Crazy Cat? It Could Be Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome
Remember Lux? The cat whose owners called 911 after he trapped the entire family – including the dog - in a bedroom? (No? Read the full story here!)
Though after their rescue by local law enforcement, Lux was originally taken to a local rescue, his owners decided to give the 22lb Himalayan* 10 ½ lb domestic longhair another chance when TV personality Jackson Galaxy offered to help them on his Animal Planet show “My Cat From Hell.” Well, it’s been about two months since then and the episode finally aired! How’s the feisty feline doing? Was Mr. Galaxy (sounds like muscle man name, doesn’t it?) able to break through to the cat and couple and solve their underlying issues?
While not giving any of the show’s specifics away, Mr. Galaxy told reporters a few days ahead of the show’s air date, "I can say without hesitation that Lux is the most complicated character I think I've ever dealt with… I'm telling you, it will pry your mind open if you're one of those people who said, 'I know what's best for this cat.' You didn't, and you don't....I think it will challenge everyone who watches it in terms of preconceived notions of heroes and villains. This case for me, and for others, turns it on its head. You guys in the public heard (Palmer say) 'Hey, I kicked the cat,' and boom, he was Villain Number One. As the story comes out, you realize his intentions were to save his child, and there's a lot of men or women who, if their primal parental instinct were challenged, well, what would you do? There wasn't a continuing pattern of abuse. Lux liked him plenty, there was no animosity.... It's a very complicated case, and it continues to be.”
Now, we can all see exactly what he was talking about.
Lux’s Troubled Beginning Revealed
When he works with a family, Galaxy says he typically sets up three visits, each two to three weeks apart in order to give families some time to work on the techniques discussed. The episode started with the first visit, as it usually does, with Galaxy asking the owners what the cat’s particular issues are from their perspective. Theresa started from the beginning, explaining that Lux had been raised like her baby. After his mother rejected him at a very young age, she took over bottle feeding him. As Mr. Galaxy commented, this set up a very unusual relationship from the start.
“Anybody who's ever been a bottle mom for a bottle baby cat knows it is a killer commitment. Basically, any bottle baby forms a very complex and intricate relationship with their humans because they don't have their moms, and they don't have their siblings.” (This feline-to-feline socialization is the reason experts recommend kittens not be separated from mother until at least 8 and more ideally 12 to 16 weeks – even though they will have been off milk for awhile by then.) This alone of course, does not fully explain all the strange and sometimes aggressive behavior the couple then went on to describe. Sudden mood swings - one minute he’s a relaxed, happy cat, the next, he’s freaking out!
Jekyll and Hyde: Treating Lux
Knowing the story and Lux’s propensity for aggression, Mr. Galaxy was understandably nervous. When he entered the room, Lux was hiding, eyes wide, ears back, rumbling a growl from behind a large cardboard box; he was clearly frightened and ready to attack. Not a good start. However, as Jackson talked calmly to him you could actually see his eyes return to their normal, non-agitated state and when offered bits of chicken, Lux happily ate them. In just minutes, Lux was a new cat, purring as Galaxy pet him in his lap!
‘Amazing!’ you might think. ‘Jackson Galaxy knows what Lux needs!’ But the experienced cat behaviorist actually hadn’t expected this sudden a switch. In fact, it worried him.
Stumped by the Jeckyl and Hyde routine he wondered - could the problem be medical? "It could be anything from an abscessed tooth to a brain tumor and anything in between," he told the owners. Galaxy arranged for a health screening anticipating a painful condition would be found, but the vet could find no obvious contributing issues.
Maybe Lux was picking up on the fear of his owners? Galaxy had hoped for a solution that kept Lux with his family, but he was running out of theories. Concerned for the couple with their young child, he finally suggested they try rehoming him, on a trial basis, in a family without children. After some tearful consideration, they decided what was most important was the safety of their son and the happiness of Lux. Despite his reputation, feline foster parents Mollie and Jim agreed to take him on.
Happy ending?! Almost. Unfortunately, there was trouble again before long.
All Over Again
Said Mollie, “When we first took in Lux he was a cat with some issues. A particular concern was the fact that he wouldn't play and moved only slowly. But, we kept at our homework and Lux progressed, a step at a time, until finally he was turning a corner for the better, even chasing a string toy. At that time, he really blossomed and was able to get his tension out in a constructive way. We thought we were in the clear. But then came the first outburst, a complete surprise and with no warning. One minute he was a sweet, loving kitty and the next, he was like a wolverine. I've seen many violent cats, mad cats, feral cats, scared cats, cats in pain, and this outburst was like none of them. He continued to lash out over several days.”
