Grey British shortair cat

Feline hyperaesthesia is not a fatal condition.

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Cat hyperaesthesia: symptoms, causes and treatment

By Dr Jo de Klerk, BVetMed (Hons) MScTAH MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

If your cat’s back twitches when you touch it, they could have the unusual and mysterious condition known as feline hyperaesthesia syndrome.

Feline hyperaesthesia syndrome in cats is a rare condition. It is also known as rolling skin disease. Much is unknown about the condition, but it is believed to be linked to seizure-like activity in the brain. It causes brief bursts of strange behaviour that can make it appear that your cat is in extreme pain or having a manic episode. It cannot be predicted or prevented, yet there are some medications that can help to lessen the severity.

What does hyperaesthesia in cats mean exactly?

Hyperaesthesia, by definition, can be broken down into ‘hyper’ and ‘aesthesia’. ‘Hyper’ means an overload or overabundance, and ‘aesthesia’ relates to sensory feelings such as pain. One of the main symptoms of feline hyperaesthesia syndrome seems to be extreme pain and, as such, the name describes that well. The condition appears to be neurological in origin, but there is still much unknown about it.

What are the causes of hyperaesthesia in cats?

The cause of feline hyperaesthesia is unknown. It is believed to be a neurological condition, as epileptic-like signals occur in the brain when symptoms occur. Yet experts agree that there may be an element of a behaviour disorder linked to it as well.

What are the symptoms of hyperaesthesia in cats? 

Symptoms of hyperaesthesia in cats include the appearance of extreme pain, frenzied scratching, self-mutilation, pulling out fur, dilated pupils, increased vocalisation, aggression and frantic running around. Milder cases can have symptoms such as rippling or rolling the skin on the back, or increased grooming. Typically, the symptoms only occur for a few minutes before the cat returns to normal.

How is hyperaesthesia in cats diagnosed?

Hyperaesthesia in cats is diagnosed by ruling out other disorders. There is no specific test that will give a diagnosis of hyperaesthesia. On a visit to the veterinarian, they will want to examine the skin, and perform a urine and a blood test, before coming to the conclusion that your cat has feline hyperaesthesia syndrome.

Does feline hyperaesthesia go away?

Once feline hyperaesthesia has developed, it is a condition for life. Having said that, each episode only lasts a few minutes and, for some cats, episodes only occur a couple of times per year.

Is hyperaesthesia in cats painful?

While a cat might not be experiencing a painful stimulus physically during an episode, the neurological disturbances in the brain will make them feel as if they are in pain or discomfort.

Is feline hyperaesthesia dangerous?

Feline hyperaesthesia is not a fatal condition, and once it has established it does not tend to progress or get worse. Having said that, it can be dangerous if your cat begins obsessively self-mutilating during episodes. This can lead to serious trauma of the skin. Feline hyperaesthesia can also be dangerous to you as an owner, if you do not recognise an episode. Your cat can become aggressive, and cat bites and scratches can cause serious infections.

How do cats get feline hyperaesthesia?

It is unknown how cats get feline hyperaesthesia. Some veterinarians hypothesise that a traumatic event can trigger a behavioural disorder, which in turn triggers feline hyperaesthesia. This seems plausible since anxiety worsens the condition. Yet many cats have no behavioural problems and still develop the condition.

Can cats die from feline hyperaesthesia?

Cats cannot die from feline hyperaesthesia, but they can cause themselves serious trauma during an episode. If this becomes infected, it can lead to further complications.

How long does feline hyperaesthesia last?

In most cases, an episode of feline hyperaesthesia will only last a few minutes before your cat returns to normal.

How do you treat feline hyperaesthesia?

Milder cases may not need to be treated at all. But if you've contacted a veterinarian and they feel your cat requires treatment, there are two types of medications that can help. The first is a drug called amitriptyline. This increases the serotonin in the brain that improves your cat’s mood and decreases anxiety. It also has some affects to reduce neurological pain. The other drug your vet might prescribe is gabapentin. This has anti-seizure properties and therefore can decrease the frequency of the episodes. It is also useful for treating neurological pain. Both are prescription medications and cannot be obtained without a veterinary consultation.

How do you treat feline hyperaesthesia naturally?

There are no natural ways of treating feline hyperaesthesia. Having said that, you might reduce the frequency of episodes by decreasing your cat’s stress. Feline pheromone diffusers and calming sprays can help with this.

Does my cat have hyperaesthesia?

Diagnosis of feline hyperaesthesia is made through exclusion of other medical conditions. It is difficult to know if your cat has hyperaesthesia. A veterinarian will run some tests to rule out other causes of anxiety, skin pain and manic episodes. External parasites, skin infections, stress, bladder infections and thyroid disorders can all cause similar symptoms.

Why does my cat's back twitch when I touch it?

A common symptom of mild feline hyperaesthesia is twitching skin over the back. Under the skin is the cutaneous trunci muscle. This is the muscle that causes skin twitching. Naturally, this muscle is full of sensory nerves, but just because your cat’s skin twitches when you touch it, doesn’t give a definitive diagnosis of feline hyperaesthesia syndrome.

Why is my cat's back twitching?

Under the skin is a muscle called the cutaneous trunci muscle. It is full of nerves and, in a normal cat, twitches when it is stimulated by a sensory trigger. This can be through scratching, petting, or skin irritations. When a cat has feline hyperaesthesia, the nerves in the muscle become hyperactive, and this can cause not only increased stimulation, but pain too. But it is important to note that not every back twitch is caused by the condition.

When should I see a vet?

If your cat is having manic episodes, is pulling out their hair, excessively grooming or scratching, has dilated pupils or seems uncomfortable, you should take them to a vet. It is important to rule out underlying health conditions. Because while feline hyperaesthesia syndrome can be a mild condition that won’t always affect the quality of life of your cat, other similar conditions can be serious, if left untreated.

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