If your cat doesn’t want to be petted, has erratic twitching behavior, and seems really uncomfortable, this unusual condition might be the reason why.
cat sitting upside down on owner's lap
Credit: Uzhursky / Adobe Stock

Feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS) can make petting painful for some cats. It's a tough disease to talk about, though, because it's not well understood and difficult to diagnose. 

"Is it a dermatologic disease? Is it neurologic? Is it psychiatric? Yes," says veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Fla.

What Is Feline Hyperesthesia?

Hyperesthesia in cats, also known as "rolling skin disease" or "twitchy cat syndrome," is an episodic disorder that's often hard for veterinarians to diagnose at first. Neurologist Georgina Barone, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM, indicates that it's "a poorly-understood disorder characterized by myriad clinical signs."

In her research, she adds that "differential diagnoses relate to disorders of the skin, nervous system, musculoskeletal system, and behavioral disorders," adding that cat owners must be made aware that "a significant trial-and-error period may be necessary before the desired clinical response is attained." 

Although FHS in cats usually doesn't occur before age two, at this time there's little conclusive evidence as to when it might appear or why. Barone does suggest that while all cat breeds can be affected, the condition appears more common in Abyssinian, Burmese, Persian, and Siamese cat breeds.

Signs of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome in Cats

Hyperesthesia often starts with itchy skin (most allergies in cats cause itching rather than a runny nose or sneezing). The cat bites the itchy spot and maybe it hurts. Then her tail thrashes. Soon she's associating touching in that spot and her thrashing tail with pain. 

What cat caretakers typically see with FHS, according to Radosta, is a thrashing tail and dilated pupils (mydriasis) that indicate arousal. They may also notice rippling skin. When petted, your cat may startle, jump, or even run away.

Barone outlines other potential symptoms of feline hyperesthesia syndrome, such as: 

  • Excessive grooming
  • Tail chasing
  • Self-mutilation
  • Frantic biting of their feet, flanks, tail, and tail base
  • Increased vocalizing
  • A demonstration of pain when petted
  • Excessive twitching, almost as though they're having a seizure

Your cat might also bite or show other signs of seemingly aggressive behavior, but it's important to keep in mind that she's actually not acting out. Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, is the founder and executive director at Iowa Human-Animal Bond Society (IHABS) and Daily Paws' health and behavior expert. She says this adverse behavior is another symptom that your poor kitty doesn't feel well. 

"Touching a cat during a feline hyperesthesia episode can cause them to react aggressively because they're experiencing so much distress, confusion, and discomfort," she says. "A touch can actually make the symptoms more severe, or just add more confusion to them."

Bergeland's 3 year old domestic shorthair, Bluebell, has FHS, and she's made frequent trips to their family vet, hoping for a solution.

How Long Does a Feline Hyperesthesia Episode Last?

According to Barone, anecdotal evidence suggests that episodes seem to occur more frequently in the morning or later in the evening. Bergeland says it's common for some cats to act very tired or out of it after a really bad episode.  

Feline Hyperesthesia Diagnosis and Treatment Options

If you see these signs, schedule a vet consultation as soon as you can. Radosta says a vet's first step toward a diagnosis is a complete dermatologic workup, including flea allergies (even for indoor cats). Your vet might try a medication trial for itchiness. Neurological and pain examinations are also important diagnostic tools. 

Only when everything else has been ruled out can feline hyperesthesia be suspected, Radosta says. Your veterinarian may need to consult with a veterinary behaviorist to create a treatment plan that includes behavior modification, management, and when appropriate, medication. Barone states the most commonly used prescription programs are flea medications, corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, and anti-anxiety drugs. Currently, there's no cure for FHS or an indication of how long your cat might have the condition.

Additional reporting by Beth Adelman, MS