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Compulsive Behavior in Cats

Cats who are exposed to stress on an ongoing basis are most susceptible to developing compulsive behaviors. It may begin as tail chasing or becoming fixated on playing with a laser light. In the case of laser light chasing, some cats then develop a behavior of chasing other flickering lights or reflections. This doesn’t mean that using a laser light with your cat will result in compulsive behavior but it’s something to watch for if you have a cat repeatedly exposed to stress, one who might be beginning to show signs of compulsive behavior, or if you exclusively use the laser light toy during playtime.

Books by Pam Johnson-Bennett

Cats and Stress

Cats who are routinely in situations where they are in conflict between running away from a stress trigger or engaging in a confrontation may display compulsive behaviors. If repeatedly put in these conflicted situations, compulsive behaviors may be triggered more quickly and at a lower degree of stress. If untreated, a compulsive behavior can become the cat’s way of dealing with stress and anxiety on a daily basis.

Some signs of compulsive behavior can include:

  • Over-grooming
  • Hair pulling
  • Tail chasing
  • Tail chewing
  • Pica (eating non-food items)


Get a Veterinary Diagnosis

If you think your cat is displaying compulsive behavior or any other troubling behavior, contact your veterinarian. Your cat will need to be examined so an accurate diagnosis can be made. Other underlying medical conditions need to be ruled out before labeling the behavior as compulsive.

Some medical conditions that can cause a cat to display a behavior that looks compulsive may include: Injuries to the tail (cats may display tail chewing or chasing), parasites, spinal pain, skin conditions, and allergies, to name just a few. Seizures may also be misdiagnosed as compulsive behavior.

If your veterinarian determines that your kitty is displaying compulsive behavior, anti-anxiety medication is usually needed to help lower the cat’s stress level. Behavior modification is of the utmost importance when treating a cat with a compulsive behavior disorder. Take a very careful look at your cat’s living situation. The stress levels in the environment must be lowered. If the cat is in a tense multicat environment, make sure there are adequate vertical places for escape such as a cat tree, window perches or other secure locations to help reduce the chances of a physical confrontation. Be sure there are adequate resources for all cats. Does the stressed out cat have to pass through another cat’s area in order to get to the litter box? If so, that’s stressful. Does the stressed out cat always hang back until another cat finished eating? That’s also stressful. Is your home environment chaotic? Have there been changes recently? This is the time to carefully look at the environment from your cat’s point of view.

Alter Your Cat’s Environment

Provide your cat with anxiety-relieving outlets such as engaging in regularly scheduled interactive play sessions. Also, set up activity toys and puzzle feeders and increase the environmental enrichment so kitty has fun things to do while you’re not at home.

Need More Help?

For more information on how to create a more appealing environment for your adult cat, refer to the book Starting From Scratch. This book covers behavior problems in the adult cat.

With compulsive behavior issues, your veterinarian may refer you to a behavior professional such as a veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist, or a certified animal behavior consultant.

Note: Information in this article is not meant as a medical diagnosis. If your cat is displaying a change in behavior, contact your veterinarian.