Feline OCD

Cats Perform Actions that Reveal Obsessions and Compulsions

Youve heard of humans with obsessive compulsive disorders (OCDs) – hand-washers, for example, who spend hours each day washing in a precise, predictable ritual. No doubt, you also have heard of individuals who regularly speak of topics in extreme detail and length, without reaching conclusions or self-satisfaction, yet they cannot stop. But cats, too?

Compulsions are visible behaviors that are usually purposeful but conducted in a repetitive, ritualized manner that is so excessive or unrealistic as to extend well beyond their original intent. The conduct provides a release of anxiety, but no pleasure.

Obsessions are covert – recurrent, unproductive, unwanted but unstoppable – thoughts that are evident in humans in how they speak and what they report thinking. Typically, human OCD sufferers perform actions that reveal both obsessions and compulsions, and afflicted cats do too, says Karen Overall, VMD.

An intellectually rich life
Cats dont converse obsessively, and because they dont use human language, some behavioral specialists prefer the name compulsive disorder to OCD. While some claim there is no direct evidence of any cat obsessions, Overall, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, adamantly disagrees. She cites brain-imaging studies of humans that demonstrate specialized activity in certain areas accompanying all thought, and she points out that cats have the exact same brain structures. While imaging studies in cats have not been done yet, Overall is convinced that when they are, researchers will find similar, specific neural activity that accompanies repetitive thoughts.

Overall also explains that when we carefully watch cats staring at things during compulsive behaviors, they appear to be obsessing. We may not know what cats are thinking, but thoughts are occurring, she says. Cats live an intellectually rich life, too. Just as OCD humans exhibit their obsessions through the way they obsess with language, cats exhibit theirs through their grooming, locomotive, or eating behaviors.

Imaginary targets and other attractions
OCD cats that compulsively groom usually lick themselves and then lick and lick some more. Some barber compulsively, by chewing off swaths of hair. Still others pluck and chew, sometimes mutilating flesh, especially around the tail. Because barbering and excessive licking also are signs of allergies, medical reasons must first be ruled out as a cause of the behavior.

Locomotive OCDs involve walking or running motions. Such cats go through regular spates of appearing chased or needing to chase, or of repetitively walking a single path as if they dare not stop. To those that seem compulsively to flee, with no pursuer anywhere in sight, there is no seeming to it: They see an aggressor even though the aggressor is invisible to the rest of us. These cats commonly hiss and swat, either at hallucinated enemies – or at their own tail.

Still other OCD cats will focus on eating compulsively. Commonly, this involves eating non-nutritive substances, a pattern called pica. Cats most frequently target fabrics (cotton, wool, etc.), as in wool-sucking (CatWatch, June 2002). The fabric these cats first attach to usually remains the fabric they continue looking for, says Overall. Certain of these cats also seek plastic; in some, plastic wrap is found in their vomit or feces.

One of the most telltale signs is that other cats in the household snub the OCD cat when he performs the behaviors.

Improving enjoyment of life
Treatment is largely done with medication – clomipramine (Anafranil) – and is started after all other medical causes have been eliminated. It should begin if the quality of the cats life clearly has diminished, such as when he spends more of his life chasing his tail than he does enjoyably playing or grooming, Overall advises. Medication is long-term, most likely for the rest of the cats life. However, with medication, you can expect improvement in OCD cats enjoyment of life.