
get away from himself. Because this condition involves a high degree
of skin sensitivity, the excessive self-grooming and -chewing that some
cats do in an attempt to find relief can cause hair loss, which is why
FHS is sometimes mistaken for overgrooming. A cat with this disorder
may appear restless and vocalize excessively or pace back and
forth. These cats can also be very sensitive to touch along the back;
FHS episodes may actually be triggered by petting a cat in this region.