How to Stop Over-Grooming in Cats

Feline Preening and Grooming

CC0 Public Domain/ 

Your cat doesn’t deal with office politics and gets to sleep 16 hours a day, but stress and cat behavior problems go hand in hand. Many cats turn into nervous wrecks with too much stress. Upset feelings can leave cats biting their nails and pulling their hair. Rather than developing ulcers the way people do, some stressed cats go bald or create sores on themselves from excessive licking and chewing. Nibbling is a normal part of self-grooming, but when these pets feel upset, the behavior becomes a compulsion.

What Is Over-Grooming in Cats?

Feline over-grooming behaviors are called psychogenic alopecia. Licking releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers made by the brain. These endorphins are the chemicals that make the sensation feel so good that some cats progress to self-mutilation. In most cases, instead of making sores, the cat licks so much the fur breaks off.

Owners often say they never see the cat indulge in lick-fests. That may be because the kitty feels more comfortable when the owner is within sight and doesn't feel the urge to self-calm with licking. Without the owner's presence, the cat may feel uncomfortable and partake in over-grooming. If you do witness your cat over-grooming itself, do not punish it. This will only lead to additional stress and exacerbate the problem.

Skin diseases from flea bites, inhaled allergies (atopy), ringworm, or other conditions must be ruled out before determining the cat suffers from psychogenic alopecia.

Why Do Cats Over-Groom?

Some cats get anxious over losing face time with a family member. A death, divorce, longer work hours, or a best friend going away to college can leave a pet cat yowling. While behaviors related to separation anxiety may seem similar, they occur within twenty minutes or so of one particular person's departure.

Generalized stress that prompts kitty over-grooming behaviors tends to be ongoing and a combination of stressors that can be cumulative. Changes in the routine and environment such as a new family member (furred or human), moving to a new house, or simply rearranging the furniture raise the cat’s stress levels.

Other cats may over-groom because of medical reasons. If something is causing the cat to be itchy, they may groom (and over-groom) to relieve the itch. Cats can have allergies to food, fleas, or other changes in the environment. Consider any dietary or environmental changes that could lead to this behavior. There are specialized veterinary dermatologists that can do allergy testing to help determine the cause.

Signs of Over-Grooming

Feline over-grooming most often affects the Siamese, Burmese, Himalayan, and Abyssinian breeds. You'll see a line or stripe of very short stubble hair. It can occur anyway but is common on a foreleg, inner thigh, or belly. It looks like a burr haircut. Unlike other causes of hair loss, the skin beneath appears perfectly normal.

How to Stop Over-Grooming

You’ll need a veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis. In the meantime, try to figure out the reason your cat feels stressed. If you can identifying the cause and eliminate it, the behavior usually goes away. Try these tips to help ease your cat's anxiety and hopefully stop the over-grooming behavior.

  • Have your college-bound student mail home a recording of their voice to play for the upset pet.
  • Ask the absent person to leave behind unwashed socks in a sealed baggy. This could give the upset kitty a scented pick-me-up. The cat will react like it’s a bouquet of roses!
  • Introduce cats slowly to reduce stress levels. Even confident cats can suffer hidden stress that comes out as nervous licking.
  • Play therapy is also a great stress-reliever. It can help build a pet's self-confidence and associate the positive experience with the new house or pet. Interactive games are best, such as chase-the-fishing-pole lure or a laser light tag for cats.
  • The spray or plug-in pheromone product Feliway can be helpful to relieve stress. Feliway is like the scent cats naturally produce. You can rub it onto objects and has a calming effect. You can purchase Feliway at most pet product stores.

At a vet visit, your doctor will want to rule out all medical reasons for the over-grooming. This could include skin mites, ringworm, bacterial infections, or metabolic conditions like hyperthyroidism. Skin biopsies, lab work, and a physical examination can all be helpful in making the right diagnosis. The medical treatment will vary based on the test findings.

In most cases without a treatable medical diagnosis, excessive licking behaviors require anti-anxiety drug therapy prescribed by a veterinarian to break the cycle. Some veterinary behaviorists indicate that the herbal remedy Kava may provide mild relief for anxiety, and for the treatment of psychogenic alopecia, but check with your cat’s veterinarian for the proper dose. Some studies indicate acupuncture treatments are helpful for behavioral problems such as anxiety, and compulsive over-grooming in cats.

Know that any treatment solutions may not be permanent. If your cat has a tendency to over-groom, this can manifest itself at any time and could be an indicator that the cat is feeling stressed.