Despite over 30 years working as a vet, I’m not convinced I’ve seen a ‘true’ hyperesthetic cat.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the condition doesn’t exist (I’ve never seen Las Vegas but I’m pretty sure it’s there). I’ve certainly seen cats with sensitive skin that ripples and twitches at the lightest touch, but there’s always been a logical explanation.
But maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse (or the twitch before the cat?).
Let’s start at the beginning by describing what experts explain as hyperesthesia in cats.
What is Hyperesthesia?
The clue is in the word itself. “Hyper” (as in hyped up) meaning too-high or exaggerated, whilst “esthesia” is sensation or touch (as in anaesthetic, where there’s a lack of feeling.) In short, hyperesthesia is an exaggerated response to stimulation. Indeed, experts report that cats can wake from sleep, when no-one touched them, with symptoms of hyperesthesia.
What are the Symptoms of Hyperesthesia?
That extreme sensitivity shows itself in different ways, such as:
- Intense, exaggerated scratching
- Skin rippling or twitching
- ‘Funny turns’ where the cat dashes around for no reason
- Frantic bursts of grooming activity
Throughout these episodes the cat remains conscious and aware of her surroundings.
However, this isn’t ordinary scratching but ‘hyper scratching’. A hyperesthetic cat is to scratching, what a rocket car is to motor vehicles. This is an obsessive scratching, where if you went to hold the cat’s leg still, your arm would jump up and down.
Some cats have episodes that are triggered by being stroked, whereas others it’s as if someone threw a switch and the cat goes from calm to full-on skin twitching or hyper activity.
Now for the Good News
Experts classify hyperesthesia in cats as a neurological condition, in other words it’s a nerve generated problem. However, that’s about the extent of our knowledge, oh, except that it’s generally agreed this is a mild condition, which doesn’t deteriorate, and not a single cat has died from it. Good news all round!
Why Does Hyperesthesia Happen?
Various explanations have been put forward, including that this is a highly localized seizure affecting one tiny part of the brain. The cat remains conscious, but patches of skin get messages to contract and relax in a seizure like way, resulting in bizarre skin twitching.
However, such is the random nature of the condition, that no-one has had an MRI scanner and a cat in the same room when an episode is happening. Thus, the explanation remains a theory and nothing more.
Alternatively, behaviourists argue that hyperesthesia represents an obsessive-compulsive condition. . . but again, the truth is anybody’s guess. Oh, but one interesting point is that hyperesthesia in cats is reportedly more common in the Siamese breed, which could perhaps suggest a genetic component.
If Not Hyperesthesia… Then What is It?
I have seen cats with hugely sensitive skins. You touch them, and the whole skin shudders as if it’s about to be shed in convulsive contractions. But the difference between this and true hyperesthesia is that these cat had sore skin, really sore skin.
Many were suffering from flea allergic dermatitis where the skin’s surface was peppered with tiny scabs. The inflammation and discomfort means of course the cat is going to react when touched. In the same way, you’d go “Ouch” and pull away, if someone touched an open wound on your arm.
Far more highly qualified people than me say that to diagnose true hyperesthesia syndrome you need to eliminate skin disease (such as allergies), parasites (itchy critters such as fleas), painful spinal conditions, and arthritis. This, at least, is something I can agree with the experts on.
In other words, when you remove all the conditions which can cause skin inflammation or sensitivity, only then if the cat has convulsive skin contractions can it be called true hyperesthesia.
Treating Hyperesthesia in Cats
If you suspect your cat is an over-sensitive soul, there are steps you can take to calm her and her twitchy skin. These are:
- Correct any underlying health issues: This means regular anti-parasite treatment and controlling arthritic pain.
- Staged playtimes: Providing mental stimulation and an outlet for energy, but without overexciting your cat.
- Avoiding stress or anxiety: Anxious cats tend to be more reactive than calm ones, which can include shooting across the room at the drop of a hat.
- Avoiding touching sensitive areas: Speaks for itself really. If your cat hates having her paws touched, then don’t wind her up this way.
- Mood altering drugs: Medications such as fluoxetine can help control anxiety and reduce over-sensitivity to what’s going on in the environment.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs: Especially steroids, which have a strong, settling effect on skin irritation.
- Pain relief: Some drugs such as gabapentin are particularly effective at targeting nerve induced pain and are especially appropriate for suspected hyperesthesia.
I can accept the phenomena of hyperesthesia is real and does happen. But in my book it’s a symptom rather than a diagnosis. If your cat is overly sensitive, then look for an underlying cause, such as skin allergies, before jumping to the conclusion she has localised seizures. After all, common things are common. . . and there are a lot of fleas around.
Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS is a veterinarian with 27-years’ experience in practice and a special interest in feline medicine and behaviour. Pippa is housekeeping staff to four highly individual cats that conspire to keep her busy opening doors on demand.