Here’s the deal: you can’t answer the question in the title in an article on the Internet. The problem is too deep and too complicated to do that. The answer depends upon observing the cat and looking at the conditions under which they behave and the circumstances of their self-mutilation plus medical diagnosis. And yes, some cats do bite their tail to the point where they require veterinary treatment. To do that is illogical which leads me to believe that the major reason why it happens is because of mental health issues. You have to put aside possible physical health issues such as parasites on the tail causing irritation but once those reasons are ticked off, mental health must be the priority. And there is a spectrum of mental health problems in cats from OCD, over-grooming to the point where they become bald, and the self-mutilation of their tail because they bite it so hard that it requires surgery. It goes against the survival of an animal to harm themselves that much, which indicates a fundamental imbalance in their mentality. Cats may play with their tails but they won’t bite hard enough to harm themselves.
I know of someone whose cat damaged the end of its tail so badly that it went all the way to the bone and vet almost had to cut off that segment. Anything you know about this? Any remedies available when cat toys for sucking don’t work? Thanks. – comment from RM
Because veterinarians provide rather vague written answers on this specific topic, I’m going to provide mine. My preferred reason as to why a cat might bite his tail to the point of severe injury is because of a mental health condition which may never be properly analysed. And this may be caused by a predisposition to mental health problems combined with excessive boredom and stress due to neglectful cat caregiving. I would look at those things initially and then progress to the other things that I mentioned below. The treatment will be a structured, stimulating lifestyle and/or perhaps anti-anxiety drugs.
It may be that your cat has a little-known condition which still mystifies the experts called Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome (FHS). If we assume for a moment that it might be FHS there are three theories as to the cause of this condition (1) it’s a behavioural disorder caused by stress or “behavioural displacement”1 (2) a seizure disorder or (3) a syndrome which is caused by a mixture of circumstances including the environment and behavioural issues. I have added two of my own below.
When you search for causes of FHS you do not find clarity. The best book on home veterinary care that I have does not even try and refer to the causes of it. They simply say that the treatment might include anti-seizure medications, steroids or medications that modify behaviour. Those treatments are based on the presupposition that the causes are mental health issues of some sort.
Note: This is an embedded video from another website. Sometimes they are deleted at source or the video is turned into a link which stops it working here. I have no control over this.
Jackson Galaxy advises that you should put on your detective hat and log down when your cat bites his tail. You should videotape the behaviour and take the video to your veterinarian to discuss possible pharmaceutical treatments i.e. drug treatments because this is essentially a mental health issue. In terms of the environment, Jackson Galaxy advises making your home as suitable for a domestic cat as possible which includes catification, Cat TV and HCKE. The first refers to providing access to vertical areas so your cat can express natural behaviour by climbing. The second refers to looking outside of a window as things are taking place outside such as birds feeding and the fourth refers to allowing your cat to behave as naturally as possible. It refers to Hunt, Catch, Kill and Eat. He’s referring to the activities of a domestic and wildcat which are at the core of his or her being. And we need to satisfy those drives which are harder to do if a cat is a full-time indoor cat. In allowing a cat to behave naturally you remove some of the stress which may be behind this mental health disorder.
Pain and discomfort
You might take a commonsense viewpoint as I will in this next paragraph. If a cat is licking and biting a part of their anatomy it indicates that the cat is feeling discomfort such as itching or pain in that area of their anatomy. This leads me very tentatively to the suggestion that a cat biting their tail may have suffered an injury in the spine as the tail is attached to the spine. Specifically, the cat might be feeling pain in the tail or a tingling sensation perhaps due to distal neuropathy (nerve damage at the end of the tail). I am not a veterinarian and I’m just speculating wildly. I feel that I’m entitled to because the reference books are blank. But I’d check out spinal injury as one possibility.
One possibility for discomfort in the tail would be fleas, but, in my experience, fleas don’t tend to live on a cat’s tail. They tend to live at the front end on the shoulders and around the neck. Therefore, I don’t really subscribe to fleas on the tail causing irritation which in turn causes the biting although this may happen from time to time.
To be clear: I’m referring to the cat feeling pain or discomfort in the tail. They bite it to alleviate the discomfort temporarily. We see all animals such as foxes biting an area of their body such as their foot to alleviate pain in that part of the body. I’ve seen a fox gnaw at her foot because she had perhaps broken a bone after jumping down from a fence.
It is distressing to see but animals do this to relieve pain. I believe that the method behind it is a bit like scratching. If your skin itches you scratch the area. If a cat’s tail hurts, she might bite it which stops feeling the pain from the original cause. Of course, you then have to deal with pain caused by the bite and the damage done to the tail because of it. But this doesn’t seem to enter into the minds of companion animals. It’s about seeking an immediate but temporary relief.
Other possible causes
Other possible causes are a genetic inheritance, skin problems, neurological problems (injury?), sensory processing issues and as mentioned above stress. It may be an extension of OCD, for example.
Obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) are certainly a distinct possibility as to why cats bite their tails. OCD is a mental health problem. And my gut feeling is that if a cat bites their tail compulsively and often to the point where they severely injure themselves and the injury requires veterinary treatment such as amputation, the most likely causes a mental health issue. This would be a cat with a severe mental health problem and the point is this: veterinarians know little about feline mental health problems.
If you read the best articles on cats during their tails and the possible cause being mental health, you will not come away satisfied with the answer. They just don’t know and because of that they will probably prescribe some sort of tranquilizing drugs of the kind that doctors prescribed for humans with mental health problems. Anti-anxiety drugs come to mind.
I would suggest, too, that what the cat’s owner can do is to provide a structure to the cat’s day, every day. And that means a lot more input in terms of play and modifying the environment to stimulate the cat and make it more natural for them. I strongly feel that if the owner intelligently improves their cat’s lifestyle, they will see a marked reduction if not the elimination of the self-mutilation of their tail.
Finally, if it is FHS there may be skin rippling which Jackson Galaxy refers to as “back lightning” and/or muscle spasms throughout the body. A cat suffering from the condition might suddenly turn and attack despite being a loving domestic cat. Galaxy says that they may be experiencing hallucinations and they are very sensitive to petting.
Tails treated as toys
Another possibility has occurred to me while writing this. Domestic cats play with their tails as if they don’t belong to them. They can treat their tails as a toy. Snow leopards sometimes hold their tails in their mouths. They do this in my view because it feels nice to do it and they often do it in play. You will see young snow leopards doing it for example. There is no doubt that domestic cats bite their tails in play or chase their tails for the same reason. But I would argue that if a cat bites their tail in play, they do not bite it hard and cause injury. This is because it hurts and if they have sound mental health they will respond to that hurt and not bite hard. I’m back to the original issue of mental health. If a cat has mental health problems they will not respond to self-inflicted pain. It is illogical to not respond. And illogical behaviour indicates mental health problems.
1. Behavioural displacement: the cat “experiences an overwhelming impulse to complete two or more unrelated behaviours simultaneously…” (Wikipedia authors).