African servals, exotic cats as pets

Exotic Cat Care
Hyperesthesia Syndrome – How TJ Lost his Purr, by Nanette McGann
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One day early in 1996, TJ came running to me absolutely wild-eyed. He looked terrified, and he obviously wanted me to comfort him. I held out my arms and embraced him all the while speaking softly. TJ literally SCREAMED (in pain?) as I touched him. He bolted away – only to come running back to me. I tried to hold him; to tell him that all was okay. He screamed again and pulled away. I noticed his skin was rippling as if some underground ocean had invaded his body. He lay down and snapped his jaws at his back feet! I was alarmed and frightened for him.

I loaded him into his carrier and headed for my vet’s office. TJ was sedated and blood was drawn to be checked. Every bone in his body was x-rayed. We had talked about a spinal tap - but in the hurried moments of checking all that could be checked - it was forgotten. All TJ’s test results were normal. Dr. Goldsmith then handed me a copy of a chapter on Hyperesthesia Syndrome out of one of his textbooks. As I read I got a sinking feeling – the author was describing my sweet serval’s recent behavior. But why? Why did this happen to an almost 4 year old happy healthy loving serval? About three months earlier TJ had lost his tail. Originally he only lost the tip - catching it in the medal louvers of the bi-fold closet doors in the cat room. From where the tip of his tail was found - he must have been on his shelf and swished his tail and caught the tip. The louvers had sharp edges and must have sheared off the tip of TJ’s tail.

When this incident happened, I was not at home. Unable to get a plane immediately, I returned home two days later. TJ had been taken to the vet by his kitty sitter. The vet had shaved about six inches of his tail, made a small skin flap and repaired the injury.

Upon my return, I opened the door to the cat room... There was blood everywhere! Kira, the caracal, always the “snarky” cat would not let the vet-tech kitty sitter clean the room. I saw TJ and his now very strange looking tail.... Both cats seemed fine. I hugged my babies and locked them up in their carriers so that I could clean up their room. Before I could complete my clean up, up to my ankles in Clorox, I heard TJ scream. I dried off as best I could and went to check on my boy. I opened his carrier and saw that he had eaten the entire shaved part of his tail! Off we went to the vet’s office. A small amount of the remainder of his tail was shaved and cut for another skin flap and again the injury was repaired.

In a few days things had settled down - but TJ ate the shaved part of his tail AGAIN! My sweet serval with the once long and lovely tail now had only a stump to call his own. The end of his tail finally healed and was covered with fur and TJ seemed okay at last.

TJ was okay until that day three months later when both our worlds changed forever. Looking back, I wish that TJ had not gone to the vet for the first tail repair. I do not believe that I would ever advise shaving the tail of an exotic cat - I learned later that TJ’s “removal” of the shaved part is rather common - something about the nerve endings in the tail .... Hind sight is so great ....

When all of TJ’s tests came back normal, my vet had me put TJ on 10mg of Prozac daily. The problem with anti-anxiety drugs is that they take time to work. I saw no change in TJ for ten days. I spent every moment I could with him. It was a real problem to get him to eat his food - let alone get a pill down him. I was giving him 5mg of Serex (a sort of timed release Valium). My vet had spoken to James Cook, the veterinary neurologist that wrote the Hyperesthesia article he had giving me. Dr Cook wanted TJ off the Prozac and onto Buspar - another anti-anxiety type drug. I obliged. But ten days later I was beside myself - it wasn’t working! At that point I needed medical help for myself AND TJ. My medical doctor - a friend for many years - suggested I put TJ on a small amount of both Prozac and Buspar; stating that they “kicked each other”. So that is what I did. After what seemed like an eternity, TJ seemed to improve. I played with the dosages of both drugs and continued the Serex - though I cut it to about three milligrams daily. The Prozac and Buspar seemed to kill TJ’s appetite so the Serex was needed for that too.

Almost accidentally, I discovered that TJ–who never did like raw meat – his preference was for “brown food” - Zupreem and then Mazuri - actually LOVED rats! I was thrilled that he relished eating the rats because now I could hide his pills in one end or the other of his daily rat! Most days he never noticed they were there.

It took quite a while to get the correct combination of drugs and their amounts for the best results for TJ and gradually things improved.

My life and TJ’s were forever changed because of this “illness”. TJ never purred again. Not ever. Our relationship with regard to touch changed too. I could still take his sweet face in my hands and kiss his nose but never again were there any extended petting sessions. Thankfully, TJ never injured himself with his snapping jaws - but the moments I would watch him snap at his back legs always brought tears to my eyes. And when he appeared to be afraid, I would die a little inside. But things WERE better than they had been. TJ was now about 80% of what he was “before” about 80% of the time. He was having more good moments than bad – he still loved his “snake toy” and would play fetch with me - and he and Kira the caracal truly loved each other....

