Feline overgrooming behaviors that don't have a medical basis are called psychogenic alopecia. Although your cat doesn’t deal with office politics and gets to sleep 16 hours a day, stress and cat behavior problems tend to go hand in hand. Many cats turn into nervous wrecks in the face of too much stress. But rather than developing ulcers the way some people do, stressed cats may resort to overgrooming.
What Is Overgrooming in Cats?
When a cat licks itself, endorphins, which are natural painkillers made by the brain, are released. These endorphins are the chemicals that make the sensation of self-grooming feel so good to your cat that it may lead to overgrooming. In most cases, though, instead of creating sores, the cat licks so much that its fur breaks off.
Cat owners typically say that they never see their cats indulge in lick-fests. This may be because the kitty feels more comfortable when its person is in sight and doesn't feel the urge to self-calm via licking.
When the owner isn't present, the cat may begin to feel uncomfortable and partake in overgrooming. If you do happen to witness your cat overgrooming, don't punish it. This will only create additional stress and may exacerbate the problem.
Why Do Cats Overgroom?
The pervasive type of stress that usually causes psychogenic alopecia is likely to be chronic and consist of a number of combined stressors, such as permanent changes in the routine and environment. This could include the absence of a certain family member because of death, divorce, longer work hours, vacation, or departure for college, in addition to:
- The arrival of a new furry or human family member
- Moving to a new apartment or house
- Rearranging some or all of the furniture
- Moving the litter box to another location
- Lack of environmental enrichment for the kitty
- Living in a chaotic household
Other cats may overgroom because of medical reasons. For example, if something is causing your cat to be itchy, it may overgroom in an attempt to relieve the itch. Cats can have allergies to food, fleas, or other elements of their environment. Consider any recent dietary or environmental changes that could underlie this behavior. If you think your cat might have an allergy, consider making an appointment with a specialized veterinary dermatologist, who can test your kitty to determine if this is the cause.
Signs of Overgrooming
Feline overgrooming most often affects the Siamese, Burmese, Himalayan, and Abyssinian breeds. If your cat is overgrooming, you'll see a line or stripe of very short stubble that looks like a buzz-cut. It can occur anywhere on your cat's body but is most common on a foreleg, an inner thigh, or the belly. Unlike other causes of hair loss, overgrooming doesn't affect the skin underneath, which appears to be perfectly normal.
How to Stop the Overgrooming
You’ll need a veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia. In the meantime, try to figure out the reason your cat is feeling anxious. If you can identify the cause and eliminate it, the behavior will usually go away on its own. You can also try a few tips to help ease your cat's anxiety and overgrooming behavior:
- Have the college student or other absent person mail home a voice recording to play for the stressed cat.
- You can also ask the person to leave behind a pair of unwashed socks in a sealed ziplock bag. This could give your upset kitty a scented pick-me-up.
- Introduce a new cat gradually to reduce stress levels in both. Even confident cats may suffer from hidden stress that manifests itself as nervous licking.
- Play therapy is also a great stress reliever. It can help build your kitty's self-confidence and help it associate the positive experience with the new house or a new pet or person. Interactive games are best, such as chase-the-fishing-pole lure or laser tag for cats.
- A spray or plug-in pheromone product, like Feliway, can be helpful to relieve stress. Feliway and other synthetic-pheromone products are similar to the scent cats naturally produce. You can spray it or rub it on objects, and it has a calming effect.
During a vet visit, the doctor will rule out any medical reasons for your cat's overgrooming. This could include a flea infestation, skin mites, ringworm, bacterial infections, or metabolic conditions, like hyperthyroidism. Skin biopsies, lab work, and a thorough physical exam can all be helpful to your vet in making the right diagnosis. The medical treatment will vary based on the vet's findings.
In most cases without a medical diagnosis, excessive licking behaviors require anti-anxiety drug therapy prescribed by a vet to break the licking cycle. Some veterinary behaviorists suggest that the herbal remedy kava may provide mild relief for anxiety and management of overgrooming, but check with your cat’s veterinarian before you try this to get important details such as dosage and suitability for your cat. Some studies indicate that acupuncture treatments are helpful for behavioral problems such as anxiety and compulsive overgrooming in cats.
Know that any treatment solutions for psychogenic alopecia may not be permanent. If your cat has a tendency to overgroom, this may recur at any time and could be an indicator that your cat is feeling stressed again.