breed

How to Tell If Your Cat Is Over-Grooming

It’s normal for cats to groom on a regular basis. After all, this important behavior helps your kitty maintain a tidy coat and proper hygiene.

Cats typically spend up to 50 percent of their waking hours grooming, but too much of a good thing can turn into a destructive habit.

Here are some tips to help determine if your cat is grooming excessively and what you can do to help manage the behavior.

Know the Signs of Over-Grooming in Cats   

Grooming is an important function that helps cats remove loose hair, dirt and parasites from their coat. But excessive amounts of licking, biting, chewing or scratching may mean that your pet’s self-cleaning habits are becoming problematic.

One big indicator of abnormal grooming is the loss of fur, which may occur in strips along the back, belly or inner legs. This pattern of fur removal is known as “fur mowing.” The affected areas may be completely bare or have very short stubble.

An unusually high number of hairballs can be another sign that your cat is over-grooming.

What Causes a Cat to Start Grooming Excessively?

To help manage your cat’s over-grooming habits, you will need to understand what led them to excessive grooming in the first place. Then, you and your veterinarian can address the underlying issues.

Here are the most common health conditions that can lead to excessive grooming in cats.

Allergy or Infection

Irritated skin can result from an infection or from a cat’s allergy to certain foods, parasites or substances in the environment. Your kitty’s hair-loss pattern may even hint at the source of the problem:

  • Flea allergy: irritation at the base of the tail
  • Ear mites: hair loss and scabbing on the neck and ears
  • Allergic response to pollen: excessive chewing of the paws

Pain

Over-grooming can also indicate that your cat is experiencing pain or discomfort, particularly if she repeatedly bothers one area of the body.

For example, disc disease can cause back pain so that your cat over-grooms a certain spot on their back, while a urinary tract infection or anal sac impaction may encourage excessive grooming of the genitals or perianal area.  

Stress or Boredom 

Some cats use over-grooming as a way to cope with stress or boredom.

It is thought that licking releases endorphins that help relieve anxiety, so when a stressed cat finds relief in licking, it can turn into a habit.

Compulsive grooming, known as psychogenic alopecia, is usually triggered by a change in the cat’s daily routine or environment, such as moving to a new house or the arrival of a new family member or pet. Cats are very observant and may even feed off of our stress levels.

Cats are also highly intelligent and prone to boredom if their daily routine lacks proper enrichment. This cause of over-grooming is especially common in indoor cats who are alone for a large portion of the day.

In these cases, grooming helps make up for a lack of mental or physical stimulation.

This condition can be seen in any breed but is most common in Oriental cat breeds, including Siamese, Abyssinian, Burmese and Himalayan cats, due to their sensitive and attention-demanding dispositions.  

How to Manage a Cat That Is Over-Grooming

The key to managing excessive grooming is to first address the underlying cause. Your veterinarian can diagnose the root cause and provide medical treatment or suggestions for deterring the habit if it’s behavioral.

Establish the Underlying Cause 

First, your veterinarian will need to rule out medical problems. Infections or allergies can be treated with the appropriate medications, which (depending on the cause) may include antibiotics, antihistamines and/or anti-inflammatory drugs.

Maintain Routines 

Cats love routine, so try to create a comfortable environment and a predictable schedule. Change the litter box consistently and at least once a day, and feed your kitty at the same time every day.

It’s best to incorporate changes gradually, such as the introduction of a new pet or living situation, to limit the amount of stress for your cat.

Provide Mental and Physical Stimulation

Be sure to provide environmental enrichment for your kitty in the form of perching areas, toys, scratching posts and frequent opportunities for play. This will help your cat build confidence and distract her from obsessively grooming.

Try Calming Medications and Products 

Cats with persistent anxiety may benefit from anti-anxiety medications and/or supplements. You will need a vet’s prescriptions for medications, and supplements are available OTC in the form of treats.

You can also try sprays and plug-in diffusers that disperse synthetic cat pheromones. Consult with your vet on the best course of treatment.

Be Patient With Your Cat 

Finally, the most important part of managing over-grooming is to be patient.

If you see your cat excessively grooming, don’t punish her or try to interfere. This will only add to your cat’s stress and make her over-grooming problem worse.

After you’ve sought help from your vet, it may take a month or so for an over-grooming behavior to normalize, and even longer for the hair to grow back.

By: Dr. Natalie Stilwell

Featured Image: iStock.com/Konstantin Aksenov