None of the Jungle People like being disturbed. —“Kaa’s Hunting,” The Jungle Book
FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS, SOME OF THEM SIMILAR TO THOSE that afflict people, cats and other animals can develop behaviors that we categorize as compulsive. The main cause of compulsive behaviors in cats is stress, especially the kind of stress that cats experience when they feel conflicted between two opposing courses of action. For example, your cat may simultaneously feel an urge to greet you and an urge to avoid you for fear of punishment. Or she may both want to run away from another cat and want to confront him. Similarly, if you call a dog and he wants to come but can’t tell if you’re angry, his brain may short-circuit and his response may be to start spinning around.
One form of compulsive behavior that results from these cognitive conflicts is what we call wool sucking or wool chewing—sucking or chewing on nonfood items, including not just wool but cotton, synthetics, paper, and even more surprising materials, as you will discover later in this chapter. Another more common compulsive behavior in cats is grooming excessively or even pulling out their own fur, which is called overgrooming (psychogenic alopecia). Or they may attack their own tails or paw at their own faces (as part of Rolling-Skin Syndrome, or feline hyperesthesia).
Besides cognitive conflict, other reasons for compulsive behaviors include genetic causes, in which the tendency appears to be passed on from parent to kitten. Compulsive behaviors may also develop because a cat was weaned too early, or because he’s experiencing stress in the form of general anxiety, frustration, boredom, or separation anxiety—especially if these stressors recur frequently or persist over an extended period of time.
A cat gets frustrated for the same reasons you do. He wants to do or have something and he can’t. Maybe he’s indoors, looking out a window, and he wants to attack the cat walking across his territory. Maybe he wants to play, hunt, stalk, kill, or eat, but he has nobody to play with, no toys, or he’s unable to get to the food. Cats with separation anxiety may grow upset when their owners leave home, and if left alone for too long may overgroom themselves.
In short, one cat may develop compulsive behaviors because she’s been weaned too early, another because she’s conflicted, anxious, bored, or frustrated, and another because of a genetic propensity for, say, chewing on nonfood items.
All animals have their characteristic ways of responding to boredom, frustration, conflict, and other forms of stress. In zoo environments, big cats pace; wolves, foxes, and polar bears may repetitively pace, crib (which consists of chewing wood or air as air is inhaled), and self-mutilate; while giraffes sway. Gus, the famously neurotic polar bear at the Central Park Zoo, compulsively swims back and forth. Horses may chew repeatedly or weave as they walk, and pigs will bite the bars of their pens.
Compulsive behaviors in cats, including overgrooming and wool sucking, are based on behaviors that are already part of the cat’s natural repertoire, but have now become something abnormal because they’re performed repetitively, out of context, with no apparent goal, and sometimes in ways that are destructive, not just to the environment they live in (yours!) but to the cats themselves. If you allow the stressor leading to the compulsive behavior to continue, then totally unrelated stressors may also end up triggering repeated episodes of the behavior. Over time, the compulsive behaviors may be performed even when no stress is present.
MEDICAL ALERT: COMPULSIVE BEHAVIORS AND ORAL FIXATIONS
Consulting a vet about compulsive behaviors can help determine whether the causes are medical or psychological. Original causes can include such health-related issues as dietary imbalances, organ dysfunction, neurological and metabolic diseases, serotonin depletion, hyperkinesis, cognitive dysfunction, and spinal and neurologic diseases.
Different skin conditions, food allergies, or allergies to pollen, mold, or (most commonly) flea bites can also cause a cat to chew, overlick, or just lose fur. Parasites or back pain can lead to compulsive behaviors. I have seen cats suffering from hyperthyroidism, impacted anal glands, bladder stones, or other urinary health issues who groom the fur off their stomachs either to try to relieve the localized pain or to soothe the anxiety that results from the pain. Cystitis, an inflammation of the bladder, can cause a cat not only to chew or lick its abdomen but to urinate inappropriately around the house. If a cat suffers an injury to its tail, it may begin to chase or chew it. Remember that even when the physical issues have been resolved, they can leave behind a residue of behaviors that become ingrained and must be behaviorally modified.
Some compulsive behaviors may be harmful to your cat, others may damage your property, while watching or listening to still others—lick, lick, pause … lick, lick, pause—may simply feel to you like Chinese water torture. All such behaviors should be dealt with, preferably sooner rather than later.
