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  • Tail Biting In Cats

    Dear Boo:

    I know that you are a busy cat and I appreciate your time to read and perhaps to respond to my predicament. My name is Baxter and I’m a two and a half year old male tabby and not too shabby. My adopted brother Seymour is about a year and a half old. We were both stray kittens taken in by our loving parents and are now indoor cats. Seymour has some issues though.

    When he was a little over a year old he began chasing his tail with more voraciousness than normal. He makes a weird sort of howl noise and it looks like he’s fighting with another animal, although it’s just his tail. These episodes seem to have no rhyme or reason to them. One day however, our Uncle Jon was in our apartment, our parents were gone, and Seymour had a bad tail attack and managed to leave about an inch long gouge in his tail. Needless to say this made a bloody mess all over the apartment as he ran around hissing at his now bleeding tail. Our parents came and rushed him to the hospital. Our Vet was baffled and treated the wound, which she said was almost deep enough to need stitches. There were scabs of other small cuts all up and down the length of his tail as well. She suggested maybe it was fleas and we both got some flea medication. Although, I didn’t think we had hardly any fleas at all. And Seymour would occasionaly continue to growl, chase, and hiss at his tail. Man he’s weird. We get along most of the time and sometimes he cleans me and sometimes I clean him.

    Our parents are good to us, although Seymour sometimes urinates on clothes left on the floor. Our parents think it’s because the litterbox is dirty, I think it’s because he’s trying to teach Dad not to leave clothes on the floor. Seymour did have a freak-out this past spring and ran out the door one day and into the woods. It took six weeks for my parents to catch him. I don’t know if he was on the incredible journey or what, but it was a weird thing for him to do. We recently moved to Chicago and Seymour has continued the tail attack episodes, hardly has any fur on the tip of his tail, a few scabs and he cut himself bad again the other night, enough that he bled-making a mess again of course. I have no idea what he’s doing.

    Is he crazy? Is he mental? I’m the good kitty of course, but if you have any suggestions-I hear you’re pretty street savvy-please let me know. Thanks Boo-

    Baxter Shultz-Harper

    Dear Baxter:

    Thank you for our recent correspondence. Gosh, you’ve got quite the situation on your hands. Your adopted brother Seymour does sound like he has “some issues”.

    As far as Seymour’s tail biting is concerned, there are many different things that can lead to a cat exhibiting this type of behavior. From the standpoint of contributing medical problems, it is always important to rule out fleas, even if they are not found on physical examination, because they certainly can cause this type of behavior to occur. Fleas can spend much of their life cycle off the pet, so just because they are not found on physical examination doesn’t mean they don’t exist in the environment. They are simple to treat and rule out, too, so our doctors always treat any cat with a tail biting condition with a topical flea prescription whether there is any evidence or history of fleas or not. Other medical conditions that can cause tail biting include anal sac problems (ideally a thorough rectal examination under anesthesia needs to be performed to diagnose these real well), masses/cancer, constipation, degenerative joint disease/arthritis (especially if it involves the lower spine), psychomotor epilepsy (a form of “seizure”), and food allergies. Our doctors always do a complete work up on any patient who comes into our hospital with a tail-biting problem. That work-up includes a thorough history and physical examination, blood tests, skin scrapings for external parasites, fecal examination, x-rays (especially of the abdomen and lower spine), and flea treatment, in addition to treating any trauma that the cat has done to the tail. The treatment of the tail itself may involve amputating all or a portion of the tail. Sometimes these cats have to wear those silly “e-collars” around their necks, but we cats hate those and it usually just adds to the already-high stress levels of these tail-biting cats (I know it would mine!) so we don’t use these any longer than we really must.

    In addition to the above medical problems that can cause tail biting, behavioral issues need to be considered. Interactions between you and Seymour need to be considered. Seymour’s relationship with your owners, play, grooming and interactive time all need to be examined. If this is a behavioral issue with little Seymour, it is possible that he can be taught to respond differently in situations that might be anxiety-provoking for him. You seem like a pretty confident cat yourself, Baxter. Maybe Seymour is somehow intimidated by you or something in his environment, even though your owners may not be aware of it. Maybe you and Seymour don’t really get along quite as well as you have taught your owners to believe.

    Tail biting cats are certainly not seen every day around here, but they are not all that uncommon either. Treatment revolves around treating the underlying medical cause, if it can be found. For example, if food allergies are suspected, or need to be ruled out, a special diet needs to be fed for several weeks or more. If arthritis or degenerative joint disease is found (unlikely in a cat as young as Seymour), treatment with anti-inflammatories/pain medication, acupuncture, etc. is instituted. Anti-convulsants can be used if a form of epilepsy is suspected.

    If medical problems are ruled out and a behavior problem is suspected, drug therapy (yes, with human anti-depressant drugs!) combined with behavior therapy can sometimes eliminate, or at least reduce, these tail-biting episodes. Medical and surgical intervention rarely will resolve these tail-biting problems if there are underlying behavioral components that have not been appropriately addressed.

    As far as Seymour’s urinating on the clothes is concerned, oh my goodness! A urinary tract infection/inflammation, or other medical problem, should be ruled out. Also, please encourage your owners to keep your litter boxes extremely clean, as some cats are especially fastidious and fussy about using only the cleanest of boxes. (Would they want to use a toilet that had not been flushed, I ask you, Baxter?). However, the urinating behavior, combined with the tail biting, would make our doctors most suspicious of a behavioral issue that is contributing to both problems.

    Based on the information that you have given in your correspondence, Baxter, it sounds as though your Seymour brother needs a thorough medical work-up, and very possibly a behavioral analysis (at least by your regular veterinarian, and possibly an additional consultation with a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral issues).

    Good luck, Baxter the good kitty, with your adopted brother, Seymour. Sounds like Seymour is a special-needs kind of a guy who just needs to be a bit better understood. I know you want the best for Seymour so that you can have a happy blood-free home.

    Regards,

    Boo

    If you have a question for the Ask Boo column, please feel free to e-mail us at askboo @ cathospitalofchicago.com. Boo will do his best to answer questions submitted.


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