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Displacement Activities and Stereotypes

An out-of-context or irrelevant response to anxiety is called a displacement behavior. During a social conflict, for example, a harassed cat may be undecided about whether to run from its attacker or to stand and fight. Instead, the cat displays a third, unrelated behavior, such as grooming. This is a normal activity that cats find calming and reassuring. If the displacement behavior becomes a habit and is generalized to any stressful situation, it becomes a stereotypy--a prolonged or repetitive behavior that serves no apparent useful purpose and, in some cases, is actually self-destructive. Stereotypies are sometimes compared to obsessive-compulsive disorders in humans.

Exactly why such normal behaviors become excessive is unknown. One possible explanation is that repetitive actions release endorphins, the molecules produced by the body to alleviate pain or discomfort due to injury or other unpleasant stimuli. An underlying disease or a response to medication can sometimes cause stereotypic behavior. It is also apparent that certain breeds are genetically inclined to exhibit these behaviors. For example, many Siamese cats are predisposed to suck and chew wool.

The cat's owners can actually be the cause of the anxiety that leads to displacement behavior and if the anxiety continues, to stereotypic or compulsive behavior. If the owner's behavior toward the cat is inconsistent and confusing, the cat may experience "approach-avoidance conflict". He wants to solicit petting and attention from the owner, but because of the owner's recent hostile actions (eg., shouting at or punishing the cat unpredictably or repeatedly), he is afraid to do so and so is in a state of conflict. He decides on a grooming session instead.

Most cats briefly groom their flanks or back after a mild upset. When this behavior becomes compulsive, it is called psychogenic alopecia and the targets are generally the lower abdominal region, the backs of the legs, the lower back, and the feet, shoulders, and front legs. In severe cases the cat may actually pluck out large patches of fur causing bald patches. Bouts of excessive licking may be sporadic or continuous and they may occur when the owner is nearby or when the cat is alone. If the owner is present, he should observe the circumstances in which the behavior occurs, how it begins, and when it happens, so that the cat can be distracted at times of risk by encouraging it to engage in other rewarding activities, such as play or feeding.

The cure for this behavior is to determine the source of the stress and to remove it, if possible. In multi-cat households, the interactions between cats can be a source of stress, so look for aggressive behavior between the cats and note how the overgrooming cat is reacting to the others. The troubled cat may need his own space away from the others, at least for part of the day. Some cats are sound-sensitive and should be provided with quiet areas in the house. Tuning the radio to an easy-listening station may help to block out distressing outdoor noise. Time alone with the owner on a regular basis is also very therapeutic. Interactive play (play therapy) with a fishing pole cat toy is excellent for reducing stress (much like jogging is for humans). The play session should be followed by a few minutes of petting or grooming. Make sure the stressed cat has easy access to all of his necessities--food, water, litterboxes, sunny sleeping spots--and doesn't have to brave "enemy territory" to supply his basic needs. Regular diversions in his safe place (eg., toys he has not seen for awhile, a paper grocery bag or a cardboard box to explore) will help to take his mind off his worries.

It may not be possible to provide a stress-free home for the overgrooming cat, but with a little thought and lots of TLC, Kitty may gradually adjust to the household and soon be sporting a lovely new coat.

Manifestations of Stress: Sucking, Chewing, and Eating Disorders

In his book, The Cat Who Cried for Help, Dr. Nicholas Dodman discusses possible causes for these ritualized oral activities and offers solutions. He explains that wool sucking can take many forms including sucking its own or another cat's fur, sucking and kneading soft blankets, or sucking the owner's hair, earlobes, or other body parts. "At its most extreme, the oral activity is directed at all kinds of fabric, including linen, nylon, acrylic, and some plastics, and involves mouthing, chewing, and even ingestion." At this stage the condition is referred to as pica, the eating of inappropriate nonfood items. Some cat owners find that their cat is literally eating them out of house and home.

There are three factors that may explain the development of this behavior:

  1. While pica is common in many breeds, the intelligent and sensitive Siamese, Burmese, and Himalayan breeds all inherit common genes which seem to carry the urge to wool-suck or chew.
  2. Also, premature weaning appears to predispose some cats to this behavior. This may also explain why the Oriental breeds are more likely to exhibit this behavior. The Oriental breeds tend to nurse longer (16 weeks) than their mixed-breed cousins (8-10 weeks), leading to a greater postweaning drive to suckle. However, even a mixed breed kitten that is weaned early will have a strong drive to nurse and may displace that drive into ritualized oral activities.
  3. Stress appears to be a major factor triggering these behaviors as the sucking and chewing activities may not be performed until the cat is well into adulthood. Perhaps it could be compared to thumb-sucking or nail-biting in humans.

Possible solutions for sucking, chewing, and pica problems are as follows:

  • Rule out dental problems, parasites, or other health concerns as being a possible cause for this behavior by taking the cat to your veterinarian for a thorough exam.
  • Be sure that the cat is on an adequate feline diet. A high fiber diet fed free choice can serve to redirect the cat's craving onto a more acceptable target. (If the cat eats too fast, spread the dry food out on a plate.) It is also a good idea to add roughage to the cat's diet by growing an inside garden for Kitty of chives, catnip, or plain grass. Vegetables and even popcorn can provide him with the "crunch" he craves. The C.E.T. FORTE Chews sold at veterinary clinics for oral hygiene purposes are very popular with most cats and they also provide good chewing action--while cleaning the cat's teeth.
  • Prohibit the cat from having access to the objects he is inappropriately ingesting. This may mean just keeping clothes and blankets out of the cat's reach or the cat may have to be confined in a "cat-proofed" room with his litterbox, food and water, and toys when direct supervision is not possible. When out of this room, the cat should be continuously monitored (putting a bell on his collar will help determine his whereabouts). If he shows any intention of sucking or chewing an item, startle him with a loud sound (a shaker can--a soda can with pennies in it--works well) and distract him with another enjoyable activity (eg., interactive play).
  • When possible, "booby-trap" the chewing targets. If Kitty is chewing on electric cords, make sure they are not dangling enticingly where he can grab and bite them. Tie them up or place a piece of furniture in front of them. If it isn't possible to get them out of the way, purchase some small plastic tubing from the hardware store, slice open one side, and wrap it around the cords. Next, coat the cord with clear Ivory dishwashing soap. (Ivory can be applied to the cords without the tubing, but it offers protection from electrocution in case the cat still tries to bite the cord.) If the chewing targets are textiles, put them all away except for a few "treated" pieces. They can be rubbed with a distasteful, but harmless, substance such as Tabasco sauce. (Some cats like the taste of Bitter Apple!)
  • Find ways to reduce the cat's stress by scheduling regular interactive play sessions (10-15 minutes long), followed by a petting or grooming session, at least twice a day. Identify any sources of stress (the vacuum cleaner, noisy kids, a resident "bully" cat) and minimize contact with them. This may mean giving Kitty his own quiet room for at least part of the day as well as providing him with plenty of safe and comfortable perches in other parts of the house. More attention from the owner as well as an enriched, cat-friendly environment is always therapeutic.
  • In severe cases these problems have been treated successfully with antiobsessional drugs such as Anafranil and Prozac along with stress reducing environmental modifications.



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