I’ll discuss here the most common compulsive behaviors, which are the overgrooming that you saw in Nada in the Introduction, and wool sucking. But please keep in mind as you read my C.A.T. Plans for compulsive disorders that these are some of the most difficult behavior issues to diagnose and treat, because they can be or act like addictions. A veterinary visit and even medication may be a necessary addition to the behavior modifications I recommend. As you know if you’ve read this far, I don’t believe in automatically resorting to drugging your cat for behavior problems, but if it’s genuinely necessary, especially if you need to do it to prevent the cat from self-harm, then I’m all for it.
Let’s say your cat is outside, trying to decide whether to run away from the stray cat that’s entered your yard or to stand his ground. He may momentarily groom himself as a way of displacing his anxiety elsewhere. Grooming is a perfectly normal self-soothing behavior in cats. You’ll see them doing it on the way to the vet’s office, or when meeting another cat, or after a tumble from a high place. But if the stressor is constant or repetitive, the cat may continue to lick himself beyond what would be considered normal, creating bald patches in his fur and abrading his own skin. Some cats will go as far as to chew at their fur, or pluck it out with their teeth, sometimes by the mouthful. In extreme cases, cats will excavate wounds so deeply that they can become infected.
Overgrooming is seen in cats with anxious temperaments, predominantly in purebred cats of oriental breeding. It affects females more than males. But I’ve seen it occur in virtually every breed and color of cat and in both sexes, and for a wide range of reasons. Let’s look at a few.
First, look at the situation of Nada, whom you met in the Introduction. She’d been in conflict with a new cat in her territory, and they were maintaining a tense standoff, each cat from its respective floor of Susan’s house. Nada’s environment was also utterly barren, devoid of opportunities for play or stimuli of any kind. Sterile environments with no outlets for normal digging, play activities, or (in the case of unaltered animals) sexual expression can result not just in overgrooming but in masturbation, compulsive digging around the outside of the food bowl or litter box, and aggressive extremes in play behavior.1
Another cat I met who had an overgrooming problem was Caramello, an orange tabby whose owners originally came to me for a simple litter box issue. But as we talked, the owner, Patrice, mentioned to me that while the family was on vacation in Hawaii for three weeks, Caramello, who had not been invited to Hawaii and was being cared for by a pet sitter back home, had licked all the hair off his stomach. Patrice hadn’t noticed right away. “He seemed fine when we got home,” she told me.
But later that first night, Patrice was reading her newspaper in bed. “I remember hearing him lick, lick, lick. I’d put the paper down and the licking would stop. But as soon as I started reading again, he’d start up with the licking. Finally, my husband gathered him up in his arms like a baby—the way they both loved—and just gasped. All the thick fur on Mello’s stomach was gone, and all he had left was peach fuzz.”
I often uncover overgrooming during a behavior consultation for a completely different issue. When I ask a client if her cat is missing any fur on his body or has just a thin layer of fuzz on his stomach, I hear “Yes” more often than you might think, but often the owners are not concerned because they think grooming is just what cats do. They don’t have a standard against which to compare what they see. Some owners have even told me they didn’t realize that cats are supposed to have any fur at all on their tummies. Once I explain that the reason for the lack of fur is overgrooming, and that this is a sign of stress, many owners are shocked and find it hard to believe, since they have no idea that their cat is under any kind of stress.
Patrice, for example, was adamant that Caramello was not stressed now and had no reason to be when the family had been away. The pet sitter had stayed the night each night, she said, had played with him, and had given him everything he needed. As I probed more, however, I learned that the pet sitter had brought along her new puppy, a German shorthaired pointer who could well have been the source of stress for Caramello. The stress might have been exacerbated by feeling a conflict between two opposing urges—both to chase the puppy out of his favorite spot on the couch, and to avoid the spot himself out of fear of the puppy.
The plan I gave Patrice is the one I recommend for all overgrooming cats. For Caramello it worked very quickly, probably because his stress had been relatively short-lived and his overgrooming behavior had been going on for only a brief period of time, so the behavior hadn’t become as fixed as it does in cases of longer duration. For other cats, however, it may take longer to go into effect.
C.A.T. Plan for Overgrooming (Psychogenic Alopecia)
CEASE the Unwanted Behavior
Overgrooming is a serious matter. The longer you wait, the more difficult it can be to eliminate it. First, have your cat checked out by a vet to make sure it’s not a medical issue.
Any kind of stresss can cause a cat to overgroom or chew at itself. Try to identify the stress triggers in your cat’s life so that you can eliminate or at least reduce them. This can take a bit of investigative work, but it is very important. See Chapters 3, 4, and 5 for examples of stressors. Also make sure you’re not reinforcing or aggravating the cat’s behavior with reprimands (or any other form of attention) when the behavior is performed.