When TJ had a bad time he liked me to hold him. How I discovered that wrapping him in a heavy quilt allowed me told hold and comfort him - I don’t have a clue - but I did this whenever he wanted to be held. He would calm down and I would fight back the silent tears wondering if I was doing the right thing feeding my baby drugs and allowing him to suffer like this. And there was the guilt - no matter how illogical - I felt what had happened was my fault - didn’t I have a wild animal that should be running free in the jungle living in my house?

When TJ had his good days, I would remind myself that Africa had no “glazed donut trees” or “cappuccino pools” - and a small amount of these were favorites of my sweet boy. I must admit that I probably would not have allowed TJ these inappropriate items had this not happened - but now I felt if they brought a little extra sunshine into his life for a few moments - I’d forget the rules.

Shortly after TJ began on the drugs - he also forgot how to use the litter box. Bless his heart, he never pee-ed on the carpet but only on the linoleum in the cat room. I got out the mop at least twice a day. I finally discovered that he preferred to use an empty litter box. Perhaps the kitty litter bothered his feet? He did poop in the litter box with the litter - so that theory died quickly. When times were good, I’d only have to empty the box without the litter and would not have to lock up the cats in their carriers in the middle of the day or night to mop up the floor and let it dry.

TJ was always such a sweet and gentle serval - it always made me smile when TJ would hiss. Not that he did hiss. Compared to any other serval I knew, the soft, breathy, almost inaudible sound that he made had me believing he needed “hissing lessons”.

As I continued giving TJ the Prozac, Buspar and Serex, I was more and more concerned about their long term effects - but the other option - to end his life - made me thankful for the extended time they were providing for us. I was frustrated in my attempts to find more information about Hyperesthesia Syndrome. I found no one who had ever heard of this in an exotic cat. All I knew was that there was no cure - if you were lucky perhaps you could gain some control over the symptoms - but no cure ....

I believe that TJ’s tail injury started this horror - but the vet said he did not think so – it was something that occasionally happened to otherwise healthy animals - and no one knew why. What I was doing for TJ did help - but really, I knew that it was not enough for either of us.... Then TJ would bring me a toy to throw for him and I would melt and think maybe it wasn’t really so bad.

A little more than eighteen months after all this began - TJ started having more bad days. I begged my vet to see if there was anything new we could try for TJ. I just could not give up. A couple of days later he told me that he had no additional information. I had increased TJ’s meds - he was now getting 20mg of Prozac, 10mg of Buspar and between five and seven milligrams of Serex daily. If he was having an especially bad day, I would give him a little extra Serex – but I was not going to dope my boy into a stupor – that would be no life for him. Things did settle down again in about two weeks. TJ was back to his previous 80% - and so we continued.... However, when I dwelled on TJ’s bad times, I could barely think straight. I would feel so helpless....

Like TJ’s bad times - mine would pass too - at least for a while. TJ would walk around with my flowered caftan covering most of his body - and I would laugh out loud. When things for TJ were good, he could always make me laugh. Like when he would jump over the baby gate at the entrance to the kitchen and lose his hearing! You see, no cats are allowed in my kitchen. They all know it. Mostly, they stay out.... mostly .... When one of the little darlings would go in the kitchen, Mom would start screaming, “No kitchen, NO KITCHEN!!!!” Aftica, serval/caracal cross, would jump back over the baby gate (Kira NEVER went in the kitchen!) to get out before the offender was sent to the cat room. But TJ, once in the kitchen, evidently lost his hearing....He would also forget how to jump over the gate. I would always have to actually go to the kitchen, get TJ’s attention and move the gate so he could get out .... Discipline or enforcing house rules does not work when “the enforcer” is laughing ....

The beginning of the end came about two years after I had increased TJ’s meds. TJ now did not want to come down off his shelf, or come out of his room, or play with his favorite snake toy. I had to coax him to eat. I hoped that this was just another temporary bad time and that he would improve again as he had so many times before. Again, I asked my vet to do some more checking for any new reported treatment that might help. It was not to be. I knew that this was no life for my darling TJ. Any further increase in the drugs that he was currently taking just seemed to make him more unwilling to do anything except lie curled up on his shelf. I tried different dosages of the drugs again to no avail.

I made the decision to end TJ’s suffering in August of 2000. My vet came to the house and I held my darling TJ as his life and pain ended. There was no other decision I could have made at that time. The world’s sweetest serval was gone from my life - but never from my heart. This was the toughest thing I have ever had to do. I suppose the “what-if’s” will haunt me forever...

Shortly after TJ’s death, I heard from two other owners whose servals appeared to be suffering from Hyperesthesia Syndrome. Both cats’ symptoms appeared after an injury to the tail or lower spine. There is a real puzzle here with regard to Hyperesthesia Syndrome in servals. I pray that there will be a solution - the earlier the better - so that other owners and their servals will be able to continue happy and full lives with a minimal amount of this kind of suffering. There have to be better options than those available for TJ.

Many thanks to Nanette McGann for allowing the use of this article on in cooperation with the Feline Conservation Federation. This article is copyrighted 2003 by Nanette McGann, and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.


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© Jessi Clark-White, 2005
Feline Hyperesthesia in an African Serval