Cats That Twitch: Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

The most famous cat in recent news—Lux, the “911 cat”—made headlines back in March when he attacked his family’s baby and held them hostage at their home in Oregon. The family called 911 for rescue, which then leaked to the media. Perhaps because of its sensational nature (whoever heard of a cat holding anyone hostage?), the story went viral. And not long after that, Jackson Galaxy convinced Animal Planet to go back into production for season 5 of My Cat From Hell (even though they had stopped filming) in order to help Lux and broadcast it on TV.

I’m not interested in anyone’s opinion on the family that owned Lux. What interests me is the medical component to the story. Jackson discovered that Lux suffered from a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS). FHS cats, for whatever reason, suffer from twitching that generally results in self-mutilation. It can happen at any time, though is usually exacerbated by stress (such as a baby pulling the cat’s tail). In Lux’s case, the condition is even more rare because he lashes out at those around him instead of himself. Still, what I like about this episode from Jackson, is that it brings to the forefront a condition that most people—even cat owners—have never even heard of.

AmbrosiaOne of the cats at my shelter, Ambrosia, has FHS. She’s a pretty grey & white tabby, about 3.5 years old, and was transferred to Best Friends from a L.A. city shelter almost a year and a half ago. Ambrosia is a sweet cat. She’ll often climb onto your shoulder and rub against you when you open her cage. She can be sassy at times, but then, she’s been living in a cage-like setting for a long time. (A free-roam room or other housing options would be too stressful for her.) Her tail is partially amputated from her having self-mutilated it, but you wouldn’t notice it right away. Otherwise, she looks like a normal cat. Currently, Ambrosia is in one of our newer single cat cages up front. It’s great because she has more space than she used to, but I’d love to see her not in a cage at all. She’s one of the first cats visitors can see, and yet most people walk right on by her.

Ambrosia is a healthy girl, provided she gets her medication. At first, the shelter tried to simply reduce her stress (which helped a lot in reducing episodes), but they finally decided to also do a drug trial. Ambrosia is currently on gabapentin—an anti-seizure medication—and so far, it seems to have made an even bigger improvement on her behavior. This will most likely need to be a life-long medication.

Ambrosia was already one of the longest resident cats when I began working at Best Friends, and she never gets a serious look by visitors. It’s hard to, when there are plenty of sweet, friendly, young cats without any “issues” also available for adoption. Plus, most people have never heard of FHS. Ambrosia needs to be indoor-only, with someone who understands her condition and will take it seriously. So Ambrosia continues to be overlooked time and again.

It is my hope that due to the recent media sensation of Lux the 911 cat, someone might come into the shelter and be open to adopting a cat like Ambrosia. Maybe a few more people will know what FHS is. It is my hope that Ambrosia, and all special needs cats, will find that special someone sometime soon.

If you, or anyone you know, is looking to adopt a special needs cat like Ambrosia, especially if you/they live in the SoCal area, please email alcoholcats@gmail.com

Together, let’s find Ambrosia a home.

#ADOPTAmbrosia

For more on feline hyperesthesia syndrome, click here and here.

Project Dog Zailey

Zailey 01At first glance, Zailey looks like just another middle-aged tan chihuahua. To be fair, her breed is actually quite mixed—she has short legs, but a thin nose; perky ears that flop at the very ends; and a little nub tail that, when it wags, makes her whole butt wiggle. So while she’s definitely not just a chihuahua (perhaps not even a chihuahua at all), animal shelters, particularly in Southern California, tend to say that any small dog that doesn’t look like something else, is a chihuahua mix. And there are more than enough of those to go around.

Zailey is overweight. She has a cataract in one eye. She’s just starting to get a little gray around the muzzle and leans a little when she sits (which means she may have some arthritis). There are plenty of younger, prettier dogs than Zailey up for adoption—even older dogs who look more like a specific breed. Like a lot of small dogs, Zailey takes naps under a blanket, so sometimes the kennel looks like she’s not even there.

Zailey has been with us since August. She rarely gets looked at by visitors. She is my favorite dog at the shelter.