If the stressor remains unknown or cannot be removed, you may need to seek help from a professional cat behaviorist, who can help you identify the stressors causing your cat’s anxiety, or show you how to use behavior modification techniques to help you deal with any stressors that can’t be removed from the environment. She may also recommend that you speak to a veterinarian about drug therapy.
CONVENTIONAL ADVICE ALERT
You may be familiar with the advice to confine your cat to a cage or outfit her with an Elizabethan collar so that she can’t overgroom. Neither one is a cure. Both confinement and collars simply prevent your cat from doing what it still badly wants to do. This may cause your cat even more stress. And when you eventually remove your cat from confinement or remove the collar, the behavior will immediately resume. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall dryly compares the logic of such collars with the devices used to restrain women who, in the nineteenth century, wanted divorces.2
Stop Reinforcing the Behavior
If you are giving your cat any form of attention, either positive or negative, when she is overgrooming, stop. Petting or talking to her to try to soothe her when she’s overgrooming can positively reinforce the behavior and make her overgroom even more, while reprimanding her may just create more stress, which could also result in more overgrooming.
ATTRACT the Cat to a New Behavior
Offer Play Therapy
If you see signs that your cat is about to perform the compulsive behavior, distract him by giving him a toy, or play with him using an interactive wand toy. (See The Prey Sequence in Chapter 5.) Don’t play with your cat once he’s already begun the compulsive behavior, or you will likely reinforce it. Playing with your cat can reduce his pent-up tension and help increase his confidence, which can lower stress and anxiety. You should conduct a play session with your cat using an interactive toy twice a day.
Try Clicker Training
Rewarding him and teaching him tricks through clicker training is especially effective because it can give him enough stimulation to help keep his mind off overgrooming and reduce any stress or tension. (See clicker training in Appendix A.)
TRANSFORM the Territory
Minimize stress, reduce pent-up tension, and add a variety of stimuli in order to keep your cat’s mind busy doing things other than overgrooming. Pheromones; free-feeding or food puzzles; a three-dimensional environment of climbing frames and cat tunnels; open boxes with catnip and toys inside; cat trees, window perches, or pieces of furniture arranged in a tiered configuration that allow cats to climb or see out of a window; fish tanks, DVDs made for a cat’s viewing pleasure (and rated G of course!) and outside bird feeders—all of these can help entertain and destress your cat. I recommend frequent interactive play sessions. Battery-operated toys are also a good source of mental activity. Be sure to rotate toys and their location daily so there’s always an element of novelty in the environment. (See Chapter 5 for full details on creating stimulating, stress-free environments.)
If your cat tends to perform her compulsive behavior in one or more specific locations, then you may want to try to keep her away from those places, if it’s possible to do so without causing her more stress.
WOOL SUCKING AND WOOL CHEWING
It should come as no surprise that kittens develop a powerful drive to suck, since they nurse actively up to about the age of seven weeks. At that age their mother begins rebuffing their efforts during the gradual process of weaning. They may continue to seek out comfort nursing until they’re as old as six months. Under normal circumstances the suckling drive should fade after that. But if the weaning is abrupt or occurs too early, the kitten may displace its nursing drive onto nonfood surrogates that look or feel like her mother. A kitten without a queen’s nipple to nurse is like a human infant lacking mom, bottle, and pacifier, and for a kitten, at least, various compulsive behaviors, mainly oral in nature, may be the result. Later, as an adult, she may try to chew or eat items similar to those she sucked on as a kitten, which, while not surprising, is not normal, either.
Undernourished kittens may also develop compulsive oral behaviors, including one called prolonged sucking, a maladaptive reaction to stress and lack of nutrition that redirects the kittens’ innate need to suck onto such inappropriate targets as the bodies of their littermates, owners, dogs, or other animals—or even parts of their own bodies, such as their tails, the folds of skin on their flanks, or their vulvas or scrotums. Prolonged sucking may eventually turn into wool sucking, another compulsive and misdirected form of a kitten’s natural nursing behavior.
As discussed above, both wool sucking and wool chewing in adult cats may be caused by stress, separation anxiety, boredom, internal conflict, or frustration. Wool sucking (as I’ll now refer to both wool sucking and wool chewing) may also have a genetic component. A majority of the cats that develop this behavior issue are pure or mixed Oriental breeds like Siamese or Burmese.3 However, I’ve seen it in almost every breed of cat.
