Hair loss, also known as feline alopecia, is a common problem for many cats that can have a variety of causes. While it may be alarming for owners to notice missing patches of their pet's furry coat, many reasons behind this condition can be treated by your veterinarian. Some cats (like the easily recognizable Sphynx) are bred to be hairless, but hair loss on otherwise fully-coated cats indicates another problem. Medical conditions, parasites, behavioral issues, and even pain can lead to your pet losing its fur. When left untreated, alopecia can continue spreading to additional parts of the cat's body. In addition to taking their cats in for a veterinary exam, owners can take a few preventative steps to reduce any discomfort their cats may experience.
What Is Hair Loss?
Hair loss in cats (feline alopecia) is a condition that causes cats to lose patches of their coat, resulting in bald sections on parts of the body that are normally covered in fur. A variety of factors can contribute to feline alopecia, so the diagnosis and treatment of this disorder can involve multiple steps. Alopecia may include full or partial loss that appears in asymmetrical or symmetrical patterns in the fur. Additionally, it can include different parts of the body like the neck, the base of the tail, hind leg hair loss, and more.
Symptoms of Hair Loss in Cats
Since feline alopecia is a symptom of other health issues, cats experiencing hair loss should see a veterinarian who can perform tests to determine the cause. Your cat may have physical medical conditions that lead to it losing patches of its fur, or it may simply be rooted in behavioral problems like stress that can be managed with lifestyle changes. You'll notice these signs:
If the bald patches on your cat's skin are accompanied by behaviors like itching, it might be indicative of allergies or other skin diseases. These are typically caused by food, airborne particles, or bites from fleas and mosquitos. You may also notice your cat licking or scratching the problem area until it becomes red and irritated. This can lead to sores on the skin.
While the above symptoms are commonly seen with hair loss, other symptoms may be signs of more serious diseases. Some cats may also vomit, become lethargic, or have changes in their appetite. Veterinary care should be sought as soon as possible, both in cases of unusual hair loss and when additional symptoms are present.
Causes of Hair Loss
There are several reasons that cats experience hair loss. Like other itchy skin problems, your cat may lose patches of its fur from excessive scratching during bouts of fleas, ticks, or mites. Underlying medical conditions can also be the cause, which will require specific treatments from a veterinarian based on the diagnosis. Hair loss can also happen when cats experience physical pain or behavioral issues that lead to overgrooming. The following are common causes of alopecia in cats:
- Medical and skin conditions: Hormonal imbalances, such as hyperthyroidism or increased levels of steroids in the body, may lead to hair loss. Skin allergies or allergic reactions are additional causes. If you notice redness, bumps, scabs, or skin loss, these could be signs that your cat is suffering from a common skin disease or even conditions like dermatophytosis (ringworm). Alopecia can also be a side effect of some medications.
- Parasites: Parasites like fleas, ticks, and mites can cause itchiness, inflammation, and lesions that may also lead to hair loss. Your cat may begin overgrooming while dealing with skin discomfort, scratching or biting hard enough to irritate the skin and pull the hair out.
- Emotional and behavioral issues: Nervous disorders that manifest in behavioral issues like overgrooming can cause feline alopecia, but these are tricky to diagnose. Once other medical issues are ruled out, this could be determined as the cause of your cat's hair loss. Keep your cat mentally stimulated and try to redirect overgrooming behaviors as soon as you see them. In some cases, behavioral modification medications may be prescribed by your veterinarian.
- Physical pain: If cats feel muscle or joint pain under their skin, they may lick the area to ease the pain. When this behavior is done in excess, your cat can lick away its fur.
Diagnosing Hair Loss in Cats
To diagnose the cause behind feline hair loss, veterinarians can take samples from the skin's surface to look for infections like mites, yeast, and bacteria under a microscope. They may also do a skin biopsy or culture, along with performing a visual exam to see if fleas or other infestations are present.
If the results of these exams are normal, bloodwork will likely be ordered to determine whether a hormonal or thyroid imbalance is causing the hair loss. If the cause is still unsure, imaging tools like X-rays and ultrasounds can help your veterinarian rule out cancer or abnormalities in the adrenal glands.
If the alopecia is due to a medical disorder, like skin erosions, thyroid imbalance, or other hormonal imbalances, your veterinarian may prescribe medications and topical ointments to treat the underlying cause. When cats lose hair due to fleas or ticks, owners need to clean their homes, including the cat's bedding, toys, and other kitty gear. Your veterinarian can help you determine a long-term solution to flea control and prevention to help your cat stay pest-free in the future.
If the hair loss is due to a behavioral issue, owners need to use behavior modification to lessen the problem. A feline behaviorist could be helpful in "reteaching" your cat the appropriate grooming behaviors. Anxiety medications, synthetic feline facial pheromone spray, or other calming aids may prove helpful as well.
Prognosis for Cats With Hair Loss
Depending on the cause, your cat's hair loss can often be a temporary problem when proper treatment is administered. Many conditions, including skin diseases like ringworm, can be healed and result in the regrowth of your cat's fur. In other cases, your cat's fur may never grow fully again.
In addition to administering the appropriate medication, observe your cat's condition to ensure the hair loss doesn't get worse. If no cure is available, properly caring for your cat with alopecia will focus on preventing itchiness, pain, and secondary infections.
How to Prevent Hair Loss
Preventing feline hair loss can require a variety of care steps from the owner. If your cat has already experienced alopecia, talk to your veterinarian about the best methods to keep its fur healthy after treatment. Additionally, keeping pests at bay can help prevent itchiness that leads to overgrooming. The following are options for owners to keep in mind:
Ask your veterinarian about safe topical treatments to provide relief from pain and itching. If you can break the cycle of scratching and biting the inflamed skin, your cat has a better chance of healing. Using regular tick and flea control medication is another important step to keep your cat healthy and rule those pests out as a possible reason for hair loss.
Household Exams and Prevention
If your cat continues biting and pulling at its hair, do a thorough examination of its skin and hair at least once a week. Use a fine-toothed comb and part the hair to examine individual sections. Pay extra attention to areas that your cat scratches more than others. It's also helpful to ensure that bedding, toys, or scratching posts are not contributing to the issue by being too rough on the cat's fur.
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A Thin Line: Normal Shedding Vs. Feline Alopecia. Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biological Sciences, 9 November 2020
Hyperthyroidism in Cats. Feline Health Center, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
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Hnilica, Keith A, Patterson, Adam P. Chapter 9 - Hereditary, Congenital, and Acquired Alopecias. Small Animal Dermatology (Fourth Edition), pp. 302-352, 2017, W.B. Saunders. doi:10.1016/B978-0-323-37651-8.00009-2
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