How to Tell if Your Cat Is a Normal or Compulsive Groomer

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

psychogenic alopecia in cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Over-grooming in cats, technical name: psychogenic alopecia, is a compulsive condition in which normal feline grooming behavior is taken to the extreme
  • Excessive grooming, unlike normal grooming, results in hair loss and skin damage
  • Psychogenic alopecia often begins as a displacement behavior or coping mechanism for cats who are experiencing chronic stress
  • Before a kitty’s excessive licking is determined to be psychogenic alopecia, other potential medical and environmental causes must be ruled out
  • Treatment for compulsive groomers is focused on stress reduction and environmental enrichment

It’s normal for cats to groom themselves, and in fact, kitties much of their waking hours licking and pulling and raking their fur and skin to remove dirt and debris and keep their coats in good condition.

However, some cats seem to lose the ability to moderate their behavior when it comes to grooming. They take their natural tendency to clean themselves to the next level, turning it into a compulsion. Kitties who excessively lick and groom themselves have a condition known as psychogenic alopecia, which is one of the most common feline compulsive disorders.

How to Tell the Difference Between Normal and Compulsive Grooming

Cats spend about 30 to 40 percent of their day grooming themselves, and much of the remaining time sleeping. That’s why it’s very common for pet parents to be oblivious to the problem until they notice significant hair loss, bald spots, or scabs from over-grooming. It’s also possible you won’t notice the behavior because when you’re at home with kitty because she 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 cats can progress to biting themselves and pulling out clumps of hair. There may be areas of the coat that are chewed down to stubble, and there can also be skin wounds or ulcerations.

In over-grooming situations, hair loss and skin damage will be localized to areas where your cat can reach to lick and chew. Often, it’s the abdomen, flank, back, chest, or the inner legs. There may also be a line of stubble down the back or on the front of the legs that looks a bit like a “buzz cut.”

In addition to excessive licking, there can be classic signs of stress such as hiding, refusing to eat, nervousness, or not using the litterbox consistently.

Psychogenic Alopecia Often Begins as a Displacement Behavior

Excessive grooming in cats often starts as a displacement behavior in response to a change or stressor in their environment. Kitties do best with a daily routine that is predictable and consistent, and minus that, some will begin repetitively performing a specific behavior such as grooming to help reduce the emotional tension they experience.

When a cat licks his fur and skin, calming endorphins are released. If the anxiety-producing situation is ongoing, the cat may perform the displacement behavior over and over until it becomes compulsive or habitual.

The type of stress that triggers excessive licking is typically persistent and is often a combination of cumulative stressors. For example, a new family member, a move to a new house, or even relocating the litterbox can upset the average kitty and trigger displacement behaviors.

Psychogenic alopecia is seen more often in female cats. Excessive grooming can occur at any age but is commonly seen around the time of puberty. And there may be a genetic basis for the disorder since it’s seen primarily in certain purebred cats, especially oriental breeds that tend to have anxious temperaments.

The disorder can also develop in kitties who are hospitalized, boarded, or otherwise deprived of their freedom (i.e., kenneled for an extended period of time). Bored cats often exhibit the behavior, as well as kitties who are frequently stressed or fearful.

Other Potential Causes for Excessive Grooming

It’s important to differentiate psychogenic alopecia from other reasons kitties lick specific areas of their bodies, such as pain or some type of skin condition. There are actually many medical reasons that cause cats to over-groom. If the problem is generalized itching, the licking will be widespread. If there’s a painful area, the licking will be focused on that spot. Where a cat focuses her licking can give clues as to the underlying issue, which can be any number of things, including:

  • Fleas or other parasites
  • Neurologic or chiropractic issues
  • Food or specific ingredient intolerances
  • A reaction to dust, pollen or mold
  • The presence of environmental toxins (e.g., flame-retardants, VOCs, phthalates, scented candles or room sprays or plug-ins, household cleaning chemicals)

Conditions that aren’t skin-related but can cause excessive grooming include cystitis (inflammation of the bladder), hyperthyroidism, and anal sac problems.

Identifying and correcting underlying environmental and 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 Resolve Your Cat’s Compulsive Grooming Behavior

When medical issues have been either ruled out or resolved and you’ve narrowed the problem down to an issue of compulsive 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 litterboxes in the same location and, of course, very clean. Consider investing in an indoor hunting feeder filled with freeze dried morsels you can hide around your house for your cat to discover and help him express natural feline behaviors, like stalking prey.

Provide him with plenty of hiding boxes, access to high perches, and appropriate scratching surfaces. Reduce LED and fluorescent lighting, loud noises and EMFs in a part of your home your cat can retreat to for peace and quiet, whenever necessary.

Most cats enjoy interacting with their humans, so take time every day to be present with your kitty to insure his emotional and social needs are being met. Also be sure to get your cat moving every day with interactive toys like a laser pointer or wand toy. I think many cats today are bored to the point that it’s unhealthy, so it’s important to provide your kitty with options for mental stimulation throughout the day.

Catios (cat patios) and safe time spent outside can also be wonderful for indoor cats because it allows them to experience the natural world. Open the curtains or blinds before you leave for work so he can see outside. Consider installing window perches and playing kitty videos while you’re away.

Brushing your cat’s coat is beneficial for removing loose hair and cutting down on hairballs, and many kitties really enjoy the attention. Talk to an integrative veterinarian about titers, in place of unnecessary vaccines and add in natural stress remedies for anxious cats. I’ve had good success using flower essences, homeopathics and acupuncture with stressed kitties. Also consider feline facial pheromone sprays such as Feliway. CBD oil can be very beneficial for stressed cats, as can catnip, silver vine, and valerian root.

Most importantly, you need to be patient, and please don’t ever punish your cat for over-grooming, as it will only make the situation much worse. Excessive grooming problems take time to resolve, much like any other compulsive behavior. With consistent attention, affection, environmental enrichment, and a dependable daily routine, most kitties are able to conquer psychogenic alopecia, if addressed early enough. They regrow their hair and their quality of life improves within a few months’ time.

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