Wool sucking behavior may not be a problem unless it results in damage to things you value, such as your clothing or your furniture; or involves sucking or teething on something that could be dangerous to the kitten or cat, such as plastics or electrical cords; or graduates to actual ingestion of nonfood items, which can result in intestinal obstructions, leading to surgery or death. When things get that bad, you have a problem. As Dr. Nicholas Dodman has put it, “Living with a wool sucker of this degree is like living with a ten-pound moth.”4
POPULAR WISDOM ALERT
Contrary to popular belief, wool sucking doesn’t just apply to wool! Cats will suckle or chew many fabrics, including wool (the material of choice among 93 percent of wool-sucking cats), cotton (64 percent), and carpet (53 percent); also synthetic materials such as rubber and plastic (22 percent); paper and cardboard (8 percent);5 and even themselves, their owner’s hair, or another animal’s fur. (Because many cats direct their wool-sucking behavior to more than one kind of target, the percentages add up to much more than 100 percent.)
Wool-sucking behavior usually fades over time, but it may reappear in times of stress—just as oral fixations do in people. Next time you’re stuck in rush hour traffic, observe the people in the cars next to you. Wanting to move forward, but frustrated that they can’t, many of them will chew their fingernails and twirl their hair.
You’ll be glad to hear that most wool-sucking kittens do not go on to chew and ingest nonfood items (but just in case, it’s still a good idea to try to divert the kitten into other activities, by using elements of the plan described below). When wool sucking does progress to chewing and eating of nonfood items, it is known as pica, and the reasons for it are similar to those for the other oral fixations.
To remedy any of these oral fixation issues, it’s important to try to isolate the reasons for your particular cat’s problem. In addition to the many possible causes described earlier, some cats may just be hungry—hungry enough to feel an urge to eat holes in your sofa! Sometimes you may not be able to figure out the exact reasons, but the C.A.T. Plan in this chapter will still help you to manage the problem, even if you can’t entirely eliminate it.
MEDICAL ALERT: WOOL SUCKING, CHEWING, PICA
Have your cat checked out thoroughly by your vet to make sure his behavior doesn’t stem from a medical issue. Medical causes can include infectious and metabolic diseases such as distemper, liver problems, and diseases carried by ticks; neurological diseases such as psychomotor epilepsy; neoplastic disease of the central nervous system; and disk disease. Dietary imbalances can also cause oral fixations and are best treated by a vet.
Make sure your cat is getting a complete and adequate diet. Talk to your vet for recommendations, and see my recommendations for when to feed your cat in Chapter 5.
Under no circumstances should you resort to tooth removal. It’s cruel and does nothing to address the underlying condition. And it may end up making the problem even worse since your cat might progress to ingesting nonfood substances whole without chewing, which could be very dangerous for him.
C.A.T. Plan for Wool Sucking, Chewing, and Pica
CEASE the Unwanted Behavior
Remove Stress Triggers
Take a good look at your cat’s environment and eliminate or reduce any stress triggers. See Chapters 3, 4, and 7 for clues to triggers caused by conflict or frustration. Other stressors include fighting among resident cats, outside cats, separation anxiety, boredom, visitors whose presence causes fear or anxiety in the cat, and changes in the schedule—either yours or the cat’s.
Add Dry Food to the Diet
If your chewer or eater is a kitten, she may be teething. If you are feeding her only wet food during her teething stage, you should be sure to give her some dry food, too, so that she has something to chew on to help with the teething process. Otherwise, she may chew on hard objects like the ends of books and the corners of laptops in order to soothe her gums. Ouch! Some adult cats may also crave the crunch of dry food, and its use has been proven to reduce or eliminate sucking, chewing, and ingestion of nonfood items.
Feeding your cats more frequently, or free-feeding them, may also help reduce their interest in nonfood items.
Make Nonfood Items Inaccessible—or Unappealing
If your kitten or cat is chewing on or ingesting nonfood items, the single most effective solution may be just to keep such items out of his reach. For pica, this can definitely be the most effective solution.
If that’s not possible, you can try applying a bitter antichew to the items you want your cat to refrain from sucking, chewing, or eating. Be sure to apply enough, or you may not get the desired deterrence. For at least thirty days, leave the distasteful items strategically located in places where you know your cat will find them. You should monitor your cat to make sure the bitter antichew product is effective enough that it prevents him from ingesting the item; if one product or taste doesn’t work, try using others until you find one that effectively deters your cat. Over time, your cat will learn to stop eating or chewing the forbidden items because they taste so bad.
ATTRACT the Cat to a New Behavior
Distract and Refocus
If you see your cat eyeing a potential target or getting in a position to chew, distract her by giving her a toy, or engaging her in a prey sequence.
