Alternative treatments for a self-chewing cat
January 29, 2004 10:04 AM   Subscribe

My cat has had a little bald patch on his belly all his life. Gradually, over the last two years, he has started chewing at it with increasing vigor; now the bald patch extends over most of his belly, and occasionally he breaks his own skin. The vet has ruled out mites, fleas, and disease, and concluded that my cat is anxious or depressed and needs medication to control his behavior. Googling confirms that this is not as weird it seemed to me, but it seems pretty drastic. Any thoughts, or ideas for alternative treatments?

He's 12 years old; he's the dominant male in a two-cat household (no other pets); he's a 100% indoor cat; eats only dry food.
posted by DenOfSizer to Pets & Animals (21 answers total)
Several years ago, my cat developed the habit of chawing at her fur. She gnawed several bald patches into her coat. The vet seemed at a loss. I insisted that it was an allergic reaction to the flea medication he'd perscribed (he said that was impossible, though later I learned it was a common side effect).

To combat the problem, the vet put my cat on a small dose of Valium for a couple of weeks. Also, I stopped giving her the flea medication. That seemed to do the trick. (Though the Valium made the cat loopy — she had no control over her body for those two weeks, and was always misjudging jumps and running into things.)

We recently put all of our cats back on flea medications, and sure enough: my cat is chewing on herself again and is developing bald patches.

I'm going to ask for more Valium. You might want to check with your vet to see if it's appropriate for your cat.
posted by jdroth at 10:35 AM on January 29, 2004

I hope it's not this. I worry about it for my own cat, who has a few mild symptoms.
posted by agregoli at 10:38 AM on January 29, 2004

It's weird that your vet hasn't discussed testing him for allergies or at least trying different food. Skin problems are often related to allergies. I'd find another vet and seek a second opinion.

jdroth: why are you continuing the same flea meds if she's allergic to it, there are plenty of meds on the market? Why are you treating the symptoms instead of the cause of the problem? And why does your cat need to be on constant flea medications in the first place, rather than just one session where you treat the animals and your house to get rid of the fleas? Sorry, I know you didn't ask about this, but I don't understand why you're trying to stop her from scratching herself rather than trying to stop the cause of the itching in the first place.
posted by biscotti at 10:53 AM on January 29, 2004

We're pretty sure it's not an allergy or medication problem, and the vet has determined that antidepressents are appropriate. I'm looking for an alternative to drugs.
posted by DenOfSizer at 11:30 AM on January 29, 2004

I would suggest getting the cat on a different flea medication and changing foods - I would upgrade the brand of food, and change types completely. For instance, if you're giving him Chicken kibble, change it to Liver, or Tuna, or whatever. Make sure it's not just the Flavor that changes, but the top three ingredients listed on the bag. If you're not feeding the cat high-quality food (i.e. Biljac or Wysong, start now.

And if you have a pet acupuncturist or massage person in your area, I always recommend giving it a shot, if only b/c they often see conditions that a western vet is unable to diagnose and might have some good suggestions.
posted by pomegranate at 11:32 AM on January 29, 2004

My dog obsessively licks a spot on her rear end--not to the point of open sores, but loud, lip smacking butt licks for up to a half an hour at a stretch if you don't interrupt her. No organic cause found. Vet said "some people bite their nails, others smoke. Dogs, sometimes, lick their rears." I imagine its the same for cats.

A trainer recommended "five flower formula" an herbal liquid, which I think is also safe for cats (I don't own cats, so don't quote me on that). An eye-dropper full under my dog's tongue twice a day kept her calm (but not stoned) and she did decrease her obsessive fanny licking. The stuff is expensive though, and since it decreased, but did not END the fanny licking, I opted to stop buying it and instead just tell her to do her licking in another room.
posted by macadamiaranch at 11:47 AM on January 29, 2004

We're pretty sure it's not an allergy or medication problem

Have you tested to make sure? You seem to believe his diagnosis, but not his treatment plan. If you don't trust his diagnosis and treatment plan, find another vet. There is no reason not to put the cat on antidepressants unless they're not going to solve the problem, and while trying alternative methods in conjunction with the antidepressants is probably a good idea, I wouldn't use them instead. in addition to the antidepressants, you could try some interactive toys (more exercise and brain stimulation is almost never a bad idea, and he could be bored or stressed, and giving him more interesting things to do may help), catnip toys (catnip can help cats both relax and be more active) and maybe a cat condo that he can climb around on and hide in. Keep in mind that alternate therapies are not necessarily more benign than traditional, mainstream therapies, nor are they necessarily more effective.