Choosing a Project Dog
The Adoptions Team have what we call “project dogs”. These are dogs that we help train whenever we have down time, or a few spare minutes between projects. The other adoptions staff have big dogs as their project dogs. They’re animals that just need help with some basic obedience, or need that extra stimulation that training provides. Our project dogs don’t necessarily have any major behavioral issues; they’re usually dogs that have been at the shelter a bit longer than most and need some extra attention.

So far, I’ve chosen small dogs to work with. I like them because they’re more cat-sized, and because small dogs often get overlooked in terms of training. It’s my opinion that small dogs need just as much training as a big dog does–in fact, sometimes more. Small breed dogs have their own behavioral quirks (such as lap guarding, clingy-ness, excessive barking, etc.), which plenty of people don’t bother to work on through training. It’s probably one of the reasons why the majority of dog bite incidents are from small dogs—not the big breed dogs one would assume

Zailey came to my attention simply because she was generally ignored. I didn’t know too much about her personality. At the time, we didn’t have a huge population of small dogs, so the pickings were slim. The staff dog trainer also wanted me to work with Zailey, so I agreed to give it a try.

The Training BeginsZailey 02
I ended up choosing a dog who was afraid of the clicker. Great. I tried a softer clicker, which Zailey was still unsure of. She wanted nothing to do with me lifting a treat over her head and trying to get her to sit was going nowhere. Zailey wasn’t a shy dog. She was more unsure than anything. My first thought was that I picked a dog that wasn’t interested in training, or was too old to learn (it’s hard to break stereotypes sometimes).

But I tried to be patient. I took Zailey into a small room, put the soft clicker in my pocket to make it even softer, and (using the dog trainer’s advice), “broke down” the command.

Alright, I thought. If Zailey won’t sit, what will she do? I began to reward her every time she lifted her nose up. She was unsure of my bringing the treat over her head, so if I could get her to start looking up, that would be something. A very tiny something.

She started to do it, looking up at the treat. Awesome. And then she sat.

And then she sat again. It was as if she had always known how to sit. She gave me a look as if to say, Well if that’s what you wanted me to do, why didn’t you just say so?

A couple weeks later, we had a one-on-one session with the trainer.

“She’s not afraid of the soft clicker anymore, and she can do sit,” I said.

“Let’s try down, then.”

The dog trainer put down a blanket, as we were outside in the play yard and Zailey’s a bit of an older lady. I moved the treat down, and Zailey just looked at it. Just move a little, I thought.

“We can break it down. Reward her if she lowers one of her elbows.”

Zailey would not lower an elbow. But she’d crane her neck down a little bit. So I rewarded her for that.

And then she laid down. And again. It amazed me how fast she went from barely understanding what I was asking of her, to acting as if she had known all along.

“Okay,” I said. “I guess she knows lay down now!”

Not Just a Chihuahua (or any dog)
Since then, Zailey has learned how to do “doggie push-ups”. She can sit, lay down, sit back up, and keep going. She heels like a dream on the leash. I barely even need to use a leash, in fact. We’ve been working on “leave it” (which is good, because she’ll eat any little crumb she finds on the ground). In just two short sessions, I can throw a treat toward her or across the floor and she waits patiently for me to give her a different treat. She loves to train.

Zailey also loves to hike. Whenever I (or anyone else) goes to collect her from her kennel, she does a super cute happy dance. She’s so excited to get out and go explore. She is house-trained and appreciates the opportunity to pee outside, too. She joined in on an enrichment hike put together by our awesome volunteers, and little Zailey kept up with all of the big dogs and never once asked to be carried. (The exercise seems to be helping with her joints, too.)

Zailey is my favorite dog at the shelter because she’s a hidden gem. She may get overlooked for a dozen reasons, but she’d make the best companion to someone looking for a quirky, happy little girl. Because that’s what Zailey is, all the time: happy.

She’s also one of the best-trained small dogs we have.

