Overgrooming Cats: Understanding the Causes and Finding Solutions


We all adore our feline friends, but sometimes they exhibit behaviors that leave us puzzled and concerned. One such behavior is over-grooming, which can be both frustrating and worrisome. In this article, we will delve into the causes of over-grooming in cats, from medical to behavioral factors, and explore potential solutions to help our furry companions.

Medical Causes: Scratching Beneath the Surface

Cats may engage in excessive grooming due to medical reasons. Itching caused by allergies is a common trigger. Just like humans, cats can develop allergies to various things, including food, fleas, or environmental factors. If you notice your cat grooming excessively or observe patches of hair loss, check for fleas and assess any recent changes in their diet or environment. A visit to the vet can help identify fleas and recommend suitable flea preventatives as well as discuss potential diet trials. In some cases, allergy testing may be necessary, and positive responses to steroid or anti-histamine treatments can further confirm an allergy-related cause.

Other possible sources of itchiness in cats include infectious conditions like skin mites or ringworm. Although less common in indoor-only cats, these conditions are not impossible. Your veterinarian can conduct tests such as skin scrape procedures and fungal cultures to rule out these causes.

Trauma, Lesions, and Infections

Excessive grooming can cause trauma to a cat’s skin, leading to a cycle of licking. This can sometimes be confused with primary skin lesions that arise on the cat and subsequently trigger excessive licking. One example of a primary skin lesion is the eosinophilic granuloma complex. Although the exact cause of these inflammatory lesions is unknown, it is suspected to have an allergy or immune-mediated component. Diagnosis can be made through a skin biopsy or response to a steroid treatment trial. Skin biopsies can also help rule out other less common skin diseases in cats.

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In some cases, over-grooming can result in secondary bacterial infections, which may require topical or oral antibiotics for treatment. While addressing the underlying cause of the itchiness, it is often recommended to use an Elizabethan collar on the cat to break the cycle of licking.

Exploring Underlying Health Conditions

General lab work is usually recommended to rule out metabolic causes such as hyperthyroidism. Since any illness can induce stress in cats and potentially lead to over-grooming, it’s crucial to assess their overall health. If over-grooming is focused on a particular area of the body, it is essential to evaluate neighboring areas for potential discomfort, such as joint issues or bladder infections.

Behavioral Issues: Unraveling Feline Stress

Once all possible medical causes have been ruled out, over-grooming can be considered a behavioral issue. Psychogenic alopecia, a stress-related disorder, manifests as obsessive-compulsive behavior in cats. Grooming provides them with a sense of relief and releases endorphins, ultimately calming them down.

Cats are sensitive creatures, and numerous stressors can trigger over-grooming. They may react adversely to changes in their environment, even those that seem insignificant to us. Identifying stressors can be challenging since they vary for each cat. A generally chaotic or monotonous home environment may induce stress in certain individuals. Sometimes, what starts as grooming to self-soothe in a particular situation can develop into continuous obsessive behavior, even after the initial stressor has been resolved.

Cats with psychogenic alopecia often focus on grooming their bellies, inner thighs, and strips along their front legs, although they can groom anywhere on their bodies. It’s important to note that this behavior often goes unnoticed by owners, leading them to assume that the cat’s fur is falling out on its own. Punishing the cat for over-grooming will only exacerbate their stress and should be avoided.

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Recognizing the Red Flags

It is normal for cats to groom themselves regularly, but when the grooming becomes excessive and interferes with their daily activities such as eating, playing, and interacting, it’s time for concern. Bald patches, damaged fur, and abnormal-looking skin are all signs that warrant attention.

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Treating Psychogenic Alopecia

When addressing psychogenic alopecia, the primary goal is to remove the source of stress whenever possible. This may require careful observation and understanding of the cat’s needs. Providing environmental enrichment is equally important. Offer plenty of toys, engage in interactive playtime, and provide suitable scratching posts and resting spots. Maintaining a consistent daily routine for your cat can help alleviate stress. Synthetic pheromones, like Feliway, can also be used to create a calming atmosphere for cats. These pheromones mimic the facial marks cats use to mark their territory and promote a sense of security.

In severe cases of psychogenic alopecia, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed in conjunction with behavior modification techniques. Consulting a behaviorist for additional recommendations and customized strategies for home can be immensely helpful. The ultimate aim is to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate the need for medication as the cat regains balance in their home life.

A Lifelong Challenge

While medical causes of over-grooming can often be treated or managed successfully, psychogenic alopecia is a lifelong issue. Cats with this condition will always be prone to over-grooming when exposed to stress. The bald patches may appear and disappear over time, and the intensity of the over-grooming behavior may fluctuate. Hence, it is crucial to remain attentive to their sensitivities and continually provide an enriching environment.

For more information about Angell’s General Medicine service, visit Katten TrimSalon or call 617-522-7282. Angell also offers Behavior services for cats.