Feline Hyperesthesia


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Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome


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Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome – What Is It and How Does Affect Cats?

by Lorie Huston, DVM on July 7, 2014

For those of you following the story of Lux the so-called “911 cat”, you probably already know he has been diagnosed with feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS). I’m not here today to talk about Lux, or Lux’s story. I’m not part of Lux’s team of providers so I don’t have enough information to provide any medical judgments or comments on his individual case. From what I can tell based on what I do know, Lux is in good hands.

That being said, Lux’s case has bought up a number of questions about feline hyperesthesia syndrome. Namely, what is it and how/why does it affect a cat. It seems many people are unfamiliar with it.

Photo credit: DepositPhotos.com/ kuban_girl

Frankly, there’s a lot we don’t know about feline hyperesthesia syndrome. Here’s what we do know.

  • FHS sometimes goes by the names rolling skin disease, twitchy cat disease, atypical neurodermatitis, neuritis, self-mutilation syndrome, and others.
  • Affected cats usually range from 1 to 5 years of age. Any breed can be involved but some breeds seem more likely to develop the syndrome, including the Siamese, Burmese, Persian and Abyssinian breeds. Both male and female cats are at risk.
  • Symptoms can vary from cat to cat. Affected cats often show rippling or rolling skin along their back. Pain may (or may not) be apparent when pressure is applied to the muscles along the back. Dilated pupils are usually seen during FHS episodes. Some cats will stare at the tail, and then suddenly attack the tail and/or sides of the body. It’s not uncommon for an affected cat to bite his tail base, forelegs and paws. The cat will often run around wildly while vocalizing. In an unspayed female cat, owners may attribute this particular symptom to the cat’s being in heat. As the people associated with Lux have discovered, cats who are normally calm may become aggressive to humans or other cats. The opposite may be true as well, with a normally aggressive cat becoming more affectionate. The behavior may be triggered by petting or stroking the fur and it most commonly occurs in the morning or later in the evening, though it may occur at any time of the day.
  • The exact cause of FHS remains unknown and, in reality, it probably has more than one potential cause.
  • FHS has been associated with flea allergy dermatitis, other skin diseases, and painful spinal, joint, or muscular disorders. Stress, such as that seen with changes in the household, has also been implicated as a potential contributing factor.
  • Because the syndrome may have a strictly behavioral origin, a physical origin, or a combination of the two, diagnosis involves ruling out potential physical causes. This may include a complete physical examination (including a neurologic exam), blood work, radiographs (x-rays) of the spine and/or joints, skin scrapings, muscle biopsies, and more. Gathering an accurate history is important also.

Treatment depends on the individual. Here are some general tips on treatment.

  • If an underlying cause is detected, it should be treated appropriately.
  • Behavioral modification may be required. This may include trying to distract the cat when rippling skin is noted with something like a tap on the back. This may be all that is necessary for some cats. Environmental stresses will need to be reduced for many of these cats. Recommendations include feeding several small meals several times a day on a regular schedule. Providing regular routine play sessions may help. In some cases, there is a specific environmental condition that acts as a trigger, such as excessive noise or a disliked companion cat. If this trigger can be identified, redirection to a more appropriate activity (such as playing or training) before the FSH episode begins can be helpful. Eliminating that environmental cause can also be successful in eliminating or at least controlling the syndrome. Some cats that are rehomed to a new environment experience complete resolution of their symptoms.
  • Pharmaceuticals appropriate for cats with FSH will depend on the individual cat and the individual cause of the disorder, if it can be identified. Potential pharmaceuticals include anti-seizure medications, corticosteroids, pain medications, and anti-anxiety drugs. Some of these drugs can have significant risks and some should not be combined with one another. You should always consult with your veterinarian before beginning any pharmaceutical for your cat. Some over-the-counter remedies can be quite toxic to cats. (Tylenol is a good example.) Always let your veterinarian know what, if any, medications your cat is already receiving when considering adding a new drug to your cat’s routine.

This is a general overview of what we know (and what we don’t know) about feline hyperesthesia syndrome. None of this is meant to relate directly to Lux or Lux’s situation. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Lux and I am not his veterinarian, so I would not presume to try to diagnose or offer treatment suggestions for him. But many readers and even a few clients have asked about the syndrome. So, I hope this helps answer some of the questions you may have about FHS.

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About Lorie Huston, DVM

Lorie Huston is an accomplished veterinarian, an award winning blogger, a talented author and a certified veterinary journalist. She is available for writing assignments, blogging and social media consultation, and SEO strategy.

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