Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My 3-year-old cat has been chronically chewing her tail for two years. Initially the vet said the chewing was due to allergies and treated her with steroid injections. Now he says she has so much nerve damage in her tail she has little sensation, only tingling. He said the only option is to remove her tail, because she’ll continue to chew it due to the nerve damage. Please, do you have any other suggestions?
Siouxsie: Although tail chewing can be caused by allergies, this behavior can be a symptom of a few other conditions. Because of the chronic nature and the severity of your cat’s condition, we think you and your vet might look into the possibility of feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS).
Thomas: Hyperesthesia means “abnormally increased sensitivity of the skin.” FHS is more common in Oriental breed cats (Siamese, Abyssinian, and the like) and Oriental breed mixes.
Dahlia: FHS generally manifests itself in cats between the ages of 1 and 4 years.
Siouxsie: Some vets believe feline hyperesthesia syndrome may be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that begins as a reaction to stress and anxiety in the cat’s life.
Thomas: Others believe FHS is a form of seizure disorder because of the symptoms that precede an episode of self-mutilation including hallucinating, yowling, skin rippling, running and jumping, and muscle twitching.
Dahlia: Cats with FHS may show strange behaviors if touched, such as tail chasing or biting at the tail, flank and sides, to the point of self-directed aggression.
Siouxsie: FHS can cause extreme self-mutilation such as biting, licking, chewing, and plucking of the hair, primarily on the back and the tail.
Thomas: This illness is usually a “diagnosis of exclusion,” meaning that your vet has to rule out any other physical illnesses that could cause this behavior. These other illnesses include allergies, skin diseases or external parasites (some cats react very strongly to flea bites, for example), and internal problems like back pain, arthritis, spinal problems, muscle diseases, nutritional deficiencies (particularly the B vitamin thiamine, which is very important to a healthy nervous system), or problems with the thyroid, kidneys or liver.
Dahlia: We don’t know if your vet has tested for any of these other conditions or simply treated your cat’s tail chewing as allergies. If your kitty hasn’t been tested for these conditions, it might be a good idea to do so.
Siouxsie: In any case, because your cat’s tail is now so damaged that her nerve function is compromised, we do think the only viable treatment is to amputate the tail. If you don’t do this, she will continue to chew her tail, and the behavior may even increase because of the constant tingling sensations she feels.
Thomas: Cats generally recover and adapt very well to amputations. They don’t have the same kind of psychological issues humans do when they lose a limb. In fact, your cat will probably be quite relieved to be free of her pain and discomfort.
Siouxsie: Mama knows another cat that lost her tail due to an accident. She’s quite happy and doesn’t mind the absence of her tail at all.
Thomas: In any case, if your cat does have feline hyperesthesia syndrome, it’s possible that the behavior may continue even after the tail is removed.
Dahlia: If this is the case, your vet may choose to treat her symptoms with anti-anxiety drugs such as clomipramine or fluoxetine (Prozac). These medications can reduce the psychological triggers that cause self-mutilation behavior.
Siouxsie: If these medications don’t work, your vet may try anti-seizure drugs like phenobarbitol.
Thomas: The good news is that there are some things you can do at home to help minimize your cat’s self-mutilation. We recommend these steps even if your cat does stop self-mutilating after her tail has been amputated.
Dahlia: First, provide the highest-quality nutrition you can afford. Give her several small meals a day to reduce her food anxiety.
Siouxsie: Take some time each day to have a couple of really good aerobic play sessions with a feather wand or a “thing on a string” toy. Exercise can help to control depression and anxiety because of the endorphins released during exercise. It also helps your cat to use her natural hunting instincts so that they won’t be redirected toward parts of her body such as her tail.
Thomas: Make life more interesting for your cat by spending more quality time with her. Make her environment more cat-friendly by providing a three-dimensional environment with a variety of perches and maybe even a cat tree.
Dahlia: So, Lee, even though it looks as though your cat is going to need to have her tail amputated, we hope we’ve provided you with some ideas for helping her to enjoy her life even more once her condition is under control and she’s no longer feeling that constant discomfort fromher damaged tail. Please let us know how things turn out.