Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Cats

Imagine you're compelled to repeat the same mundane behaviors over and over again. Washing your hands, cleaning the house, repeatedly checking a locked door, color-coding anything and everything; intrusive obsessions and compulsive actions consume you. These intense behaviors are more than mere habits —they're wreaking havoc on your life.

This is what it's like to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, a mental disorder that affects roughly 1 to 3 percent percent of the human population in their lifetime. Now imagine your cat feeling the same way. Yes, cats can have OCD, too.

A cat with OCD is overcome with anxiety. She grooms the same place on her body until it's raw, chases invisible prey, eats fabric and other non-edibles, and runs around the house aimlessly. And because cats cannot articulate the mental anguish they're feeling, it's up to their owners to recognize the signs of the disorder. If your cat suffers from OCD, there are a few things, in addition to veterinary care, that you can do to help alleviate her mental discomfort and ensure she enjoys a quality of life despite the disorder.

Cute tabby cat licks fur
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What is an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Let's face it, cats are mystifying. They have a whole grab bag full of questionable behaviors that may be undesirable to their owners, but are not considered obsessive-compulsive. Among them are climbing the curtains, scratching the furniture, waking us up at 3 a.m., biting the hand that feeds them during play or after petting or grooming, litter box avoidance, and countless others.

But none of these antics qualify as obsessive-compulsive disorder. That is, unless these behaviors become excessive, repetitive, constant, and appear to serve no obvious purpose; known as "stereotypy" in medical speak. (The terms "stereotypes" and "obsessive-compulsive disorders" are often used interchangeably.)

Many people wonder: can animals obsess? Animals like cats, and dogs, too, can perceive concern and anxiety, and yes, they can obsess. If you suspect your cat may be suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, consider the relative intensity of the behavior(s). Is it simply excessive, or has it entered the realm of OCD? The lines are blurred surrounding excessive behavior and obsessive-compulsive behavior — they may be two points on a continuum.

Gray adult cat lies on the floor and licks the paws
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When a cat is confronted with environmental conditions or situations that conflict with his needs, obsessive-compulsive behaviors can become a coping mechanism. And unknowingly, many cat owners reinforce the behaviors by giving their cats attention or food when they exhibit compulsive behaviors, thus rewarding the behavior.

Is there a way of predicting whether your cat will get OCD? While age or gender does not predispose a cat to OCD, some breeds such as the Siamese and other Asian cats are significantly overrepresented in the OCD group and are well-known for repetitive meowing and chewing fabric.

Symptoms of OCD in cats

While OCD is incurable, it's not life-threatening. Your cat can live with OCD, but you must make adjustments to accommodate and lessen the impact of her disorder. Many people know what the symptoms of human OCD are but what does it look like in cats? If you observe any of the following behaviors in your cat, consult with your veterinarian:

  • Pacing or running around the house for no apparent reason.
  • Excessive grooming, such as licking and chewing until the area is bald and the skin is raw.
  • Eating and chewing on fabric and other non-edible items.
  • Chasing, attacking, and self-mutilating the tail.
  • Self-mutilating any part of the body.
  • Hunting, stalking, chasing, and attacking invisible prey.
  • Sucking on wool or other objects, or even a person's skin.
  • Constant meowing, which can start as an attention-getter then morphs into a compulsion. The meows can sound exactly alike, in a repetitive, predictable pattern.
My cat is meowing, she wants something to eat
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Causes of OCD in cats

Aside from a mental disorder, obsessive-compulsive behaviors are an outcome of several environmental factors as well as stress and anxiety. Triggers can be a recent move, or a new member of the human or pet family coming on board, or an old one passing. In multi-cat households, OCD-like behaviors are common because cats are notoriously territorial. Cats silently intimidate each other and to deal with aggression issues, some cats will develop OCD. Also, confinement or isolation can create compulsive behaviors that serve to soothe the cat.

But what may start as a normal behavior can accelerate in intensity when a cat's behavior is reinforced by her owner. Attention and food are perceived as rewards to a cat, which only serve to increase or maybe even exaggerate the unwanted behavior. So what starts out as a normal behavior can turn into a compulsive one by the repeated reinforcement.

Diagnosis of OCD in cats

Diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder in cats begins by ruling out and treating any underlying medical causes with an extensive diagnostic workup. A variety of neurologic diseases, painful conditions, and dermatologic disorders that can cause itchiness and pain mimic the symptoms of OCD. CAT scans and MRI's can be used in the neurologic diagnosis. Cats who self-mutilate or present with psychogenic alopecia could have parasites, allergies, and other skin issues, which dermatologic diagnostics of blood and skin will reveal. Also, medications or diet trials may be used to eliminate food allergies.

Once all possible medical causes are excluded, your observations of your cat's behavior will be evaluated by your vet. and a series of diagnostic tests, including a chemical blood profile, a blood count, and a urinalysis, will be performed. The vet will take your cat's health, history, and behaviors into consideration along with test results aid in the diagnosis of OCD.

Treatment of OCD in cats

When a cat is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, drugs that inhibit the reuptake of serotonin are often effective at either reducing or controlling the symptoms. Your vet will prescribe such drugs if they deem them necessary.

But the key to living with a cat with OCD lies in behavior therapy and environmental modifications depending on which specific compulsion it is. The treatment protocol should include an increase in activities that compete with her repetitive behaviors. And as annoying as cat OCD behaviors can be, never punish or treat a cat harshly. If you're living with an OCD cat, here are a few behavior-modification strategies you can try:

  • Do your best to reduce environmental stress, like loud noises or things that may be startling to a cat.
  • Get your cat on a predictable daily routine.
  • Provide a cozy place for your cat to rest and sleep.
  • Interact more with your cat and play with her; it's a bonding experience and a wonderful alternative to her chasing imaginary prey.
  • Who says you can't train a cat? You can! Teaching your cat some basic commands, like to come when called, jump up, or even play fetch, are doable and fun, and compete with many of the OCD behaviors.
  • Play hide-and-seek with tasty treats your cat must actively try to find.
  • Reward and praise her only for desirable behaviors, and ignore the compulsive behaviors even if some seem cute or quirky.
  • Provide a range of stimulating play toys with different textures, shapes, and sizes.
  • Try some interactive games and puzzles that use food. These games keep many cats entertained and happy.
Cat solving pet puzzle
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Although OCD won't just go away, with early diagnosis, veterinary care, and your dedication to making her life as stress-free as possible, your cat can be content and live with a reduced dependence on obsessive-compulsive behaviors.