getting twitchy: feline hyperesthesia syndrome
When it comes to my two cats, Joe and Charlie, they are both crazy in their own ways, but Charlie takes the cake for being nearly certifiable. She spends most of the 24 hours of the day asleep, of course, but when she’s awake, watch out! She’s the kind of cat who is never satisfied with her position in the house.
You can tell by the way she suddenly jumps up and high-tails it to the stairs, pulling the old Fred Flintstone move just trying to get traction on the hardwood floors. After she finally makes it up the stairs, you can hear her tearing through the house as if she’s seeing ghosts.
This kind of “I need to be in another room NOW!” activity is somewhat common in cats, so Charlie shouldn’t feel alone in her craziness. But some cats suffer from a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome that takes this odd behavior to new, uncomfortable levels.
What is feline hyperesthesia syndrome?
Feline hyperesthesia syndrome goes by many names, including rolling skin disease and fittingly, twitchy cat disease. It’s an uncommon compulsive disorder that tends to start in cats who are between the ages of one and four years old. Oriental breeds, such as Siamese, Abyssinians, Persians, and Burmese cats are more often affected.
Cats with feline hyperesthesia syndrome have bouts of skin twitches, as if they are uncomfortable. Often, this leads to vocalization and tail or flank biting. Excessive grooming goes hand in hand with feline hyperesthesia syndrome and is often so severe that skin sores develop. Barbering of the hair is quite common as well as these kitties try to quiet their discomfort.
During an episode, affected cats are in distress, with wide, wild pupils. They don’t want to be touched and may race around the room. Severe cases suffer from apparent hallucinations. Episodes may be as short as a few seconds or as long as a few excruciating minutes.
These cats present a challenge to veterinarians, as the underlying cause may be physical or behavioral. Unfortunately, there is no one test for feline hyperesthesia syndrome. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that we have to rule out everything else before we can diagnose it.
Diagnosis, therefore, will start by ruling out skin disease. One really important thing that I have learned in my years of being a vet is that itchy cats are crazy cats. Cats just HATE being itchy! So, fleas, mites, atopy and food allergies all have to be ruled out. All of these things can make cats itchy, causing major discomfort and possibly bringing out the tendency to overgroom.
Neurologic disease and spinal pain must also be ruled out. Thorough veterinarians will want to perform a full exam, including a neurologic exam, as well as X-rays and blood work before diagnosing feline hyperesthesia syndrome.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause. Some cases seem to be tied to emotional stress (like that stemming from the addition of a new pet or human to the household). Environmental modification and enrichment can help these cats.
Medical options include anti-anxiety medications like Prozac or Elavil, anticonvulsant drugs, or corticosteroids for itch. Unfortunately, in many cases, medication will be lifelong. Having cat insurance from Petplan can help you cope with the costs of caring for your cat during these times.
If your cat has an occasional episode of twitching, or runs out of the room like her tail is on fire every once in a while, don’t worry. But if these episodes start occurring more frequently or if your cat seems like she’s in real distress, please bring it to your veterinarian’s attention, as she could be suffering from feline hyperesthesia syndrome.