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Excessive Grooming in Cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Excessive grooming in cats, also known as psychogenic alopecia, occurs when normal licking activity becomes obsessive.
  • Psychogenic alopecia often begins as a displacement behavior, which is a coping mechanism for stress. Licking releases endorphins which can help an anxious kitty self-soothe.
  • Symptoms of excessive grooming include licking, biting, chewing, hair loss, skin wounds and ulcerations.
  • Before psychogenic alopecia is diagnosed, other causes of excessive licking must be ruled out. These can include generalized itching, a painful area, fleas, parasites, and neurological problems.
  • Once underlying causes are either ruled out or resolved, treatment for excessive grooming is focused on stress reduction and environmental enrichment.

By Dr. Becker

The medical name for excessive grooming in kitties is psychogenic alopecia. It happens when a cat’s normal licking activity crosses over into an obsessive behavior.

Excessive grooming is one of the most common compulsive disorders in cats.

Excessive Grooming Often Starts as a Displacement Behavior

Psychogenic alopecia often begins as what’s called a displacement behavior.

Cats need their daily routine to be very predictable and consistent. Some kitties, when they feel stressed by a change in their environment, will start performing a behavior like grooming themselves. This is an example of a displacement behavior.

The type of stress that prompts excessive licking tends to be ongoing and is usually a combination of stressors that are cumulative. So… a new family member, a move to a new house, or even the relocation of the litter box can upset the average cat and trigger displacement behaviors.

These displacement behaviors help to reduce emotional tension that the cat is feeling. Licking releases endorphins, so the behavior makes sense in the context of a cat who is trying to soothe himself. If the anxiety-producing situation continues, the cat may continue the displacement behavior repetitively, until it becomes obsessive.

Some Cats are More Prone to the Behavior than Others

Female cats tend to be more prone to psychogenic alopecia than males. The disorder can happen at any age, but is commonly seen about the time of puberty.

There is probably a genetic basis for the condition, because it’s seen primarily in certain purebred cats – primarily the oriental breeds – with generally anxious temperaments.

The disorder can also occur in kitties who are hospitalized, boarded, bored, deprived of their freedom, or who are generally stressed or have a high-strung disposition.

Other Causes of Excessive Grooming

It’s important to differentiate psychogenic alopecia from other reasons kitties will lick areas of their bodies, such as skin issues or pain.

There are lots of medical reasons cats over-groom. If the problem is generalized itching, the licking is usually widespread.

If there’s a painful area, the licking will be focused there. For example, back pain or anal sac impaction will prompt the cat to lick just that particular area. This behavior is also referred to as fur mowing.

Where a cat focuses her licking can give clues to the root problem, which can be any number of things – fleas, a neurologic problem, a chiropractic problem, parasites, food allergies, or a reaction to dust, pollen, or mold.

Conditions that aren’t skin-related but can cause excessive grooming include cystitis, hyperthyroidism, and anal sac problems.

Identifying and correcting underlying medical issues is important before assuming your cat is licking for an emotional reason. If a kitty licks to the point of breaking the skin, infection can occur. The presence of infection will intensify the licking, which can result in an even more serious infection and a vicious cycle develops.

How to Spot Excessive Grooming Behavior

Cats spend about 30 to 40 percent of their day grooming themselves, and much of the remaining time is spent snoozing. So it’s common for pet owners to have no clue there’s a problem until they notice significant hair loss, bald spots, or scabs from over-grooming.

It’s also possible cat owners don’t notice the behavior because when the person is there, the cat feels more comfortable and relaxed and doesn’t need to self-soothe by licking.

Obvious signs of psychogenic alopecia are excessive licking and chewing. More aggressive kitties can resort to biting themselves and pulling out patches of hair.

There may be shafts of hair that are chewed down to stubble, or there could also be skin wounds or ulcerations.

Hair loss and skin damage will be localized to areas of the body where the cat actually can reach to lick and chew. Oftentimes, it’s the abdomen, flank, back, chest, and the inner legs. Often there’ll be a line of stubble down the back or on the front leg that looks a lot like a buzzed haircut.

In addition to excessive licking, there can be other signs of stress, including hiding, refusal to eat, and nervousness. These are all general tip-offs that the behavior could have an emotional rather than a physical root.

But I’ve seen plenty of excessive groomers where the only symptom of stress manifested as the psychogenic alopecia. The kitty appears to be calm, but is just over-grooming.

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Helping a Cat with Psychogenic Alopecia

When all medical causes have been ruled out or resolved and you’ve narrowed the problem down to an issue of obsessive behavioral licking, treatment should be focused on stress reduction and environmental enrichment.

Cats like to eat at the same time every day, so make feeding time very consistent. Keep food bowls and litter boxes in a consistent location and, of course, very clean. Provide your cat with hiding boxes, access to high perches, and appropriate scratching surfaces.

Most kitties enjoy interacting with people, so take time every day to make sure your cat’s emotional needs are being met. You can involve physical activity with an interactive toy like a laser pointer. Brushing your kitty is beneficial for removing hair and cutting down on hairballs, and is quite enjoyable for many cats.

Consider investing in a treat or food-dispensing toy for your cat. You can also think about window perches or even kitty videos to help provide environmental enrichment.

You can talk to your holistic vet about stress remedies for anxious kitties. I’ve had success in treating these kitties with flower essences, homeopathics, and also acupuncture. Consider reducing stress with feline facial pheromone sprays such as Feliway.

Most importantly, you need to be patient, as excessive grooming problems usually take quite some time to resolve. But with consistent attention, affection, and routine, most kitties do get their psychogenic alopecia under control. They re-grow their hair, and their quality of life improves within a few months’ time.