Cats are the quirkiest animal companions humans can have considering their whimsical disposition. But did you know that there is one strange illness among cats that may not be as directly life-threatening as other illnesses but will definitely make your cat even quirkier?
Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome (FHS) is a rare disease that goes by multiple names – usually after the characteristic of its symptoms.
Its other names include Rolling Skin Disease or Syndrome, Twitch-Skin Syndrome, Rippling-Skin Disease, Twitchy Cat Syndrome, Neuritis, and Atypical Neurodermatitis.
As the names suggest, one common characteristic of FHS or Hyperesthesia is that any kitty that has this affliction experiences skin rippling, rolling, or twitching on its back, particularly the lumbar region. The lumbar area is that back part between the hip bone and the rib-spine or thoracic area. The twitching, rolling, or rippling may sometimes be difficult to spot especially if your kitty is thick-furred.
What makes it an unusual disease is the way the “fit” sets in suddenly. One moment you see your cat lounging lazily on one side; then suddenly – especially if you happen to give it a back rub – its eyes open wide, pupils dilated, and facial expression that is of extreme focus.
Aside from the rippling on its back, you might see its tail twitching and flicking left to right, as if in alarm. It might suddenly stand up then sit on one side; its hind paw scratching – or attempting to scratch its back and tail as if trying to get rid of something nasty on its back.
Think of yourself trying to scratch a nasty itch on your back without a back scratcher – only, the poor kitty goes further. It may hiss and vocalize, and sometimes it salivates, sprays or urinates. The unpleasant sensation, at worst, could drive it to compulsive self-grooming, hair-pulling, and self-mutilation by too much scratching – it can even scratch you in the process.
The sensation seems so difficult for it to process that it suddenly runs and jumps frantically – some even say it is hallucinating by staring and pouncing at something we humans do not see.
The twitching and almost all of the other symptoms happen in a span of 20-30 seconds, then suddenly everything stops and your cat goes back to its normal lounging state.
Veterinarians and other animal health experts have yet to come up with a common set of causes for FHS. In the meantime, a few theories regarding the nature of Hyperesthesia and why it occurs have been proposed.
One of the early theories identify Hyperesthesia as a manifestation of the cat’s obsessive-compulsive behavior, but in the anatomical sense – a form of conflict displacement behavior displayed by the various cells of an inflicted cat’s body.
Although FHS is known to affect cats of various ages and breeds, some vets also describe Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome as some genetically-linked sickness. This is because a lot of cases on Rolling Skin Syndrome involve Oriental cat breeds like Siamese, Burmese, and Himalayan. In addition, the ones reportedly afflicted by this condition are usually mature cats.
The most commonly accepted view on FHS, however, is that it is a form of epileptic seizure. This is probably because of how the cat behaves before and after the “fit” – it is as if the cat just suddenly got switched on and off. Moreover, some of the anti-seizure medication and treatments so far seem to work on cats with FHS.
In addition, Twitchy Cat Syndrome is said to be related to stress. Cats with this affliction whose moments of stress have been reduced are said to have lesser “fits.”
Complications and Danger
Although Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome is a quirky and rare disease for cats, it does not mean that it is harmless.
Because of the uncomfortable effect the fit brings to the cat, felines who have this sickness tend to scratch themselves to injury, pulling so much of their hair to the point of fur loss. If left to its own devices, a kitty with FHS might develop severe lesions as well as secondary infections. Its sudden frantic running and jumping could also cause damage and injury as well as life-threatening accidents.
If FHS is Suspected
As cat parents, it is important for us not to mislabel our cat’s illness. Several of the kitty’s symptoms of Hyperesthesia may be something else – like Flea Allergic Dermatitis, ear mites, dehydration and dry skin or fits of anxiety.
