Has your cat ever stared intently at a spot above your head, and when you turn to see what he’s looking at, there’s nothing there? Kind of spooky, right? Well, imagine your cat dozing serenely in the sun when, out of the blue, she bolts across the room as if some invisible predator sprang from the shadows. Then she skids to a stop, whips her head around and starts licking frantically at her side. At the same time, you note the fur on her back is rippling as though it’s crawling with snakes all headed in the same direction. Her tail is wagging wildly, her eyes are wide, pupils dilated. You try to catch her and calm her, but she can’t stand you touching her, so she dashes off again. This goes on for several minutes as you scratch your head, wondering what the heck?
What’s happening to your poor, tortured kitty, which we discovered when the above scenario played out on a pet-sit on Vancouver Island recently, is medically referred to as feline hyperesthesia (“hyperesthesia” means “abnormally increased sensitivity of the skin”). More commonly called rolling skin syndrome, or twitchy cat syndrome, it’s real and it’s a mystery. In fact, vets at the Feline Health Center at New York’s Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine call the disorder “bizarre”, since they have no clue what causes it. They do have a few theories, however.
“Some people believe that it belongs to the general obsessive-compulsive group of conditions,” says Alexander de Lahunta, DVM, emeritus professor of anatomy at Cornell. “But I believe it is a seizure disorder.” The good doctor points to the fact that many cats show signs of epileptic seizures right after an episode. But he also doesn’t discount genetics, “since there appears to be an increased risk for this condition in certain breeds — Siamese cats, for example.”
The cat we cared for, a black beauty called Iris, was a Persian, a breed that comes with its own set of hereditary health issues (kidney disease, retinal disorders, heart problems), hyperesthesia not among them, so it was a little unusual. It happened only once while she was in our care, and we stayed out of her way while she was grappling with the worst of it. When she started to settle down, we spoke softly to her and massaged her neck and shoulders gently (some research shows their spines can be super-sensitive, so it’s best not to touch them too much, too long, or over too broad an area of their body — they’ll definitely let you know when to back off!). This worked wonders, and within a few minutes, she was back dozing in the sun as if nothing happened.
If you suspect your feline might be suffering from hyperesthesia, it’s a good idea to see your vet to confirm the diagnosis, or at least rule out other potential causes for this baffling behaviour. Dr. Karen Becker, an integrative wellness veterinarian in Illinois who has written on the subject, fully examines her fur-bearing patients to first eliminate the possibility the symptoms could be the result of a flea allergy, dry, itchy skin, injury or abscess, anal sac disease, organ damage, cancer, hyperthyroidism, seizures, electrical activity in the brain, OCD or simply stress. “Cats with the condition have been found to have lesions in the muscles of their spine,” she says, “and it’s possible the lesions cause or contribute to the sensations and symptoms that are a feature of hyperesthesia.”
Should your cat be positively diagnosed with the condition — through physical exam, blood, skin and hormone tests, x-rays, behavioural history (she suggests videoing your cat during an episode) — Dr. Becker prescribes a few tips to deal with it. “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.”
Iris’s parents did all of the above, and then some. They followed steps Dr. Becker and other vets recommended for ways to reduce the stress in an afflicted cat’s life, such as ensuring a safe and secure place for water, food and litter box, having her own places to climb and sleep, set play times (right down to the feather wand), even adding another companion cat with a calm temperament. What they did not do was medicate Iris, which should be a last resort. Instead, they offer their kitty natural treats like Calming Chews and add anti-anxiety tinctures like Rescue Remedy to her water.
Iris still tears around the house desperately trying to outrun her skin, but not nearly as often as she would if she didn’t have such savvy parents who know how to chase away those invisible predators.