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Compulsive Disorders—Cats


  • Repetitive, relatively constant, exaggerated behavior patterns (often derived from normal behavior, but taken to extreme) with no apparent reason or function; performed to the exclusion of other normal behaviors or to the detriment of the cat
  • Behaviors such as psychological hair loss in which the cat grooms excessively (known as “psychogenic alopecia”), frequently repeated meowing or vocalizing (known as “repetitive vocalization”), compulsive pacing, fabric chewing, or wool sucking may be considered compulsive disorders, when other reasons for the behavior cannot be identified

Signalment/Description of Pet


  • Cats

Breed Predilections

  • Siamese and Burmese, other Asian breeds and crosses are more likely than other cat breeds to demonstrate repetitive vocalization, fabric chewing, and wool sucking

Mean Age and Range

  • Age of onset approximately 24 months (range, 12–49 months)

Predominant Sex

  • Both males and females are affected equally


  • Signs or observed changes are determined by the abnormal behavior itself. A cat may demonstrate one or more abnormal behaviors
  • Psychogenic alopecia—localized, symmetrical hair loss; most commonly involving the skin of the groin, lower abdomen, and inner thigh or back of thighs; appearance of the skin may be normal or may be abnormal, with redness or abrasions from excessive grooming
  • Compulsive pacing
  • Repeated meowing or vocalizing (repetitive vocalization)
  • Fabric chewing and wool sucking—secondary gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting, may develop
  • These behaviors may quickly increase in frequency if they are reinforced with feeding or attention by the owner


  • Unknown
  • Organic or physical causes for the abnormal behavior should be ruled-out before a psychological basis is presumed

Risk Factors

  • Changes in surroundings may lead to abnormal behaviors
  • More commonly reported in indoor cats; may be an artifact of the higher level of attention such pets receive or may be related to the stress of confinement or social isolation


Health Care

  • Reduce environmental stress—increase the predictability of household events by establishing a consistent schedule for feeding, playing, exercise, and social time; eliminate unpredictable events as much as possible; avoid confinement
  • Identify and remove triggers (triggers are situations or things to which the cat reacts, leading to compulsive behavior) for the behavior, if applicable
  • Ignore the behavior as much as possible; distract the cat and initiate acceptable behavior
  • Do not reward the behavior
  • Note details of the time, place, and social environment so that an alternative positive behavior (such as play or feeding) may be scheduled
  • Any punishment for an unwanted behavior associated with the owner’s voice, movement, and touch may increase the unpredictability of the cat’s environment, may increase the cat’s fear or aggressive behavior, and may disrupt the human-animal bond


  • Playing or exercise on a consistent schedule
  • Increase opportunities for social interactions


  • Increase dietary roughage for cats with fabric chewing/sucking behaviors


  • Spay or neuter intact cats for repetitive vocalization

Follow-Up Care

Patient Monitoring

  • Before initiating treatment, record the frequency of abnormal behavior that occurs each week so that progress can be monitored
  • Successful treatment requires a schedule of follow-up examinations
  • Environmental modification program and/or psychologically active medications must be adjusted according to the cat’s response
  • If a medication is not effective after dosage adjustment, another drug may be prescribed

Preventions and Avoidance

  • Create an enriched environment for the cat
  • Do not reward the behavior
  • Ignore the behavior as much as possible

Possible Complications

  • Treatment failure
  • Fabric chewing/wool sucking—gastrointestinal problems, such as vomiting or blockage
  • Irritation or frustration of people in household

Expected Course and Prognosis

  • Realistic expectations must be understood; changing a behavior that has become a habit is very challenging
  • With treatment, prognosis for improvement is good; estimated that two-thirds of pets respond to the client’s satisfaction
  • Immediate treatment improves the prognosis, since the outcome is impacted negatively by prolonged problem duration
  • Immediate control of a long-standing problem is unlikely

Key Points

  • Any cat may develop repetitive, exaggerated behavior patterns that apparently have no reason or function
  • Ignore the behavior as much as possible and avoid rewarding the behavior
  • Abnormal behavior should be evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible to determine if a physical cause exists
  • Treatment may include behavioral modification and psychologically active drugs, if no physical cause is identified
  • Realistic expectations must be understood; changing a behavior that has become a habit is very challenging
  • Immediate treatment improves the prognosis, since the outcome is impacted negatively by prolonged problem duration


Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline, Fifth Edition, Larry P. Tilley and Francis W.K. Smith, Jr. © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.