Living in confined areas and lacking the chance to perform the full range of normal behaviors, some cats develop compulsive behaviors related to natural sexual/reproductive behaviors. Sexual compulsions may arise in neutered and intact cats, in males and in females. Masturbation, copulation with objects or human limbs, and attempts to copulate with unreceptive pets in the household (male or female) are sexual behaviors that may sometimes achieve compulsive proportions.
In the wild, male cats in rut will sometimes copulate with other males when females are not accessible. Females may also attempt to copulate with other females in the absence of males. This is thought to represent an overflowing of sexual activity under conditions of extreme frustration. Neutered cats that repetitively engage in misdirected sexual behaviors may be exhibiting a compulsive disorder.
Sexual compulsions usually take the form of masturbation and copulation with objects and/or human limbs. Masturbation involving the use of inanimate objects is presumed to represent a manifestation of misdirected sexual drive. It is possible that cats that "hump" inanimate objects or people may be showing an effect of erroneous sexual imprinting. This may occur if humans are the only subjects available for the cat to focus his or her attention on during a sexual imprinting period. Cats that have been sexually imprinted on humans, will show a preference for mounting human limbs even when sexually receptive felines are accessible.
Another behavior problem related to sexual/reproductive behavior is pseudo-pregnancy in queens. Queens showing pseudo-pregnancy may exhibit the following behaviors, even though they have not conceived: nesting behavior, adopting an object (toy, garment, shoe, etc.), and direct maternal behavior towards that object. These behaviors may be accompanied by physical signs of a "ghost" pregnancy, such as swollen mammary glands, pseudo-parturition, and lactation.
If the cat showing excess sexual behavior is intact and is not going to be bred, spaying or neutering the cat, if an option, will usually solve the problem.
If a cat intended for breeding has sexually imprinted on humans, the prognosis is poor, but shaping may help focus the cat's attention in a more natural direction. In such cases, the cat should be rewarded for displays of sexual behavior close to other cats, as opposed to humans.
If a cat that has been neutered/spayed displays a misdirected sexual compulsion, getting a cat of the opposite sex may help refocus the cat's attention. In most cases, the new cat will provide an interest if not an outlet for the misbehaving cat's sexual behavior. If this tactic fails, a combination of environmental enrichment plus anti-obsessional medication may provide some respite from the behavior.
Ovariohysterectomy (spay) is recommended for queens that repeatedly show signs of pseudopregnancy.
Clomipramine is a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor that can be used to treat sexual compulsive behaviors. A latent period of up to 4 to 6 weeks should be anticipated for this medication to produce appreciable effects. Treatment should be continued until symptoms disappear. Length of treatment varies between individuals, ranging from 2 months to long term (lifetime). A gradual weaning off regimen (over 2 to 3 weeks) should be used at the conclusion of treatment. Possible side effects include reduced appetite, sedation, social withdrawal, and urinary retention. If unacceptable side effects do occur, the dose of medication should be decreased for a while and later increased as tolerance develops. In some obdurate cases, an alternative treatment may have to be sought.
Fluoxetine is another antidepressant drug that can be used to treat sexual compulsions. The latent period is up to 4 to 6 weeks and treatment varies between individual cases, ranging from 2 months to long term (lifetime). A tapering dose schedule should be used at the conclusion of treatment. Possible side effects include restlessness and reduced appetite. If side effects are observed, the dose should be titrated to minimize such effects until tolerance develops. Alternatively, the medication can be discontinued.
Treatment with progestins can alleviate sexual compulsive behaviors. However, long-term use of progestins is associated with serious systemic complications, such as hypoadrenocorticism (Addison's disease), diabetes mellitus, mammary hyperplasia or even cancer, and endometritis or endometrial hyperplasia. Therefore, treatment with serotonin re-uptake inhibitors is preferential, if they are effective.
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This article was excerpted from the CD entitled "Behavior Problems in Cats – Etiology, Diagnostics and Treatments" by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Professor of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine, © 1998, Trustees of Tufts College. To buy a full copy of the CD, contact