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.

Smirnoff’s Adopt-iversary

Smirnoff's shelter photo
Smirnoff’s shelter photo

Four years ago today, I went to the Animal Rescue League of Boston and adopted a one-year-old cat named Bolt. I gave him a new name: Smirnoff.

A few months later, I began volunteering. A few years after that, I got a job at Best Friends Animal Society – Los Angeles.

It’s true that adoption changes lives.


Happy Adopt-iversary, Smirnoff!

Smirnoff_5_1

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