Self-harm in cats is often a displacement activity. This is a complicated topic because even the experts don’t really have a handle on it and it often concerns mental health. In the same way that self-harming in people concerns mental health. I believe that there is a distinct overlap between self-harming in people and in cats. I think we can learn about cat behaviour in this context when observing people.
It seems to me that self-harming in people begins because they are in a difficult or bad situation in which they feel they’ve lost control and they self-harm as a displacement activity or as a means of establishing some sort of control over their lives. Although there are many causes of self-harm people. There is a prevalence of it in young people particularly girls as I understand it. Often it is brought about by stress caused by a range of events and feelings that they have such as self-image, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, anger and pressures at school.
Lack of control
Stress can also often be an underlying factor in domestic cat self-harming. Or perhaps boredom combined with stress. Or living in an environment which is highly unsuited to them. They can’t change their environment and therefore they have no control over it. This is where I see an overlap between cats and people. This lack of control leads to obsessive-compulsive disorders such as over-grooming which leads to barbering of their fur, a form of self-mutilation albeit fairly mild.
Grooming feels good and displaces emotional distress
The underlying reason for over-grooming is because it feels good and therefore it displaces mental distress. That, to me, is the crux of the matter. Important: this assessment is applicable if medical reasons such as ectoparasite irritation or allergy irritation have been eliminated. Over-grooming without physical medical reasons is a form of OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder.
Feline psychogenic alopecia
Over-grooming is sometimes described as feline psychogenic alopecia. The word “psychogenic” means having a psychological origin or, to put it another way, a mental health issue causing alopecia which is baldness.
Birds – feather plucking
In birds, self-mutilation is common in psittacine birds. A study found that these birds self-harmed when they were motivated to do a certain activity but were unable to do it and therefore unable to “dissipate this increased neurologic stimulation”. This to me is a variation on the loss of control over their environment and the need to express natural behaviours. There is a barrier to being able to express natural behaviors leading to mental conflict and acute stress.
Tail-chasing in domestic cats can lead to harming their tail by biting on it. Some cats viciously attack their tails. Playing with their tails deteriorates into self-harm. This is due to stress, a lack of sufficient routine and a lack of stimulation. I sense that the latter is the major reason for this. A cat may lack stimulation from their environment and from their caregiver because it’s sterile and unnatural. The mental pressure builds. They play with their tail and perhaps do the cat crazies occasionally to try and release this mental pressure by self-stimulation. They lose control of this behaviour and it deteriorates into biting their tail and eventually to harming themselves. These are my thoughts. If they are correct then the cure is obvious: to provide an enriched environment where a cat can express their natural desires/behaviours.
VCA Animal Hospitals state that if a cat finds themselves in a situation where they are anxious and in conflict either with other cats or with themselves it may lead to “displacement behaviours such as tail chasing or over-grooming”. Although it is stating the obvious, a cat will bite their tail because it is an obvious part of their anatomy which is accessible to bite. Cats play with their tails for the same reason and biting it is an extension of play. Nibbling the tail in play is fine. Going further to hard bites is not.
Alleviating physical pain
On a side issue, I can recall seeing a fox in my back garden chewing on his paw which had been injured after jumping down from a high place. She was chewing on her paw and injuring herself further because it helped to alleviate the pain. So, in my view, another reason for cats self-harming is to help relieve pain. And in this instance, I am referring to physical pain. The above-mentioned examples are activities which help to reduce mental-pain.
Displacing mental or physical pain
And the reason why self-harming, whether it is deliberate or inadvertent, reduces both physical and mental pain is because it temporarily displaces the pain. In displacing the pain, it removes it. The effect wears off and therefore they restart their compulsive behaviour. It is ‘compulsive’ because it has to be repeated to have the desired effect. In humans they will know that it is incorrect to do this because self-harming is contrary to survival. We don’t know whether cats are aware that self-harming is contrary to their survival; probably not because cats are not, in my view, self-aware or self-conscious.
RELATED: How do cats see us and relate to us?
Ear mite irritation
There is another way that domestic cats can self-harm. Ear mites in the ear canal are highly irritating to a domestic cat. If they are left untreated by their caregiver the cat will scratch their ear to try and alleviate the irritation. Ear mites are ectoparasites which I refer to above. This is a form of self-mutilation arising unintentionally from an effort to alleviate irritation. The cat makes matters worse because in scratching themselves they create a bacterial infection which compounds the health problem.
Interestingly, scratching is also a form of displacement activity because it displaces irritation by creating another form of sensation.
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