How to Stop Cat Over-Grooming

A cat grooming itself

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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 paw. 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.

Cats Love the Status Quo

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 little Sheba 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 self-barbering 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 hiss-teria. 

Overdoing Cat Grooming

Feline over-grooming behaviors are called psychogenic alopecia. Licking releases endorphins, natural painkillers made by the brain that makes the sensation feel so good that some cats progress to self-mutilation. In most cases, instead of making sores, the cat self-barbers and licks so much the fur breaks off. Owners often say they never see the cat indulge in lick-fests and that the cat has a secret vice. 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.

Diagnosing Cat Over-Grooming

Skin diseases from flea bites, inhaled allergies (atopy), ringworm, or other conditions must be ruled out before determining the cat suffers from psychogenic alopecia. Feline over-grooming most often affects the Siamese, Burmese, Himalayan and Abyssinian breeds. You'll see a line or stripe down the back, or sometimes on a foreleg, of very short stubble hair. It looks like a burr haircut. Unlike other causes of hair loss, the skin beneath appears perfectly normal.

“Licking” Cat Stress

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. Here are some tips for soothing kitty angst:

  • Have your college-bound student mail home a recording of her voice to play for the upset pet.
  • Ask the absent person to leave behind unwashed socks in a sealed baggy—not for you to do laundry, but to 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 an analog of the check-scent cats naturally produce and rub onto objects and has a calming effect. You can purchase Feliway at most pet product stores.

In most cases, 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.