Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Compulsive Cats

Environment, stress, emotional conflicts, genetics and medical conditions can lie at the root of compulsive behaviors, but sometimes the cause is unknown

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Does your cat pull out his hair by the roots, suck wool or other fabrics or constantly chase shadows or light? He may suffer from a condition called compulsive disorder, similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder in humans. The difference is that cats -- to the best of our knowledge -- don't experience the intrusive thoughts and social factors that contribute to OCD in humans.

Cats with compulsive disorders take normal behaviors, such as grooming themselves, to an extreme. The behavior starts out normally and then becomes faster or more intense. It can become so excessive that it disrupts a cat's normal activities, sometimes to the point that he stops eating or tries to perform the behavior on other pets in the household.

Repetitive behaviors stress not only the cat performing them, but also the people and other animals who live with them. It's disturbing to have a companion animal who can't interact normally with family members or who suffers physical injury as a result of the compulsive behavior. People worry about their cats' well-being.

Compulsive behaviors are treatable and shouldn't be ignored. Cats can injure themselves by pulling out fur, leaving skin lesions or bare patches, or by ingesting fabric, causing intestinal obstructions. Some cats who suck wool or other materials undergo multiple surgeries throughout their lives to remove obstructions.

"If the cat is expressing compulsive behavior, it's not harmless," says Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D. "It's an indication that the cat is anxious. Compulsive behaviors can arise spontaneously, but a lot of times we see them maintained by exposure to triggers in the environment that increase the cat's anxiety or level of arousal."

Diagnosis begins with a veterinary exam to eliminate possible medical causes, which account for approximately 90 percent of cases. For instance, certain neurologic diseases can cause pain or changes in sensation, causing the cat to attack the area with teeth or claws in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. Other possibilities include skin diseases, allergies or external parasites, such as fleas.

Wool-sucking is a compulsive behavior that may have a genetic basis. It is most often seen in Oriental breeds -- especially Siamese, Burmese and Birmans.

Environmental enrichment is one way to help relieve a cat's stress. Providing tall cat towers or window perches for squirrel and bird viewing, and feeding meals in food puzzles, are some ways to help cats feel happier and more comfortable. Predictable meal- and playtimes help, as well.

When environmental changes improve a cat's compulsive behaviors, it's important to maintain those changes throughout the cat's life.

"Compulsive behaviors don't go away," Dr. Moon-Fanelli says. "There's a genetic component to it that makes some cats more susceptible than others in developing these behaviors."

Anti-anxiety medication may help in some cases by reducing the intensity of compulsive actions so that behavior modification and environmental changes can be successful. Depending on the case, medication may be discontinued after the cat has done well for a time. Other cats may require medication for life.

Be careful about making changes in the life of a compulsive cat. He may do well for years and then revert to compulsive behaviors if his lifestyle changes. Dr. Moon-Fanelli recalls the case of a cat whose severe psychogenic alopecia (compulsive hair pulling) was triggered by her owner going on vacation. The owner enriched the environment and spent more time playing with her pet. With these improvements, the cat's condition remained under control for several years. It resurfaced when the owner added a new cat to the household.

"You have to keep management changes in place for the life of the cat," she says.


Medicated shampoos

work multiple ways

Q: My dog has a skin problem, and the veterinarian recommends using a medicated shampoo. What can you tell me about how these products work? -- via Facebook

A: Medicated shampoos are topical therapies, meaning they are applied to the body. They may be used to remove scaling or crusting; fight parasites, bacteria or fungi; or relieve itchiness.

Depending on your dog's skin problem, a medicated shampoo may have one or more agents, the active ingredients that do the work. Antibacterial agents include benzoyl peroxide, chlorhexidine, triclosan and salicylic acid. They each work in different ways, usually by attacking bacterial cells, destroying plasma membranes or lowering the skin's pH, for instance.

Antifungal shampoos work against dermatophytes -- fungi that can infect skin, hair and nails by colonizing keratin tissues -- and Malassezia, a type of yeast that can overpopulate the skin. Common antifungal ingredients include miconazole and chlorhexidine, both of which can also have antibacterial properties. It's important to have a definitive diagnosis for a fungal infection, because not every agent works against both dermatophytes and yeasts.

Anti-itch shampoos are usually used in combination with other medications to help soothe the itch. They may work by moisturizing dry skin or providing a cooling or tingling sensation. A common type you may have seen is colloidal oatmeal. Its properties include a high concentration of starches, different types of phenols and saponins, all of which work together to give colloidal oatmeal its cleansing, moisturizing, soothing and anti-inflammatory effects.

Dogs with scaly, crusty or greasy skin problems usually need a shampoo that contains antiseborrheic agents such as sulfur, salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Their job is to normalize the skin.

Be sure to ask your veterinarian about possible side effects. Depending on the type of shampoo, these may include dry or irritated skin. Some products may bleach fabric or hair. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Hero dog overcame

torture, helps others

-- A dogue de Bordeaux was named the 2016 American Humane Association's Hero Dog of the Year. He was honored not only for his work helping children with autism learn social skills, but also for surviving torture early in his life when someone cut out his tongue. Now, the first word spoken by many children who were previously nonverbal is his name: "Hooch." The burly, happy French mastiff also acts as a companion to women in shelters who have been victims of domestic abuse. The other seven finalists, all honored for their service, were law enforcement dog Edo, search and rescue dog Kobuk, service dog Gander, military dog Layka, arson dog Judge, hearing dog Hook and therapy dog Mango.

-- A new diagnostic test may help determine the best treatment for dogs with transitional cell carcinoma, the most common type of canine urinary tract cancer. Developed by Matthew Breen, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University, the test detects cancer by measuring different DNA copies to see if they are elevated or reduced from a normal control sample. Depending on the test result, the dog's veterinarian may recommend surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

-- Don't forget to include your dog, cat, bird or other pet in your estate plan. A pet trust -- legal in all 50 states -- allows you to set aside funds for an animal's care, administered by a trustee. Pet trusts can take effect during an owner's lifetime -- if he or she becomes incapacitated or moves into a nursing home, for instance -- or on death. The trustee disburses payments to a designated caregiver on a regular basis. In most cases, a pet trust ends when the pet dies or after 21 years, but pet trusts can be set up for longer periods for animals with long life expectancies, such as parrots or tortoises. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.