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Compulsive Behavior

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Feline compulsive behaviors are based on natural behaviors that are somehow frustrated by management practices and/or restrictive environments. Compulsive behaviors may initially be expressed as displacement behaviors. For example, when a cat is torn between responding with aggression or running away, it may displace into a seemingly unrelated behavior, such as self-grooming, as a way of reducing emotional tension. If exposure to the anxiety-provoking stimulus continues, the cat may express the behavior repetitively and, finally, out of context.

In the end-stage condition, even when the behavior has adverse consequences for the cat (i.e. pain), it will continue to engage in the behavior. The level of stimulation required to trigger the behavior decreases over time so that the behavior occurs in response to any level of arousal. Certain breeds seem prone to compulsive disorders, so genetic influences are likely involved. Genetics may determine which individuals display compulsive behaviors and what those compulsions are.

The most common compulsive behaviors exhibited by cats include wool sucking (or fabric eating), over-grooming/hair-barbering or hair-pulling (psychogenic alopecia), and feline hyperesthesia. Oral behaviors such as wool sucking and psychogenic alopecia are the most prevalent feline compulsive disorders.

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