Grooming is a natural and healthy behaviour in cats that maintains skin and coat health, but over-grooming is too much of a good thing, and can result in abnormal hair loss.
Cats can be sneaky, closet groomers, and cats that are over-grooming may hide their habit from you. Sometimes, the results of over-grooming aren’t seen until the cat visits the veterinary office for a physical examination. Other times, you may notice patches of baldness at home. Some cat owners swear that the hair loss isn’t due to over-grooming, but 9 times out of 10, even if you don’t see your cat doing the deed, hair loss is caused by excessively licking or pulling out hair in secret. So, we’ve put together all the information you need to help you spot exactly when in it is over-grooming.
What is over-grooming?
Over-grooming, otherwise known as feline psychogenic alopecia, or neurodermatitis, is self-induced hair loss caused by excessive grooming. Grooming can consist of licking, pulling hair out, or chewing. Over-grooming is usually caused by anxiety1. It’s actually a relatively uncommon condition, however some purebred cats, including Burmese, Siamese, and Abyssinians, are possibly predisposed to it.
Hair loss occurs when the cat licks or chews himself or herself hard enough to damage the skin and pull hair out. Hair loss can occur in one spot, in multiple spots, or all over. While the hair loss can occur anywhere on the cat, the most common areas are the spots that are most easily accessible to your cat: inner front legs, inner thighs, around the anus, and belly. Overweight or arthritic cats may be less able to reach areas and concentrate on front legs. The hair loss is often noted to be bilaterally symmetric.
Over-grooming can be differentiated from hair loss due to other causes by close examination of the skin. When you look closer, you will notice that the hairs have not actually fallen out, but that they are broken off or ‘barbered’, and remaining hair in the area does not pull out easily (don’t pull your cat’s hair!). These cats may have excessive hairballs or hair noted in their faeces due to swallowing hair during grooming. Other than anxiety, other causes of over-grooming include ringworm, fleas, mites, skin allergy, hormonal disorders, or other underlying painful conditions that could cause your cat’s anxiety. For example, a cat suffering from arthritis pain, a urinary tract infection, or painful dental disease can groom excessively due to stress. Cats with hyperthyroidism or Cushing’s syndrome can over-groom, as well as cats with cutaneous asthenia (hypersensitivity). Over-grooming can also be an aberrant manifestation of pancreatic cancer. Your veterinarian will be able to rule out other causes with a physical exam and laboratory tests, including a complete blood count, blood chemistry, thyroid levels, and a urinalysis.
Over-grooming should be considered the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for other conditions: if you notice over-grooming, it is time for you and your veterinarian to go on the hunt for any underlying diseases!
How can it be treated?
Successful treatment of over-grooming usually involves addressing the underlying cause. Once the underlying cause is identified, then the over-grooming often resolves on its own. If the cat is experiencing chronic pain due to arthritis, for example, then treat the underlying disease and associated pain. Treat dental infections by having a veterinarian remove infected teeth and treat gingivitis, as well. If your cat has been diagnosed with a hormonal condition, follow the treatment recommendations from your veterinarian. If your veterinarian suspects an ingredient sensitivity, he or she may recommend a diet trial with a hypoallergenic prescription diet for 8-12 weeks to rule out an ingredient sensitivity. Many older cats have chronic skin pain called allodynia that can be treated with pain medication such as gabapentin.
If your cat is over-grooming due to stress, work with your veterinarian to utilize feline pheromone sprays and create environmental enrichment that will lower your cat’s stress. Increasing vertical space with cat trees, hiding places, increased play time, increased numbers of litter boxes, and opportunities for mental stimulation with toys and food puzzles can all help reduce stress.
Ensure that the cat is free of parasites, especially fleas, which can aggravate the skin. Some cats may require use of a barrier, such as a onesie, T-shirt, or Elizabethan collar to prevent grooming, and break the habit.
Short-term or long-term behavioral-modification pharmaceuticals such as amitryptilline, clomipramine, diazepam, or naloxone may help stop over-grooming in non-responsive severe cases. Consult with your veterinarian on use of these drugs, as long-term use can have negative side effects.
Your cat’s return to health
Prognosis for hair regrowth is dependent on whether the underlying cause can be determined, and the age and overall health of the cat. Some cats will respond completely when the underlying cause is corrected or treated, whether it be skin problems, hormonal conditions, painful disease, or stress. Other cats will respond when behavioral-modification drugs are used. Frequent examinations by your veterinarian and successful identification of the underlying cause offers your cat the best prognosis.
1"Over-grooming problems | International Cat Care." 2014. Accessed: 30 Jun. 2016 http://icatcare.org/advice/problem-behaviour/over-grooming-problems
Author info: Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She is a 2002 graduate of the prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. She practices in Greeley, Colorado part time at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital, and writes for multiple online and print publications.