Zailey 03

‘Tis the [Kitten] Season

Kitten - tabbyLos Angeles had a warm winter, which means one thing: an early start to kitten season. The little balls of fur are beginning to find their way into shelters and into our kitten nursery, foreshadowing a long, fur-filled spring and summer.

Perhaps surprisingly, the population with the highest rate of euthanasia in shelters is under-aged kittens (under 8 weeks old). By a lot. The reason for this is that 1) there are a lot of them – unlike owners who keep unneutered or unspayed dogs, owners with unneutered or unspayed cats still allow them to wander outside unsupervised, pretty much guaranteeing unwanted litters of kittens. And 2) under-aged kittens need round-the-clock care (depending on their age) and have fragile immune systems. Most shelters aren’t able to care for them, and often have no or very few foster homes able to care for them, so oftentimes euthanasia is the more humane option.

Thus, having resources to save under-aged kittens is absolutely necessary in order to even come close to being no-kill*.

[*For the purpose of this discussion, I’m considering “no-kill” to mean that at least 90% of animals that enter a shelter make it out alive. We can get into a “no-kill” definition discussion at a later time – it’s an interesting one!.]

The Best Nursery in Town

Best Friends Animal Society – Los Angeles has an on-site kitten nursery, complete with four incubators (for kittens under 1 month old), cages for the slightly older bottle babies, a gruel room for kittens mostly eating on their own, and a Mommy & Me suite for mamma cats and her babies. (By far the easiest kittens to take care of are the ones with their mom. Take care of the mom, and she does all the work with the kittens!)

Kitten - whiteLast year, Best Friends LA rescued over 1500 kittens, and this year, we plan to save 1800. And they’re already pouring in – the last week has seen over 20 kittens, all less than 1 month old. Bottle feeding “incu-babies” (the ones in the incubators) is done every 2 hours, while the slightly older kittens can be fed every 3 hours. The survival rate for kittens less than 2 weeks old (without their mom) is extremely low, even with the best care. But we give them the best chance possible.

The white kitten (pictured – right) was brought in with its three tabby siblings just a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, only one tabby kitten remains, but she is doing well.

What to Do if You Find Kittens

If at all possible, keep the kittens with their mom. If you find kittens outside unattended, their mom might just be out hunting. (Especially if the kittens do not have their eyes open yet, they have a much better chance of survival with their mom, even outside!). Wait to see if the mom comes back, unless it is obvious that the kittens were abandoned by people (say, if you find them in a dumpster), or if the mom is deceased (if you see a female cat nearby that was hit by a car). If it is clear that there is no mom cat, you can try to bottle feed them yourself, or bring them to a no-kill shelter or rescue*. If there is a mom around, you can try to lure the mom cat inside with food and keep her confined to one room with her babies until they are at least 8 weeks old. Or, bring the mom and babies to your local shelter or rescue, if they are able to care for them.

[*This is not to say you should never bring them to a shelter that euthanizes – but be sure to understand whether or not the shelter will euthanize the kittens right away, or whether they have a foster home available or partner with a rescue that can take under-aged kittens. Once you know this information, use your best judgement.]

Kittens, Kittens Everywhere

All cats have it rough in shelters. Their survival rate (making it out of the doors and into a home) is still pretty low (often less than 50%). The best thing you can do, is make sure your cat is spayed or neutered. And of course, adopt your next cat instead of buying from a breeder. In the spring and summer months, there is no shortage of kittens in shelters! Some of the most loving, well-socialized kittens I know come out of the Best Friends LA kitten nursery, because they’ve been handled by many people every day since they were young.

A Tough, but Adorable Job

Sneaking into the kitten nursery to bottle-feed during downtime at the shelter is one of my favorite things to do. It can be difficult at times, since any given kitten may not make it, but it’s worth it to see the ones who do thrive finally make it into a new home!

Did I mention that they need round-the-clock care? You can volunteer at the Best Friends LA kitten nursery any time of day or night. We rely on hundreds of volunteers to keep the babies warm and full! Sign up here >>http://bfla.bestfriends.org/neonatal-kitten-program.html

kitten - black