Why Did My Sweet Cat Become a Sour Puss?

Learn how to help a cat with social phobias.

Cat Expert Dr. PlotnickQ: We adopted Buster from the local shelter on New Years Eve. He’s 1½ years old. We picked him because he was so very affectionate, sweet and funny. He reached up with his paws for us to pick him up. He rode on our shoulders until we put him down. He climbed on my chest and hugged my neck and fell asleep. I called him our TV Cat because he acted like the cats on cat food commercials.  

His personality began changing after about 3 weeks he started getting crazy and not wanting to be held at all. We thought that once he was neutered that would change it didn’t. We adopted another cat, Nala, about two months ago, thinking that Buster needed a friend. Nala is a 3-year-old, declawed Ragdoll. She’s very sweet. Unfortunately, Buster terrorizes her. She wants to play with him, but he’s too rough. We constantly have to separate them so Nala can have some peace. He still doesn’t like to be held. 

We love this cat! Occasionally, he reverts back to his original personality affectionate and liking to be held, but it doesn’t last very long. Our vet says he has a clean bill of health.

We have noticed that his tail twitches, or flicks. Is this a symptom of something else going on that causes him to be so crazy? 
A: Tail twitching or flicking is sometimes seen as part of a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome. This is a neurological condition in which cats can show bizarre character changes such as sudden bouts of hyperactive or aggressive behavior; frantic self-directed grooming along the flank or tail; swishing the tail, chasing the tail, attacking their own tail; skin rippling or rolling (hence the name rolling skin disease, which is how this condition is sometimes described); dilated pupils or a strange look to the eyes; extreme sensitivity to being touched along the spine; and sudden mood swings, such as going from extremely affectionate to aggressive. The signs I’ve described are what you might see in extreme cases. It is possible to have a milder degree of this syndrome, and this might be what is going on with Buster. No one knows what causes feline hyperesthesia syndrome, although there is some speculation that the condition arises as a result of some type of seizure activity in the brain. Others believe that the condition could be a form of feline obsessive-compulsive disorder. An inherited tendency has been proposed, since certain breeds (Orientals) are more susceptible to the condition, and stress seems to precipitate it. I don’t know if Buster is an Oriental breed (you didn’t say), but he certainly has stresses in his life, i.e. Nala, his Ragdoll housemate.

Another more likely explanation might have to do with sociability. As Dr. Nick Dodman, the famous animal behaviorist from Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine once told me, there is one aspect of feline personality, referred to as sociability, that some cats have in abundance and others have in short supply. Exactly how cats go from being very social to being somewhat anti-social is often a mystery. His attacking Nala and his unwillingness to be held anymore sounds like something Dr. Dodman has called social phobia. The only way to address this problem is to grant his wish to be left alone but to arrange opportunities for him to approach you and others at his own pace if he so chooses. Forcing the issue or allowing random unsupervised approaches is likely to propagate or even exacerbate his condition.

To achieve this goal you should consider keeping Buster separated from Nala except under carefully controlled conditions. Such conditions might include bringing Nala into Busters quarters but keeping her confined in a carrier so that it poses her no threat and feeding Buster at ever-decreasing distances from Nala while she remains in the carrier.

As far as people are concerned, they should come and sit quietly within Busters vicinity and let him take the lead in terms of seeking your attention and affection. If you wish to expedite Busters progress, you should talk to your veterinarian about using an anti-anxiety medication, such as buspirone (BuSpar®). This medication can sometimes allow cats to overcome their fears and learn, in fairly short order, to appreciate their housemates.

Arnold Plotnick, DVM

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