Cats are famous for being fastidious groomers. In a normal day, they can spend up to 30% of their waking hours tending to their fur. However, if your cat is grooming to the point of skin wounds, ulceration or hair loss, he or she may be suffering from an underlying medical or psychological issue. While overgrooming is not life threatening, it’s important to seek veterinary treatment as the symptoms can cause long-term discomfort for your pet.
Signs of overgrooming
The most common signs of overgrooming are hair loss and irritation of the skin. The areas usually affected are the abdomen, legs, flank, and chest, as these are the most easily reached areas. You may also notice:
- Grooming when it’s no longer functional or when it interrupts your cat’s other activities
- Over-zealous scratching
- Redness, rashes, pus or scabs on bald areas
- Irritability or discomfort when scratching
Causes of overgrooming
The most common reason a cat will overgroom is fleas. If treated effectively, most cats will cease the behaviour within a matter of weeks. Other underlying causes include food allergies, boredom, skin irritation, parasites, infections or constipation. In order to accurately diagnose and treat your cat, your vet will usually conduct diagnostic tests on the blood and skin, as well as trial medication and/or diet.
If your vet is unable to find an underlying medical/ environmental cause, your cat may be diagnosed with psychogenic alopecia - a compulsive disorder usually brought on by stress or anxiety. As cats find self-grooming extremely comforting, if they are confronted with sudden conflict, a change in environment or a perceived threat, they often groom themselves to feel calm. In most instances, the behaviour will cease once the threat has disappeared. However, if the cat continues to lick and groom compulsively, even once the threat has gone, it is likely that the behaviour has become compulsive and difficult for your cat to control. While psychological alopecia is not life-threatening, it may be symptomatic of an overly stressed or anxious animal, so it’s important to seek effective treatment.
If your cat is showing signs of overgrooming, it’s important to seek veterinary advice. Sores and skin irritation can be effectively managed with skin cream, or oral/ injected anti-inflammatories. Your vet will usually run a series of diagnostic tests to determine whether the cause is an underlying medical issue or psychogenic alopecia. If the cause is considered to be food-related, your vet will usually advise a new diet for your pet. Other allergies can be difficult to diagnose but there are many effective treatments that will reduce the skin irritation (and subsequently the overgrooming).
Treating psychogenic alopecia
If your cat is diagnosed with anxiety-related psychogenic alopecia, it will be important for you to identify (and eliminate) environmental or social changes that may be contributing to your cat’s stress. While your vet will provide preliminary treatment, the best results will usually come from both medical and environmental changes.
- Keep your cat’s day as routine as possible, with feed, play and exercise occurring at the same time each day.
- Increase your cat’s environmental stimulation by introducing new play centres, catnip-pack toys or kitty videos. Vary them often to keep your cat interested.
- Introduce new perching areas for your cat.
- Play with your cat for at least 10 – 15 minutes per day. He or she will love the attention and be less likely to overgroom.
- Grow an indoor garden of safe plants such as catnip or catmint for the cat to use.
- Avoid punishing or rewarding your cat, as this can sometimes make the problem worse.
- Ask your vet about behaviour modification techniques.
If it isn't possible to bring your cat's behaviour under control by changing his or her environment, then it may be necessary to try anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications. While it can take several weeks for medications to be effective, it can be a great intermediary step to assist in controlling an animal’s behaviour.