Compulsive Cat Disorders

Is it just a habit your cat has or a disorder? Pet MD investigates. 

While some of the ways in which cats behave may seem odd, it is only when the behavior becomes self-harming, obsessive, or repetitive to the point that the cat is neglecting other needs, that it is considered a disorder.

Signs & Symptoms of Compulsive Disorders

Some of the actions and signs associated with compulsive behaviors include:

  • Excessive sucking and chewing
  • Hunting and pouncing at unseen prey
  • Running and chasing
  • Paw shaking
  • Freezing in place
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Self-directed aggression, such as tail chasing or foot chewing
  • Over-grooming or barbering of hair

Causes of Compulsive Disorders

There may be a genetic predisposition to compulsive behaviors. For example, wool sucking is more common in Oriental breeds of cats.

Behavioral problems and compulsive, repetitive behaviors may be instigated by stress due to recent changes in the cat’s life, boredom, allergies, or neurological problems.

Feline hyperesthesia is a possible underlying cause, and this will have to be ruled out by your veterinarian before your cat can be treated for a behavioral disorder.

Diagnosis of Compulsive Disorders

The process begins with differential diagnosis – ruling out or treating any possible underlying medical causes.  Since a variety of medical disorders, including painful conditions, food allergies, neurological diseases, and dermatological disorders, can cause many of these signs, an extensive diagnostic workup will be needed to rule out any underlying medical problems before the behavior itself can be addressed. You will need to share your cat’s health history with your veterinarian, as well as any recent changes in your cat’s life that may have brought about the changes in behavior.

In cases where the cat is exhibiting self-directed or self-harming behaviors, such as tail mutilation or psychogenic alopecia, a dermatological workup will include taking samples of blood and skin for biopsy and culture to rule out infection or parasites. In many cases, doctors choose to begin a diet trial to rule out food allergies

Your veterinarian may also use a corticosteroid to rule out itching or inflammation as the cause for your cat’s behavior.

Treatment for Compulsive Disorders

Addressing the underlying motivation for the behavior is essential for the cat’s long term health. In addition to medical treatment to control the infection and pain of self-mutilation, behavioral therapy and behavioral drugs for compulsive disorders will likely be needed.

If the problem is diagnosed as a compulsive disorder, drugs that can be used to inhibit the reuptake of serotonin may be effective at reducing or controlling some of the signs, but concurrent behavioral therapy and environmental modifications are also likely to be needed.

Some of the changes your veterinarian may recommend are:

  • Providing a predictable daily routine
  • Providing a reward based training approach that shapes desirable responses and avoids the use of punishment or negative reactions
  • Avoiding the use of rewards except when desirable behaviors are exhibited so that the cat learns what behaviors will earn rewards
  • Providing a few regularly scheduled social interaction sessions (including social play, exercise, and training)
  • Minimizing boredom by providing stimulating play toys that use food and textures to maintain interest
  • Between social interaction sessions, providing a quiet area away from the business of the house for rest and relaxation
  • Devices such as E-collars (cones) may be used to prevent the cat from inflicting further damage on its body until the habits can be changed

Prevention of Behavioral Disorders

Some cats will chase and even viciously attack their tails. This may arise as a form of play, especially if there is boredom due to a lack of sufficient routine and stimulation. Situations of conflict and anxiety may lead to displacement behaviors such as tail chasing or over-grooming. The behavior may escalate to a more serious problem if done repetitively. Attempts by the owner to stop the behavior may add to the cat’s anxiety, further aggravating the problem.

Regardless of the underlying cause, if the cat manages to catch and bite its own tail, or is over-grooming to the point of skin damage, the problem may progress to more serious mutilation. The skin and tail will be painful and infected, and the tail may need to be amputated.

In particular, specific stimuli that precede or incite the compulsive behaviors should be identified. Then these situations of conflict can be identified and either prevented or resolved. Normalizing routines and providing daily interactions with positive attention are useful in the prevention of compulsive behaviors. It is important for cats to have an outlet for their energy. This may involve a set time of the day when you play with your cat using laser light toys or wands, providing plenty of cat friendly toys for your cat to play with when you are away, or using puzzle balls that require the cat’s interaction to get treats out of the ball.

Changes are unavoidable, so you will need to do your best to help your cat through life transitions such as moving or new members of the family.