pomegranate is right about good food (although Bil-Jac absolutely does not meet my definition of a good food, it's got by-products as the first ingredient, and no matter what they say about "organs", "by-products" can contain all kinds of ick), it can make a huge difference. Innova, Felidae and Wellness are excellent brands.
posted by biscotti at 11:48 AM on January 29, 2004

Biscotti, I think the true source of my cat's iching problems is that she's psycho. Seriously. She's a bright animal, and I love her, but she's nuts. If she were human, I'd say she was manic-depressive.

I think that the medicine (Program?) just contributes to the problem, and my wife and I do discuss taking her off the stuff from time-to-time. She's only been on it for two months in this round of treatment — from what I understand, it takes several months for the stuff to actually do the job (it keeps fleas from reproducing, but it doesn't actually kill the fleas). She doesn't have a flea problem herself, but her two brothers are infested.

You'll recall from my previous post that I was looking for alternatives to the current medication, though I was wary of it more because I didn't trust my vet.

Anyhow, I'll be following this thread to see what suggestions are offered, DenOfSizer.
posted by jdroth at 11:48 AM on January 29, 2004

We're pretty sure it's not an allergy or medication problem, and the vet has determined that antidepressents are appropriate. I'm looking for an alternative to drugs.

Then make behavioral changes that might influence the cat's mental state, or do things to or with the cat to modify the cat's mental state. You can't do talk therapy with a cat. I don't know from cats, but I'm sure you can find web pages or books that will describe what sorts of behavior changes you can apply to the cat's surroundings and interactions that might help it.

Acupuncture can't hurt, could conceivably help, though no one knows what the practice is really doing. If you've got the dosh, you might as well try it if only to rule it out.

Herbs are drugs, not alternatives to drugs. They are substances you introduce into your cat's body to modify its mental state (in this case), which is to say, drugs. Herbs might be poorly tested and largely unregulated drugs, but herbs and plant extracts are drugs just as surely as THC and penicillin -- both simple extracts from plants and fungi -- are drugs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:03 PM on January 29, 2004

macadamiaranch: that can often be a sign of impacted anal glands or constipation - have you tried feeding canned pumpkin (not pie filling, just plain pumpkin), that can't hurt and might help.
posted by biscotti at 12:09 PM on January 29, 2004

I had a dog that became increasingly anxious in his later years. We had a lot of success with clomipramine (anti-anxiety med, don't know if they'd use the same thing for a cat), for a few years.

This past spring, though, it was like some new circuit opened that we had a lot of trouble closing again. The things that helped the most (aside from increasing his clomipramine) were vitamins. We were giving him B-12 shots (1 cc) a couple of times a week, 400 IUs of E every day (for the antioxidant effects). We also changed his food to Science Diet b/d (brain diet), which specifically addresses some of the antioxidant stuff.
posted by mccreath at 12:19 PM on January 29, 2004

Sorry. Didn't really finish my thought. The B-12 helped TREMENDOUSLY. I don't know how hard it is to give a cat injections. I wouldn't want to try it with my cat. The dog was pretty easy, though. The Science Diet b/d also helped a great deal. Much more than I would have thought. The Vitamin E was harder to gauge. I don't know whether it was all that useful.
posted by mccreath at 12:23 PM on January 29, 2004

My favorite dog of all-time (a scrappy little scottie named Tyrone) essentially developed OCD about gnawing at this one spot above his front paw over the course of the last few years of his life. He'd chew and chew and chew and for god's sake, stop chewing! and chew and chew and chew. When he was diagnosed with cancer, the vet put him on chemo and antidepressants. I'm assuming it was the antidepressants, but the chewing stopped. (And then, eventually, so did Tyrone. *sniff*)
posted by scody at 12:36 PM on January 29, 2004

Scody, I LOVE the name Tyrone for a small dog. One more thought - I have a cousin in Chinatown who swears by Bach Flower Essences for her cat. Essentially, the cat was raised in the country and now lives in a small, poorly lit, loud apt. with lots of unusual smells, and was not adjusting well. I can't remember if she just does straight Rescue Remedy, or if she has some formula she makes up herself. I would do some research first though, to make sure it's safe for kitties.
posted by pomegranate at 12:49 PM on January 29, 2004

I have a 12 year old cat who began clawing at her face about six months ago.