Provide novel feeding opportunities to help your cat release pent-up energy or anxiety and replace the unwanted behaviors with other ways of soothing, diverting, stimulating, and comforting herself. You could hide several small bowls of cat food around the house, or tuck treats into hiding places that will be easy for her to find, or provide food puzzles to arouse her foraging and hunting instincts. (You may need to show her how the food puzzles work.)
See the Plant Eaters sidebar, in Chapter 5, for types of greens to make available to your cat.
Make Adjustments to the Diet
Adding fiber to a cat’s diet has been shown to reduce wool sucking, chewing, and ingesting behaviors, even if the behaviors are not necessarily caused by a diet lacking in fiber. Talk to your vet about giving your cat an extra source of fiber such as canned organic pumpkin (not the pie filling). If the vet approves, you could start by adding about one-quarter to one-half a teaspoon to your cat’s wet food each day—or just put it on a plate by itself, as some cats like the taste and will eat it right up.
HIGH-FIBER DIET ALERT
Many clients have come to me about compulsive oral behaviors after their cats have been on a high-fiber weight-loss diet for a long time. Depending on the cat and the diet, the problem could be too much fiber and not enough nutrients, which can leave the cat feeling unsatisfied after eating and cause him to start to eat nonfood items.
In case the cat is actually hungry, you could also try free-feeding (see Chapter 5) between scheduled meals, or provide your cat with more feedings throughout the day. You’re increasing only the frequency of feedings, not the total calories, so weight gain is not really a concern. A timed feeder may be more convenient for some cat owners.
Try Clicker Training
Clicker training can help promote desirable behaviors and activities that stimulate, exercise, and divert your cat and make him feel more self-confident and relaxed—and less stressed.
TRANSFORM the Territory
To decrease stress and create a stimulating environment, follow the Territory suggestions in the C.A.T. Plan for overgrooming, and review Chapter 5. If this C.A.T. Plan does not substantially reduce or eliminate the problem behavior within thirty days, your cat may have a disorder that requires medication. When in doubt, see your vet.
FELINE HYPERESTHESIA SYNDROME
Eek! Your cat may seem to see things you can’t, dash around the room for no reason, and even morph from calm to fierce in an instant. Maybe the skin along his spine suddenly ripples, he starts pulling at his own tail, or biting his own leg. Is he possessed? Schizoid? It’s more likely that he suffers from Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome (FHS), also known as Rolling-Skin Disease. No one knows for sure what causes it, but it can manifest in seizurelike behaviors that may have a neurological basis, or in behaviors similar to the compulsive activities described earlier in this chapter, or in both. Hyperesthesia means, essentially, hypersensitivity—to any sensory stimuli. I’ve included a discussion of it in this chapter because it is often mistaken for compulsive behaviors, even though its causes, insofar as we understand them, are different.
Here’s what hyperesthesia looks like: One moment a cat will be resting peacefully, when suddenly his skin starts to twitch or ripple. His eyes may become dilated, he may twist himself around to frantically groom or chew at his hindquarters or even attack a region of the lower half of his body, or he may suddenly take off running, as if to get away from himself. Because this condition involves a high degree of skin sensitivity, the excessive self-grooming and -chewing that some cats do in an attempt to find relief can cause hair loss, which is why FHS is sometimes mistaken for overgrooming. A cat with this disorder may appear restless and vocalize excessively or pace back and forth. These cats can also be very sensitive to touch along the back; FHS episodes may actually be triggered by petting a cat in this region. Another way this syndrome presents is as unprovoked aggression, which can disappear as quickly as it appeared. Any kind of stress or upset may trigger an episode of hyperesthesia in a cat who has a predisposition to it.
If you think your cat may be exhibiting signs of FHS, please be sure to visit your vet for thorough diagnostic testing to rule out other health issues, and then get the help of a behavior specialist. This is one syndrome that’s definitely too difficult for you to deal with on your own, which is why I’m not presenting a C.A.T. Plan for it. The one general piece of advice I can give you is that while FHS is not caused by stress, it can be triggered or exacerbated by it. It’s important to remove stressors and tension from your cat’s life, and to provide playtimes with wand toys and other interactive toys. Do adhere to the environmental guidelines in Chapter 5.
Of all the behavior problems for which medication is prescribed, compulsive behaviors like those described in this chapter are among those that will most benefit from it. In fact, medication may be not only useful but necessary. For serious cases of overgrooming, wool sucking and its variants, and for FHS, you should consult with a veterinarian about using psychoactive medication to help disrupt the psychological trigger for your cat’s behavior cycle. But medication will be much more effective when used in conjunction with the behavioral plans outlined in this chapter.