Feline Hyperesthesia – Anything New?

Published: December 05, 2011
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At the risk of sounding like a lounge act, I take requests … for blog topics, that is. I got one a couple of weeks back from a reader who is dealing with a cat that may have feline hyperesthesia. Ashmom asked for an update on the condition, and here it is.

I’m going to divide it into two parts. Today — an overview of what feline hyperesthesia is and how it is (or should be) diagnosed. Tomorrow — treatment.

Feline hyperesthesia goes by many names, including self-mutilation syndrome, rolling skin syndrome, psychomotor epilepsy, atypical neurodermatitis, and my personal favorite, twitchy cat disease. When you see that many names for one disease, it generally means that we don’t understand what’s going on, and that certainly holds true for feline hyperesthesia.

First the symptoms: Feline hyperesthesia is episodic, so cats may act normally for long stretches of time, but then an owner might notice some or all of the following:

  • Twitching or rippling skin, especially along a cat’s back
  • A hyperactive tail
  • Spasms where the body will jerk unexpectedly
  • Excessive grooming, which sometimes results in hair loss and skin lesions
  • Excessive vocalization
  • A painful reaction when touched
  • Dilated pupils
  • Cats may appear scared or depressed, which differentiates feline hyperesthesia from the occasional and perfectly normal “cat crazies”

Most cats develop feline hyperesthesia when they are young — between one and four years of age is typical. Siamese, Burmese, Himalayans, and Abyssinians are at highest risk, but any breed or sex of cat can be affected.

Before a diagnosis of feline hyperesthesia can be made, a veterinarian has to rule out dermatological or other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. A full work up might include:

  • A physical and neurological exam
  • Blood work, urinalysis, and fecal exam
  • Spinal X-rays
  • Skin scrapings to look for mites and possibly empiric treatment for external parasites that can be hard to find
  • Skin cytology to rule out infection
  • A fungal culture for ringworm
  • A strict food trail (e.g., three months of eating nothing but a diet containing novel or hydrolyzed protein and carbohydrate sources) to rule out food allergies
  • Intradermal allergy tests to rule out environmental allergies (e.g., pollen, mold, dust mites, etc.)
  • A corticosteroid (prednisolone is best for cats) response test to see if symptomatic control of itching/inflammation alters the situation
  • Skin or muscle biopsies
  • A CT or MRI scan
  • A trial course of anti-seizure medications

I know this sounds overwhelming, but the last thing you want to do is to treat a cat for a compulsive disorder — which is what true feline hyperesthesia seems to be — when in fact he is just unbearably itchy or having partial seizures. You and your veterinarian can determine which tests are needed for your cat based on his individual case and your financial resources.

Tomorrow: Treating Feline Hyperesthesia

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Spencer: Groomer/Contortionist by MarianneG2007 / via Flickr