Tail chasing is an uncommon but recognized compulsive behaviour, as our behaviourist explains...
(Q) I volunteer at an animal centre and our latest cat has developed a habit that has the staff and vet baffl ed. Honey, a two-year-old female, has caused a deep wound by chasing and biting her own tail. A vet examined her and X-rayed it, but found nothing untoward.
Whether Honey is active or resting, her tail is almost constantly moving from side to side, except during sleep. It is possible to touch and hold any part of the tail and around the base with no adverse reaction. Affectionate and playful, she enjoys human company and appears fairly happy and well-adjusted.
Behaviourist Francesca Riccomini advises: This is an uncommon but recognized compulsive behaviour. The motivations underlying this sort of problem are stress, frustration and motivational conflict - all three can underlie the behaviour at the same time or on different occasions.
It is particularly difficult for you without knowing her previous behavioural history. Your vet could always seek advice from a veterinary behaviourist and medication may well be necessary. Although Honey appears sociable and at ease in her new surroundings, it's crucial that you are careful to give her the perception that she is in control of everything.
That means not imposing close contact attention. Instead, simply speak to her and use 'hands-off' play. It's also important to avoid direct eye contact, even if Honey doesn't appear overtly distressed by it. It is vital not to react in any way that will inadvertently reinforce the behaviour, for example by giving her attention or food as a means of stopping a bout of tail chewing, or doing anything that may stress her, like clapping hands to interrupt the biting.
Quietly diverting her into an appropriate action such as a game with a dangly or thrown toy could be useful. Obscure her view from other cats and diminish any scent challenge she might experience from someone touching her after handling another boarder.
It would be a good idea to have the same one or two people looking after Honey so they can adopt a similar and entirely predictable style. Reduce distress imposed inadvertently when the scent profi le of her facilities is changed by giving her two blankets, and only wash one at a time so she always has something familiar.
Honey needs as many hiding places as possible, preferably somewhere high up and dark, to retreat to. Use Feliway if you can. Prevent or reduce the frustration that can develop in young cats constrained by captivity by enriching her environment as much as possible and providing her with a selection of different toys or opportunities to play.
She could have multiple small meals and dry food fed in interesting ways. Make greaseproof paper (or rice paper) parcels with tiny pieces of food treats and dangle them from string, allowing Honey to capture and 'kill' the prize every now and again to reduce rather than increase frustration.