By Dr. Becker
I often write about the uniqueness of felines. Your kitty is not only very different from your dog (if you have one) – she stands apart from most other species. Her physiology is distinctive. Her nutritional requirements are unique among mammals. Even the way her body is constructed – her incredible physical flexibility – is distinct from most other creatures. Another thing that is very unusual about our kitty companions is their tendency to develop a weird disorder called feline hyperesthesia.
This is a medical term for what is more commonly referred to as ‘rippling skin syndrome,’ ‘rolling skin syndrome,’ or ‘twitchy cat syndrome.’ Other technical names for the condition include neuritis and atypical neurodermatitis.
Signs and Symptoms of Feline Hyperesthesia
The word hyperesthesia means ‘abnormally increased sensitivity of the skin.’ It’s a condition in which the skin on a cat’s back ripples from the shoulders all the way to the tail. The rippling is visible in some cats, but more difficult to see with others.What many pet owners notice first is the kitty turning toward her tail suddenly as though something back there is bothering her. She may try to lick or bite at the area. Kitties with hyperesthesia also have muscle spasms and twitches, and twitching of the tail.
If your cat has the syndrome, he may show sensitivity when any point along his spine or back is touched. He may chase his tail, bite at himself, turn toward his tail and hiss, vocalize, run and jump. He may also seem to be hallucinating – following the movement of things that are not there – and he may have dilated pupils during these episodes.
In severe cases of feline hyperesthesia, cats will self-mutilate by biting, licking, chewing and pulling out hair. These poor kitties suffer not only hair loss, but often severe skin lesions from trying too aggressively to seek relief from the uncomfortable sensations they experience.
Causes of ‘Twitchy Cat Syndrome’
No one knows for sure what causes hyperesthesia in cats, but one of the first things you should do if your kitty is having symptoms is to rule out other causes for itching and twitching.
It’s important to investigate flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) as a cause or contributor to your cat’s behavior. In pets with a severe flea allergy, the bite from a single flea can cause serious, long-term itching and skin irritation. A bad case of FAD can cause your cat to lick and scratch so aggressively – most often at the base of the tail or hind quarters – that he loses a significant amount of hair on that part of his body.
Sometimes dry, itchy skin can induce or aggravate a hyperesthesia condition. This is more common in cats fed a dry food diet.
Another cause of the condition might be seizures. Or more precisely, feline hyperesthesia may be a type of seizure disorder. Some kitties experience grand mal seizures during an episode of hyperesthesia or right afterwards. Experts theorize the syndrome might be caused by a problem with electrical activity in areas of the brain that control grooming, emotions and predatory behavior.
It may also be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, with the obsession being fearfulness and/or grooming and/or aggression. Also, seizure activity is known to lead to obsessive compulsive behavior. Another theory is that certain breeds are predisposed to develop mania as a result of stress. Oriental breeds seem to have more hyperesthesia than the general population of felines, and stress often seems to be the trigger for these kitties.
Also, cats with the condition have been found to have lesions in the muscles of their spine. It’s possible the lesions cause or contribute to the sensations and symptoms that are a feature of hyperesthesia.
A diagnosis of feline hyperesthesia is arrived at through eliminating other conditions and diseases that cause similar symptoms and behavior, including:
Skin conditions (allergies, parasites, infections)
Underlying painful conditions of the back, spine, joints or muscles; also pain associated with bite injuries, abscesses, anal sac disease, organ damage or cancer
A problem in the brain (trauma, tumors, infection)
It could be beneficial for you to video your kitty during an episode of what you suspect is hyperesthesia, and take the video with you to your vet appointment. The vet should perform a physical exam on your kitty, take a behavioral history, and order a complete blood count, chemistry profile and T4 (thyroid) hormone level test.
Other diagnostic tests might also be required, for example, skin tests and x-rays. It’s possible your vet will make a referral to another DVM who specializes in dermatology or neurology. When all other potential causes for your pet’s symptoms have been ruled out or treated, feline hyperesthesia can be confidently diagnosed.
Treatment of True Feline Hyperesthesia
The treatment for feline hyperesthesia syndrome involves reducing stress on the cat. However, I recommend looking at what you’re feeding your cat first.
She should be eating a balanced, species-appropriate diet that contains no carbs, moderate amounts of animal fat, and high levels of animal protein. This will help eliminate any food allergies she may be dealing with, and will improve the condition of her skin and coat. You can also consider supplementing with a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids like krill oil.
To address stress-related triggers, you’ll need to take steps to make your cat as comfortable as possible with his living arrangements. This means building a great deal of consistency in your cat's daily routine, while at the same time enriching the five key areas of his environment, including:
- Safe, secure food, water and litter box locations.
- His own places to climb, scratch, rest and hide.
- Consistency in all your interactions with him.
- Appropriate sensory stimulation.
- The company of another or other non-adversarial cats.
Set aside time each day to play with your cat. This helps him get aerobic exercise and gives him the chance to flex his hunter muscles. Use interactive toys like a feather wand or a toy at the end of a string. Many cats also love chasing laser toys, ping pong balls and even rolled up bits of paper. Since cats have very short attention spans, try to break up playtime into three or four short sessions a day.
Giving your cat anti-depressants, anti-convulsants or drugs to curb obsessive behavior should be considered only as a last resort. A species-appropriate diet, environmental enrichment, and natural remedies like Spirit Essences1 or OptiBalance cat and kitten formulas2 should go a long way toward alleviating the stressors in your cat’s life that may trigger episodes of hyperesthesia.
I have had good success in reducing symptoms using adjunctive therapies. Acupuncture can commonly reduce the ‘nerve wind up’ many of these cats experience. Chiropractic care can also reduce the dermatome neuritis hyperesthetic cats are plagued with. Ttouch3, a special form of massage, can also help reduce skin sensitivity in some cats.
I’ve also had good success with kitties using homeopathic Aconitum and Hypericum orally to help dampen emotional and neurologic reactivity that can lead to physiologic symptoms.