Grooming is a one of the normal behaviours shown by cats. It’s a process to clean and optimize the quality of their natural furry coats. The action of grooming also releases “happy” chemicals within the body (endorphins) which promote self-comfort and overall well-being. Grooming becomes “over”grooming, when a cat spends too much time on the activity. This impacts the quality of their coat and sometimes also, their skin.
Overgroomed areas are usually readily identifiable as areas with either thin or patchy hair. In severe or extreme cases, this may progress to a completely bald patch. Sometimes the ends of the hair will become rough and brittle to the touch and look stubby and uneven. This helps demonstrate that the cat is pulling and grooming out the hair themselves, rather than the hair spontaneously falling out. Various places on the cat’s body may be affected; although the middle of the back, underside of the belly and the legs are most frequently affected. Skin irritation, inflammation and soreness may also develop.
There are of course, many reasons that a cat will display overgrooming behaviour. The main causes however include skin disease, pain or discomfort, or anxiety / stress. The specific location of the over-grooming may help orientate your vet as to the underlying cause as we will explain below.
Skin disease is the largest cause of over-grooming in cats. Unlike dogs, who will lick, nibble, chew and scratch their skin when it is itchy, cats may well only show excessive grooming behaviour. Cats also (being the masters of disguise we know they are!), often do this away from their owners, or at times when they are not observed. Owners may thus not appreciate the manner in which a cat develops a poor coat, or realise how much time their pet is spending, pre-occupied in performing the grooming behaviour.
With skin disease
A cat may feel itchy (pruritic) due to a variety of causes. And although it is neither very glamourous or exciting, the vast majority of these cases in first opinion practice, typically relate to parasite infestations. That is, fleas and / or other skin surface parasites such as mites. Specifically, as well, a cat who develops an allergy to fleas may become extremely itchy. In such flea allergic cats, it may only take one flea to be present on the cat for a short period of time, for an intense period of itch and subsequent over-grooming to develop. Flea infestation or flea allergic dermatitis (FAD) typically tends to present on the lower half of the cat’s body, from the waist down.
Environmental and food allergies may also cause excessive itch, which may manifest as overgrooming. Bacterial, yeast and dermatophyte infections may also contribute.
Pain may also cause your cat to overgroom. Pain is likely to originate from within the body, rather than on the skin itself. It may include pain of osteoarthritis from affected joints such as the hips or elbows. Or potentially bladder discomfort such as that associated with chronic low-grade cystitis.
Another cause of over-grooming may be stress, anxiety, fear or frustration, so called “psychogenic alopecia.” Such cats may be recognised by their owners as having an underlying nervous disposition and are therefore, potentially somewhat prone to developing compulsive behaviours. In these cats, stress triggers the over-grooming behaviour. Cats overgroom as a way of coping with their distress because of the self-soothing effect that it provides.
Changes in cat to cat dynamics (whether inside or outside the home), changes in the human household setup (new baby, teenager leaving for University) and changes in resource provision (food, water, litter trays, resting sites) are all capable of triggering significant anxiety in cats.
What to do?
If your cat is over-grooming then please seek advice from your Veterinary Surgeon. Dependent on the case, your vet may advise one or several measures to address the cause.
Diagnosis of over-grooming is often made retrospectively, following a “treatment trial.” For a suspected skin itchy cause, such as fleas or flea allergic dermatitis, a strict regime of regular effective POM-V flea medication, is required.
POM-V stands for prescription only medication. This means, effective, proven, and safe medication such as is available from your Veterinary Surgery on a prescription basis. Shop bought products are unlikely to be efficacious enough to adequately control fleas and should usually be avoided.
All animals in the household will need to be treated simultaneously and continuously, even if they are indoor only animals. The environment will also need to be cleaned, vacuumed and treated – with a product which kills the younger stages of the flea’s life cycle, the eggs and larvae. If your cat regularly visits a second home or a cattery, these areas must also be treated.
For presumed allergic skin disease, a short course of steroids may be advised. This should alleviate the itch and again, perhaps help in pinpointing an underlying allergy. Subsequent allergy testing (to specifically identify the allergen), can be undertaken.
Persistent over-grooming that is not responsive to a flea treatment trial or steroid therapy, is likely to warrant further diagnostics.
If the suspicion is for other causes of overgrooming, the focus of investigations may be to obtain further information on other body system. For example, x-rays of the skeleton in case of an older cat who is overgrooming over joints, or urinalysis in the case of a younger cat with signs of cystitis who overgrooming the lower half of the body near the bladder.
If both skin conditions and pain have been excluded as causative processes, a cautious diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia can be made. Expert advice from a qualified veterinary behaviourist should be sought. Nowadays we know much more about cat behaviour and the importance of providing an environment in which they feel secure. Many natural supplements are also available to help decrease stress and relieve anxiety, but these are usually most successfully employed alongside advice from a specialist in feline behaviour.