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Compulsive Behavior

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Identify the Conflict

The first line of attack when treating any anxiety-based disorder is to remove or reduce the source of conflict or anxiety. If this is not possible, then counterconditioning (teaching the cat to perform a behavior that is incompatible with fearful behavior) and desensitization (gradually introducing the cat to the stimulus it fears and coupling this with a positive experience) are the treatments of choice.

Common Eliciting Triggers for Feline Compulsive Behaviors

  • Separation anxiety (owners absence, loss of companion animal)
  • New animal or person in household
  • New environment
  • Restricted access to outdoors
  • Inadequate social or environmental stimulation
  • Early weaning
  • Resolved medical condition
  • Stroking or petting cat on back
  • Loud or high pitched noises

    If the cat sucks on fabric, his access to it should be curtailed by picking up clothing and preventing him from going in rooms where he may suck on bedspreads or curtains. If the cat chews specific items, make these items aversive by coating them with bitter-tasting substances. Remember to provide acceptable alternative items for play and chewing and place them in the area where the cat normally seeks fabric. If the cat suffers from feline hyperesthesia, avoid stroking him along his back as this can trigger attacks.

    Environmental Enrichment

    Provide the cat with plenty of activities that he enjoys. A few ideas include:

    Climbing frames - Many cats enjoy climbing frames that make their environment three-dimensional and allow them to express their natural tendency to climb trees.

    Bird feeders, fish tanks - Placing a bird feeder near a window where the cat can observe the birds may help keep him entertained. Some cats will even watch bird videos. Fish tanks are also entertaining for cats; just be sure to place a cover securely on top of the tank to protect the fish.

    Prey facsimiles - Toys attached to strings, feather wands, and fishing pole toys stimulate predatory behavior. Daily rotation of toys is recommended to keep the cat mentally stimulated.

    Non-toxic grasses - Some cats respond well to fresh catnip or cat grass grown especially for them. Along the same theme, some cats also enjoy lettuce or green beans.

    Novel feeding opportunities - Have several different feeding stations so the cat will have to search for his food. Some cats respond very well to "food puzzles" that they must bat around in order to obtain food. Food puzzles can be purchased in pet supply stores or crafted at home by taking an empty toilet paper roll and punching a number of holes in the tube. Make the holes large enough to release the kibble. Fill the tube with kibble and securely tape the ends to contain the food. The owner may need to show the cat how to roll the tube in order to obtain food. Make several food puzzles, fill with the cat's daily meal, and distribute them around the house. The goal is to keep the cat occupied and mentally stimulated for much of his active time.


    Daily aerobic exercise helps decrease arousal. Spend 10 to 15 minutes twice a day engaged in aerobic, interactive play with your cat. Attach treats or furry toys to string and play "predator" games with the cat. Some cats prefer feather wands. Try several different types of toys and rotate them regularly so the cat does not tire of them. Exercising your cat outdoors on a leash and cat harness may be helpful in some cases.


    Prolonging feeding can be helpful. For example, feeding a high fiber dry food over the course of the day may help redirect the cat from sucking on fabric, or over-grooming, to eating. Food puzzles are a good way to increase a cat's activity level and prolong feeding.


    Having a predictable daily routine helps calm many cats. Regularly scheduled times for feeding, playtime and attention are strongly recommended.

    Attention Withdrawal

    Repetitive behaviors should be ignored if there is any indication that they are being performed to get the owners' attention. This will ensure that the owners are not somehow reinforcing the unwanted behavior. Be forewarned, though, the frequency of the behavior will increase initially as the attention-seeking cat attempts to regain lost attention. It is important to stick with the program - for a while at least. Continued lack of reward (constantly ignoring the behavior) will reduce the performance of the behavior in about three weeks if an attention-seeking component is involved.

    Avoid Discipline and Restraint

    Generally, treatment of over-grooming conditions by physical restraint (Elizabethan collars) is not recommended. Although it may prevent the cat from injuring himself, it does nothing to address the underlying anxiety issues that maintain the behavior. Cats should never be punished for engaging in these behaviors since punishment may actually contribute to the underlying conflict and increase the cat's anxiety.

    Pharmacological Treatment

    Once the behavior becomes engrained, the cat may continue to display compulsive behavior even after the initiating stressors have been removed or attenuated. At this stage, the behavior may not respond to standard behavior modification techniques and management changes alone. Pharmacological intervention, in addition to management changes and behavior modification, is often required in the treatment of feline compulsive behaviors. This is especially true if the environmental triggers cannot be identified and eliminated.
    Compulsive behaviors appear to involve changes in brain neurotransmitters. Serotonin involvement is suspected as instrumental because drugs that inhibit the reuptake of serotonin in the brain are the most helpful for treating compulsive disorders. Medications that inhibit the re-uptake of serotonin appear to normalize brain chemistry, minimize the impact of environmental stressors, and help stabilize the cat's mood. Typically, either clomipramine (Clomicalm®) or fluoxetine (Prozac®) are prescribed. A less anxious cat will be less inclined to engage in a compulsive behavior. Anticonvulsants, such as phenobarbital, are sometimes helpful in the treatment of feline hyperesthesia, possibly because of its partial seizure component.

    Although we cannot always completely eliminate compulsive behaviors, the treatment program outlined above is often effective in reducing compulsive behavior to a more livable level for both cat and owner. To be effective, all phases of the program must be followed simultaneously and consistently. It is often helpful to keep a daily diary of their cat's behavior. This helps to be more accurate in assessing improvement and encourages continued observation and effort on the owner's part.

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