Cats are very hygienic animals and spend much of their day grooming themselves. Although cats may devote a large part of their day to grooming, it is usually done in a dispersed rather than compulsive manner. For cats with feline hyperesthesia syndrome, grooming is very intense and prolonged. The results can be detrimental to your cat’s health, so let us tell you about it!

What is hyperaesthesia in cats?

Hyperesthesia in cats refers to an abnormal increase in sensitivity to certain stimuli. Specifically, feline hyperesthesia syndrome is a disorder characterised by a number of different symptoms. Although it is sometimes referred to as rolling skin disease, or nervous cat disease, this is not quite the case. Being more of a syndrome than a disease, it is a collection of clinical signs affecting the endocrine, exocrine, nervous and neuromuscular systems.

While we will look at the symptoms in more detail below, it is a condition characterised by repeated scratching and biting of the lumbar area. We may also see the cat’s skin moving on its own, a rippling that gives it the name of rolling skin disease. As with other seizure syndromes, the case of hyperesthesia is episodic. It does not usually last long and resolves quickly.

The main problems arise when the cat has repeated episodes and mutilates in the process. Hyperesthesia is also very stressful for the cat during an episode.

There are other names by which this syndrome is often referred to. These include nervous cat syndrome, neuritis or neurodermatitis. This is because the resulting excessive grooming can lead to inflammation of the skin, although the underlying cause appears to be neurological.

Some causes of feline hyperaesthesia

The three main theories are:

  • Behavioural disorder: since grooming is used as a means of relaxation for cats, stress is considered a cause of excessive grooming. This is related to the increased production of certain hormones that can be triggered by stress. Under this theory, stress translates into a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that can lead to episodes of excessive grooming and self-mutilation.
  • Seizure disorder: As mentioned above, feline hyperesthesia syndrome occurs in episodes. As this is similar to the type of episodic epileptic seizures that cats may experience, it has led some researchers to suggest that it is also a seizure disorder.
  • Environmental and behavioural factors: With this theory, it is suggested that a variety of environmental and behavioural factors result in the symptoms of hyperesthesia in cats. This is supported by the fact that many other physical problems, such as skin disorders in cats, are the result of environmental and behavioural factors.

While no genetic link has been proven, there is a recorded propensity in certain breeds. Certain breeds of Asian cats, such as the Burmese, Abyssinian and Himalayan, seem to develop hyperaesthesia, more so than others, suggesting some hereditary factor.

Symptoms of hyperesthesia in cats

The main symptom during episodes of hyperesthesia is that the cat begins to repeatedly lick the area of the back and tail, i.e. the lumbar region. When the syndrome is sufficiently advanced, it is also possible that the cat will self-mutilate to counteract the unpleasant sensation which is accompanied by spasms of the skin.

Although we stress that an underlying neurological cause has not been confirmed, it may affect the nervous system and cause the following:

  • Dilated pupils.
  • Hypersalivation
  • Hallucinations.
  • Vocalisations.
  • Aggression.
  • Inappropriate urination.

Although many of these clinical signs are non-specific, the wounds and the attack on the lower back are characteristic. If we see this symptom in our cat, we should consider hyperesthesia as a possible cause.

Diagnosis of hyperesthesia in cats

As feline hyperesthesia syndrome is rare and often has non-specific symptoms, it will require a differential diagnosis to rule out other possible causes. This can only be done by a veterinarian, but it is important to record specific symptoms and behaviours before doing so. It is not always likely that an episode will occur while the cat is in the veterinary clinic, so we will need to be as specific as possible.

Once at the veterinary clinic, certain diagnostic tests will be performed. These will include skin tests for mites, bacteria and other pathogens that could be causing dermatitis. Blood tests for hormone levels and x-rays may be done to rule out other problems. These will help the veterinarian rule out other causes and confirm a diagnosis of hyperesthesia.

Treatment of hyperesthesia in cats

As the causes are poorly understood, treatment of feline hyperesthesia syndrome is difficult. What works for one cat may not be suitable for another. There are general measures we can take to help prevent seizure episodes. They include:

  • Create a calm environment: this requires eliminating potential stressors in the home, such as loud noises or constant movement. We will also need to provide a quiet area for them to rest.
  • Address stress issues: Stress in cats can be due to a variety of problems, ranging from dietary changes to trauma and other causes. If we are unable to determine the stressors in our cat’s life, then we should speak to a feline ethologist who can better assess their situation.

We should not attempt to intervene during an attack of hyperesthesia in cats. Although it may be very complicated for us, doing so may cause more harm to the cat and even result in aggression.

Do you live in Barcelona and think your kitten is going through something like this? If you suspect that he is suffering from feline hyperesthesia, do not hesitate for a moment, make an appointment with us and come to see us to find as soon as possible an appropriate diagnosis and treatment to help him.