What is Excessive Grooming in Cats?
By Pam Johnson-Bennett
Cats are fastidious groomers. They typically spend 30-50 percent of their day engaged in self-grooming. There are several reasons for a normal amount of grooming, such as:
- A way to cool down
- Removal of dead hair
- External parasite removal
- To remove scent traces of prey/food
- To create a familiar, identifying scent
- To clean debris from coat/general coat maintenance
- Displacement behavior
Grooming becomes a problem when the cat spends an excessive amount of time at it, resulting in bald patches. Skin sores can also result from the constant licking from the cat’s rough tongue.
Because cats groom so much, cat parents may not realize it has become excessive until they notice hair loss or see an increased number of hair balls.
What Causes Excessive Grooming?
The cause may be medical or behavioral. Psychogenic alopecia is the term used for excessive behavioral grooming. This type of grooming is a stress coping mechanism for cats. A normal amount of licking as a temporary displacement activity to self-calm is common. When it becomes ongoing to relieve unrelenting stress, it’s an obsessive/compulsive behavior. Grooming causes an endorphin release that creates a feeling of calm so the behavior is then constantly repeated.
It’s essential to first rule out underlying medical causes before assuming the problem is behavioral. A visit to the veterinarian is the first step in addressing a cat’s over-grooming behavior.
Medically-Related Excessive Grooming
Underlying health conditions could trigger a cat to over-groom. If the skin is itchy, the cat may not only lick, but chew as well. You may see bald patches, broken-off hair, or skin sores. Here are some common conditions:
- Pain. A cat may repeatedly lick a particular spot to relieve pain. For example, excessive grooming of the abdomen or genitals may be due to urinary pain, anal gland impaction, or intestinal discomfort. Compulsive licking of a one paw or leg may be the result of an injury or pain from arthritis.
- External Parasites. Many cats have allergic reactions to flea bites. You may see irritated skin at the base of the tail.
- Other Allergies. This could be caused by mites, ringworm, food, or other allergens in the environment.
- Metabolic Issues. Conditions such as hyperthyroidism often results in over-grooming.
Your veterinarian will do a physical exam and if indicated, necessary lab work to determine the underlying cause. Treatment will be based on specific diagnosis.
If no medical cause is determined, the excessive grooming will likely be diagnosed as psychogenic alopecia.
In addition to any oral medication prescribed by your veterinarian, your cat may also be put on a topical antibiotic or anti-itch product. Your cat may also need to wear an Elizabethan collar for a while to stop the cycle of excessive grooming and allow the skin to heal.
Stress-Related Excessive Grooming
Every cat is different when it comes to stress tolerance. There are any number of things that could trigger stress and it could be something a cat parent easily overlooks because it seems relatively minor.
In general, cats hate change. They take comfort in familiarity and predictability. When trying to determine the cause of your cat’s stress-related excessive grooming, look at major, obvious triggers but also small, seemingly insignificant events. Here are some possible stress triggers:
- Addition of a new pet
- Loss of a pet
- Move to a new home
- Addition of a new family member
- Death or absence of a family member
- Schedule change
- Chaotic or noisy environment
- Unappealing or inadequate litter box conditions
- Change in food or litter type
- Appearance of an unfamiliar cat outdoors
- New furniture or rearrangement of pieces
- Ongoing multicat tension
Addressing Stress-Related Excessive Grooming
Treatment will be based on the specific cause, but here are some general guidelines.
Introduce a new pet gradually. New cat intros in particular, require slow, positive steps to help each cat feel secure.
Maintain a consistent schedule. This applies to things such as feeding, litter box maintenance, your daily schedule, your interaction with your cat, etc.
Play therapy. Playtime is great for decreasing stress and increasing confidence. Interactive playtime helps develop a positive association with a new person, a new home, or a particular room, and is an essential component in new pet introductions. If stress is due to boredom, regularly scheduled play therapy adds much needed mental stimulation and enrichment. Play therapy in a multicat environment can help redirect behavior so cats don’t pick on each other.
Conduct twice-daily interactive play sessions with a fishing pole-type toy. In addition to interactive play, provide safe and interesting solo toys for fun and exploration. Puzzle feeders are wonderful for play with the bonus of the cat getting a food reward.
Environmental enrichment. Your environment provides safety, comfort, and love, but it may not provide enough stimulation to ward off boredom. Cats love to play, hunt, climb, hide, and scratch. Increase vertical territory through cat trees and window perches. If you have the wall space, consider cat shelves and walkways. Add cat tunnels and hideaways. Make sure there are sturdy scratching posts in socially significant areas of the home. Make life fun again for your cat.
Resource availability. One thing that can stress cats is when they’re concerned about security of resources, including food, water, litter boxes, napping areas, and even access to the cat parent. This is common in multicat homes. Position food, water, and litter boxes in each cat’s preferred core area to avoid one cat having to cross another cat’s area to get to a food bowl or litter box. Additionally, make sure you spend enough time with each cat individually, in ways in which they prefer to interact.
Make gradual changes. If rearranging furniture, do it a couple of pieces at a time. Moving to a new home? Set up one room initially for your cat to settle in before providing whole house access.
Gradual change applies to food and litter as well. Gradual transitions are best. Allow cats time to adjust to change at a pace that’s comfortable for them.
Pheromone therapy. There are synthetic pheromone diffusers that can be plugged in to slowly release calming, self-identifying, cat-specific scent chemicals. They mimic the facial pheromones cats release when they facially rub objects.
Proper training. Punishment, as well as inconsistent training can produce stress, which can lead to excessive grooming for self-calming. Punishment should never be used g because it creates fear and doesn’t address why the cat needs the behavior. Cats don’t misbehave. Behaviors are repeated because they serve a purpose. Figure out the reasons behind a behavior so you can create a better option.
Respect your cat’s personal space. Pay attention to body language indicating whether your cat wants interaction or not. This is how to request consent before picking up, petting, or holding.
Extra help. If struggling to resolve the excessive grooming issue, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medication and/or recommend a referral to a certified cat behavior expert.
About This Page
Pam Johnson-Bennett is a certified cat behavior consultant, best-selling author of 10 books and host of Animal Planet UK's Psycho Kitty.
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