Alison Laurie-Chalmers, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness.
Occasionally we are presented with cats that are over-grooming themselves to a point of causing a severe hair loss and self-inflicted skin trauma.
Over grooming behaviours that don't have a clear underlying medical basis are called “psychogenic alopecia”. Stress and cat behavioural problems do tend to go hand in hand and many cats resort to over grooming themselves in the face of too much stress.
Over grooming is when a cat spends an abnormally large amount of time obsessively grooming itself. This can result in hair loss and skin sores. When a cat licks itself, endorphins, which are natural "feel good" neurotransmitters made by the brain, are then released. These endorphins are the chemicals that make the sensation of self-grooming feel comforting. Therefore, if your cat is stressed, it may resort to this continuous, comforting behaviour.
Cat owners typically say that often don’t see their cats over-grooming themselves. This may be because the cat feels more comfortable when its owner is within sight and so doesn't feel the urge to self-calm with grooming at these times. However, when their owner isn't present, the cat may begin to feel uncomfortable and stressed and then start to over-groom.
If you do happen to witness your cat over-grooming, don't punish it. This will only create additional stress and upset and will exacerbate the problem.
If your cat is over-grooming, you'll see a line or stripe of very short stubble that looks like a short clipper cut. It can occur anywhere on your cat's body but is most common on a foreleg, an inner thigh, or the underside of the abdomen. If the over-grooming is severe, the skin underneath the fur may become damaged and appearing red, or sore.
Sometimes cats may over-groom because of medical reasons. These could include skin allergies to food, fleas, or other elements of their environment. Recent dietary or environmental changes could underlie this behaviour as could flea infestations, skin mites, ringworm, bacterial or fungal infections, or sometimes metabolic conditions, like hyperthyroidism. A thorough physical examination, skin biopsies and blood tests can all be helpful to diagnose these. Any underlying medical conditions should be ruled out initially before a diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia due to stress factors is confirmed.
If any medical reasons are ruled out, a number of combined stress factors may be to blame for stressed induced over-grooming, such as changes in the usual set routine and in the cat’s immediate environment. These could include:
- The absence of a certain family member.
- The arrival of a new pet or human family member to the household.
- Moving home.
- Rearranging the furniture, or moving the food bowls or litter trays to another location.
- Boredom due to a lack of environmental enrichment for the cat.
- Living in a noisy, busy household.
All these can be stress factors for cats and can trigger over-grooming behaviours. If your cats’ symptoms are suspected to be due to any stress factors, try to work out the reason your cat is feeling anxious. If you can identify the cause and reduce or eliminate it, the over-grooming behaviour may gradually go away on its own. If your cat is stressed by the absence of a family member, ask the person to leave behind an unwashed shirt or their blanket. Introduce a new pet to the cat gradually to reduce stress levels. Play therapy is also a great stress reliever and can build your cat's self-confidence and may help it associate the positive experience with the new house or a new pet or person. Interactive games are best, such as chasing toys or a laser tag for cats. A spray or plug-in pheromone product can be helpful to relieve stress.
Sometimes psychogenic alopecia behaviour can require additional anti-anxiety therapy prescribed by a vet to break the licking cycle. Typically, the cat does not have to be on these medications its entire life, just for a period of time to help the animal deal with the stress factor and for the owner to manage this. Any treatment solutions for psychogenic alopecia may not be permanent. If your cat has a tendency to over-groom itself, this may recur at any time and could be an indicator that your cat is feeling stressed again.