Hyperesthesia is an extreme sensitivity in an area of a cat’s skin, almost always on the back, and often in the area right in front of the tail.
This condition is often noticed when owners go to pet this area and their cat suddenly reacts. The response may be as benign as simply going to scratch the area themselves, or they may become suddenly aggressive and try to bite. Their pupils may become dilated, their skin may ripple, and they may drool. You may notice intensive scratching and digging at that or other spots, and some affected cats may chase their own tails. Some cats may vocalize or urinate. While such a response may be unpleasant, the real problems are the potentially self-mutilating behaviors and, of course, the underlying sensations (i.e. discomfort) that cause this behavior.
While some veterinarians feel that feline hyperesthesia is related to obsessive compulsive disorders, Dr. Alexander de Lahunta, emeritus professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and a renowned pioneer in veterinary neurology, feels it could be representative of a seizure type problem. Siamese cats seem to have a genetic predisposition, so cats showing this disorder should probably not be bred.
To accurately diagnose hyperesthesia, other possible causes for such behavior need to be ruled out. This means looking for any cause of pain in the sensitive area, such as spinal arthritis and skin problems including parasites, allergies, and fungal infections.
Dr. Emma Davies BVSc MSc, associate clinical professor of neurology in the Cornell University Hospital for Animals, emphasizes that underlying causes need to be evaluated. “The most important thing in cats with hyperesthesia is making sure that there is nothing causing the hyperesthesia that we can identify and treat. Cats can have intervertebral disc extrusions and many other disorders that can result in hyperesthesia. If we cannot identify a cause then we can certainly treat it symptomatically. Gabapentin (a drug frequently used to control epileptic seizures) works well, but otherwise it depends where they are hyperesthetic. We have, for example, worked with our anesthesia to perform a local epidural injection in animals with lumbosacral or tail pain.”
Anxiety and stress seem to add to a cat’s hyperesthetic reaction, so a treatment plan will often include some behavioral aspects to minimize these. This might include medications to affect behavior and/or establishing a routine to minimize stress associated with change for your cat. Luckily, most cats can be managed and continue to lead happy, active lives.