Elimination process may be considered as the first step in treating Rolling Skin Syndrome. Before reporting anything to your vet, do your own symptom elimination process by making sure that your cat is enjoying a regular maintenance of the following:
- Proper diet
Proper cat diet has to be balanced, feline-appropriate, and age-appropriate – meaning it must not contain carbohydrates but high levels of animal protein and moderate levels of animal fat as well as 70% – 80% moisture or water content.
In addition, foods with omega-3 fatty acids are also good for the kitty. Supplements like Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet Cats & Small Breed Dog & Cat Supplement and Hanzi Pets Tru-Krill Antarctic Krill Oil Omega-3 are some omega-3 products you can start with.
Proper diet helps improve your kitty’s skin and coat. It helps to eliminate any skin allergies as well as avoid dehydration and dry and flaky skin.
- Additional Skin and Fur Care
Having proper and regular skin and fur care will also help your kitty eliminate stressors as well as any parasitic factor. Flea preventives would help prevent and do away Flea allergy dermatitis.
- Safe and Secure Food and Water, Napping, and Litter Box Locations
Kitties are highly territorial and very particular with their food and water bowls, napping areas, hiding places, and litter box. Any less than their expectation will already cause them stress. As their parents, we have to know how they like their territories. In addition, these areas should be kept clean and highly comfortable for the cats.
- Interaction Consistency
Consistency in interaction with their hoomans is one of the key factors for a relaxing kitty life. Cats tend to get stressed with humans they barely know who suddenly act too familiar and with close humans who suddenly go out of town.
For parents and family who suddenly spend away from the house for quite some time and come back, it is advisable to get reoriented by creating a regular schedule of spending time with the cat to gradually let the cat “settle” with you once more.
- Proper and Regular routine play for stimulation
Regular routine – such as four hours a day of playing, interacting, and physical, mental, and sensory stimulation for cats help reduce cat stress. This is because the cat’s boredom is reduced, and sudden changes and surprises are avoided.
- Good company
Cats enjoy not only human company but also other animals as well. A good time spent with non-stressful and mild-mannered fellow pet will help the cat reduce its anxiety.
If there are strong indications that your kitty has Hyperesthesia, it is important to gather all the necessary evidence to present to the vet. This includes videos of your cat having the “fit”, recorded observations, pet diaries or journals, and other records that indicate behavioral changes, alterations in routine, medications, diet, and food supplement. This way, it is easy for your vet to track symptoms and eliminate other possible medical problems for your kitty.
The first step in presenting a possible case of Hyperesthesia will be with your vet. The vet will perform various tests including biopsies, X-rays, skin scrapings, and cultures. Every bit of test will be done to eliminate other regular causes of the cat’s symptoms. In return, your vet may recommend some medication as well as supplements to eliminate any further misleads.
Once all the possible leads have been removed and no other particular cause can be identified, your vet may diagnose your feline for Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome and ask for a Vet Neurologist’s input on the case.
A vet neurologist’s diagnosis lies on your kitty’s neurological network and everything in your kitty’s case that may connect it with epileptic seizures. There may be additional testing and observation to rule out any other neurological and motor problems.
Because there is no common and identified cause of FHS, treatment for Rolling Skin Syndrome has been limited to the symptoms as well as complications. Afflicted cats with lesions, for example, will have to undergo medication. Secondary infection will have to be treated with antibiotics.
Medications for anxiety, depression, convulsion, and hyperactivity may also be given; but other forms of treatment may be recommended first. The vet may prescribe an additional diet or food supplements. Some vets even recommend non-orthodox therapy like acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, and massage.
Some parents and vets also recommend catnip. The substance is not only organic but also helps reduce anxiety and stress if applied during fits.
Hyperesthesia is still a newly explored frontier in cat health, so for now, there are no solid steps for preventive measures as well as any commonly known medical prescription drug to counter it. It may be just one weird and quirky disease, but it should not be taken for granted.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that kitties – whether they have Hyperesthesia or not – require environments of love, care, and reduced stress. In return, our feline family will also give us back all the stress reduction that we need.