Though Lux had been tested before, Galaxy knew there had to be something internal going on. The outbursts were not consistent as you would expect of a behavioral problem. They could come and go at any time and for seemingly no reason at all. It was back to the vet for Lux, but this time, Galaxy wanted a full MRI. Finally! They found it – or rather, they found nothing and so Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome was diagnosed.
Most prevalent in Siamese, Burmese, and Himalayan breeds, hyperesthesia, also known as rolling skin syndrome, refers to an abnormally heightened sensitivity in the skin. However, the syndrome itself extends beyond the physical and is believed to have deeper, psychological origins. Some see it as a sub-set of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, while others see it as a type of a seizure disorder. Regardless, it’s a diagnosis given only after any other possible cause has been ruled out. Symptoms of Feline Hyperesthesia attack include:
- Symptoms began around age 1 to 2
- Twitching of the tail
- Dilated eyes
- Rippling in the skin over the back
- Twitching and muscle spasms
- Biting at the tail, flank and sides
- Aggressive scratching and grooming
- Random running and jumping
- Hallucinations - attacking things that aren’t there
- Vocalizations or hissing at nothing
- In extreme cases, self-mutilation extreme biting and pulling out hair
Cats with FHS may respond with extreme sensitivity to real stimuli (such as nipping at your hands while petting – especially petting right above the tail where cats are naturally more sensitive) and they may perceive internal sensations as having external sources they can bite, run or jump away from. As you might imagine, feeling constantly harassed by a force they can’t get away from can be extremely frustrating for feline sufferers! FHS attacks are also often followed by seizure type behavior.
Since FHS seem to be aggravated by excessive stimulation and environmental stress, it’s recommended that petting in highly sensitive areas be kept to a minimum and that efforts be made to reduce any undue stress. In addition, a vet may prescribe a serontonin-enhancing drug to address stress, an anti-seizure drug to prevent the seizures, or an anti-inflammatory drug to dull sensitivity.
Says Galaxy, “Lux is challenged internally. ... He is physically really challenged. Emotionally challenged. At the end of the day, he was put in this situation that raised that challenge level to red flag. It was a lot of wrong place, wrong time."
Though the specific drug used for Lux was never named, a medication was prescribed for him in addition to the specific handling and care notes Galaxy recommended, and Mollie and Jim agreed to take him on again. Again though, there were setbacks.
Work in Progress
After checking back in with the couple, Galaxy updated followers on his site saying “Unfortunately, as time went on, Lux’s behavior took a turn for the worse. As he was settling in with Mollie and Jim, he would unpredictably snap – in essence, replaying the 911 nightmare I had originally walked in on. It’s heartbreaking for sure to see this scenario play out for a second time. It’s hard to imagine feeling such love for a being who can turn so unpredictably violent. These amazing foster parents never lost sight of the fact that how he acted didn’t define who he is. That said, they were living in fear, and were unable to administer his meds consistently, let alone work a behavioral plan of action,”
Said foster mom Mollie, "I still struggle with the desire to give Lux his forever home. I consider
adoption a lifetime commitment, and to give him up goes against everything I believe, but I truly have faith he is in the best of care now, and what's best for Lux is most important."
For now, Lux has been living in the Cat Hospital of Portland’s “unique and open veterinary space, simulating as close to a home environment as one can get” and has been progressing well. Galaxy says he’s finally responding to the medication and he’s on target with his socialization goals.
Said vet Dr. Amelie Hatfield of the hospital, so far "He has not had any hyperesthesia events… If he relapses, we would try another drug…. He is a very loving cat, and he seeks attention and he head-butts you, and rubs his cheeks on you. He'll stand by you, and he leans on you. He has a lot of very positive qualities and very loving qualities… We are hopeful that once he's proven that he's not going to have any more hyperesthetic events -- which we won't be comfortable with saying until he's had at least six months of medication -- we hope at that point, that we'll find a permanent home with an experienced cat owner that's willing to keep him on his medications and is interested in giving him a loving home.”
Says Galaxy, “Mollie and Jim are still very much a part of Lux’s life. They continue to participate in his ongoing journey towards wellness. All of us, from myself and those involved in the making of My Cat From Hell, to the veterinary angels who have helped us, to his foster parents and Oregon Humane who found those foster parents, are united in his cause. And all of us have to believe that this is a winnable battle... I know that Lux will be a part of my life for many years. I love this cat a lot, and I want everyone else to, too."
Paws crossed for this adorable kitty!
*Though Lux’s original owners told reporters he was a 22 lb Himalayan, vets found he actually weighed just 10 ½ lbs and say he can’t be considered a pedigree. He’s just a beautiful domestic longhair kitty!