What we've discovered is that it's a food allergy to Chicken. It's one of the two most common food allergies for cats (corn is the other). It takes at least three months after last exposure to calm down the allergic reaction, and it's been almost impossible to find a cat food without chicken in it.

Kitties can handle Chlor-trimeton (sp) better then other antihistimines (our vet recommended 1mg to start), and she's doing much better. She was quite stoned for the first few days, but now she seems fine and the hair is back on her little puddin head where it belongs.
posted by answergrape at 1:41 PM on January 29, 2004

I've had good luck calming antsy cats with Comfort Zone. Not cheap, but much better than drugs.
posted by JanetLand at 2:18 PM on January 29, 2004

If you truly think it's psycho-kitty syndrome, we've had success with Feliway (feline hormone spray) and Rescue Remedy.
posted by answergrape at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2004

We've had several cats who were allergic to flea-bites. That's to say, one bite and the poor cat would break out in hives all over. The cats were expert at search-and-destroy but that meant Pansy could wash her poor little butt bald to destroy the fleas. Our very conservative vet, who feels one should annoy the cat as little as possible, suggested we try Frontline briefly to see if that helped. That helped Pansy wonderfully.

(So did giving all the cats old towels as bedding and washing the towels HOT every two days. Boy, will that cut down on the fleas!)

It didn't help Dapper Sam, Pansy's humonga-son. He continued to strop an area of his belly completely bald.... It wasn't until he stopped eating that we found out his problem was a hernia. Yes, he lived.

You might also have the cat tested for Lyme disease. I've had three vets tell me cats don't get it. A fourth vet knew that cats DO get Lyme and was prepared to blood test on the spot---so Cyrano de Velvet, Pansy's other humonga-son is recovering nicely now that he's being treated with amoxicillan. In humans, Lyme can cause everything from weird obsessive behavior to such painful rheumatiz that you can't get out of bed. Velvet could hardly walk and would slap ya if you touched a sore spot and, yes, was washing a spot on HIS belly bald. Now he can walk without falling over, he's back to his original sweet behavior and he's no longer licking himself bald in an odd spot.

I offer only advice to try for cats. Uh, gentlefolk? Dogs and cats are very different. Do a lot of research before you apply a treatment for a dog to a cat and vice-versa.

Hope you can find out what your cat's problem is, DenOfSizer. I'm also worried that it only eats dry food. Cats need a lot of variety to be healthy---and a good source of water. Can you tempt it into trying new foods by sharing something you're eating? (No, I'm not going to eat cat food to do this, but I've taught cats that lamb-and-rice catfood is not poisonous by sharing a taste of human lamb with them. Mammals are mammals and they're willing to learn from each other.)
posted by realjanetkagan at 3:13 PM on January 29, 2004

and concluded that my cat is anxious or depressed and needs medication to control his behavior

The last time I heard a vet say that it was a hideous misdiagnosis that caused t r a c y's poor cat to go with untreated heart disease for 3 years. Very typically a cat with an irregular heartbeat will do "neurotic" things such as over grooming. Something to consider. (Sorry if it was mentioned above, I just wanted to post my reaction as quickly as possible, without reading everyone's posts)
posted by zarah at 7:50 PM on January 29, 2004

i always get dragged to the computer when zars finds a cat related thread on this damn site, heh.

a cat who is over grooming and or displaying other behaviours people might dismiss as psycho should be checked for heart disease. if the vet hasn't suggested or done at least an ordinary xray to check the size of your cat's left ventrical, ask them to do so asap. the vast majority of the time over grooming is a sign of untreated hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

my neurotically over grooming cat tygrrr had HCM for years while vet after vet kept telling me i was neurotic, my cat was neurotic, or mistreating him for asthma. eventually the poor boy collapsed and nearly drowned in his own fluids. it cost me thousands of dollars to have him treated at the university of guelph, and even then they only released him to me so he could die at home. save yourself the expense and the agony and rule it out.
posted by t r a c y at 8:04 PM on January 29, 2004

Thanks everyone, you've given me and my bald-bellied beastie some great research topics!
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:47 AM on January 30, 2004

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