Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

A compulsive disorder, feline hyperesthesia syndrome usually begins in cats at 1 to 4 years of age. It is also known as self-mutilation syndrome, rolling skin syndrome, twitchy cat disease, and atypical neurodermatitis.

What happens is that affected cats have episodes in which the skin twitches, the body jerks around suddenly, and the tail moves far more than usual. Hyperesthetic cats vocalize and groom excessively, don't want to be touched, and zoom around at high speed. Sometimes the skin on the cat's back, just above the tail, will seem to ripple. Some affected cats will groom/chew at themselves so much that they will lose their hair, develop skin irritation, and even create skin sores. While some of this may sound a bit like normal fun behaviour, it is different in how far it goes. The cat will appear to be in distress, rather than having a good time; pupils will be dilated, and the cats may appear to be scared and depressed -- or stare into space. Episodes will last from a few seconds to several minutes.

Any breed can be affected, but Siamese, Burmese, Himalayans, and Abyssinians are the most commonly affected breeds.
In some cases, the problem may turn out to be strictly behavioural. In other cases, there may be a physical cause. There is no specific test that can diagnose this problem, so this syndrome requires diagnosis by exclusion. (The veterinarian will have to eliminate every other possible cause of this behaviour, thus leaving hyperesthesia syndrome as the final diagnosis.)

Diagnostic tests will include a complete neurologic exam, blood work, spinal radiographs, skin scrapings, etc.
Treatment for hyperesthesia syndrome may require anti-seizure medications, corticosteroids, anti-anxiety drugs, or behavioural/environmental modification. It may take time to determine which medication will be most effective. Once an effective medication has been found, your veterinarian may try decreasing the dosage over time, to see what the lowest effective dose is.

The signs typically return if medication is discontinued, so treatment is usually lifelong. Some veterinarians think that behavioural and environmental stresses should be reduced, as some cats resolve all symptoms when they move to a new house or environment. Meals should be given on a regular routine, and feeding several small meals a day is better than feeding one or two large ones.

If there is a specific environmental condition that causes signs, such as excessive noise or a disliked companion cat, eliminating that environmental cause can be successful in eliminating the syndrome.

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