Overgrooming in cats can occur due to medical or behavioral reasons. However, if your cat does not have a medical condition that necessitates excessive grooming, such as a wound, it may be experiencing psychogenic alopecia. This condition involves spending an abnormal amount of time licking and grooming oneself, leading to sores and hair loss. The primary cause of overgrooming in cats is stress. By identifying and addressing the underlying stressors, as well as incorporating stress-relieving activities and pheromones into your cat’s routine, you can help them overcome this behavior.
The Purpose of Cats’ Grooming Behavior Cats groom themselves frequently, and this behavior serves several purposes. When a cat licks itself, the brain releases endorphins, which are natural “feel good” neurotransmitters. These endorphins create a comforting sensation during self-grooming. Therefore, if a cat is experiencing stress, it may turn to excessive grooming as a means of self-calming.
Owners often mention that they rarely witness their cats engaging in prolonged grooming sessions. This is likely because cats feel more secure and at ease when their owners are present, reducing the need for self-soothing through grooming. However, when left alone, cats may experience discomfort and resort to overgrooming. It is important not to punish your cat if you catch them overgrooming, as this can only exacerbate their stress and worsen the problem.
Common Causes of Overgrooming
Psychogenic alopecia, the main cause of overgrooming in cats, typically stems from chronic stress resulting from a combination of factors. These stressors may include significant changes in the cat’s routine or environment, such as the absence of a family member due to death, divorce, longer work hours, vacation, or departure for college. Other factors contributing to stress-related overgrooming include:
- Introduction of a new pet or family member
- Relocation to a new home or apartment
- Furniture rearrangement
- Changing the location of the litter box
- Lack of environmental enrichment
- Living in a chaotic household
It is worth noting that some cats may overgroom due to medical reasons. If your cat is experiencing itchiness, they may excessively groom themselves in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort. Allergies to food, fleas, or environmental elements can cause such itching. Consider any recent dietary or environmental changes that could be contributing to this behavior. If you suspect an allergy, consult a specialized veterinary dermatologist to determine the underlying cause.
Recognizing the Signs If your cat is overgrooming, you may notice a distinctive line or patch of very short stubble resembling a buzz-cut. This can occur anywhere on the cat’s body, but it is commonly observed on forelegs, inner thighs, or the belly. In severe cases, the skin underneath the fur may become damaged, appearing red or sore.
To effectively address overgrooming, it is essential to consult a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions and confirm the diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia. In the meantime, try to identify the sources of anxiety or stress for your cat. If you can pinpoint the cause and eliminate it, the overgrooming behavior may gradually diminish. Additionally, consider the following tips to help alleviate your cat’s anxiety and reduce overgrooming:
- If your cat becomes stressed when someone is absent, ask that person to leave behind an unwashed shirt or blanket in a sealed ziplock bag. The scent can provide comfort to your distressed feline.
- Introduce a new cat slowly to minimize stress for both animals. Even confident cats may experience hidden stress, which can manifest as excessive grooming.
- Engage your cat in play therapy, as it serves as a great stress reliever. Interactive games that boost self-confidence and associate positive experiences with the new house, pet, or person are particularly beneficial.
- Consider using a spray or plug-in pheromone product like Feliway, which mimics the natural scent produced by cats. This synthetic-pheromone product has a calming effect and can be sprayed or rubbed on objects.
During a veterinary visit, the doctor will investigate any potential medical causes for the overgrooming, such as allergies, flea infestation, skin mites, ringworm, bacterial or fungal infections, or metabolic conditions like hyperthyroidism. The vet may conduct skin biopsies, lab work, and a comprehensive physical examination to make an accurate diagnosis. Treatment options will vary depending on the vet’s findings.
In cases where a medical condition is not diagnosed, anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a veterinarian may be necessary to break the cycle of excessive licking. Such medications are typically used for a specific period to help the cat cope with stress. Always follow your veterinarian’s instructions if your cat is prescribed any anti-anxiety medication. It is important to note that both medication and behavior training require time and patience to achieve noticeable results.
Keep in mind that treatment for psychogenic alopecia may not provide a permanent solution. Cats prone to overgrooming may exhibit this behavior again at any time, indicating a recurrence of stress. By being attentive to your cat’s needs and promptly addressing any sources of stress, you can create a more relaxed environment and help your feline friend overcome overgrooming tendencies.