The medical name for excessive grooming is psychogenic alopecia. It happens when a cat's normal licking activity crosses over into an obsessive behavior.
Excessive grooming is one of the most common compulsive disorders in cats.
Excessive Grooming Often Starts as a Displacement Behavior
Psychogenic alopecia often begins as what's called a displacement behavior.
Cats need their daily routine to be very predictable and consistent. Some kitties, when they feel stressed by a change in their environment, will start performing a behavior like grooming themselves. This is an example of a displacement behavior.
The type of stress that prompts excessive licking tends to be ongoing and is usually a combination of stressors that are cumulative. So... a new family member, a move to a new house, or even the relocation of the litter box can upset the average cat and trigger displacement behaviors. These displacement behaviors help to reduce emotional tension that the cat is feeling. Licking releases endorphins.
Some Cats are More Prone to the Behavior Than Others
Female cats tend to be more prone to psychogenic alopecia than males. The disorder can happen at any age, but is commonly seen about the time of puberty.
There is probably a genetic basis for the condition, because it's seen primarily in certain purebred cats -- primarily the oriental breeds -- with generally anxious temperaments.
The disorder can also occur in kitties who are hospitalized, boarded, bored, deprived of their freedom, or who are generally stressed or have a high-strung disposition.
Other Causes of Excessive Grooming
It's important to differentiate psychogenic alopecia from other reasons kitties will lick areas of their bodies, such as skin issues or pain.
There are lots of medical reasons cats over-groom. If the problem is generalized itching, the licking is usually widespread. If there's a painful area, the licking will be focused there.
Where a cat focuses her licking can give clues to the root problem, which can be any number of things -- fleas, a neurologic problem, a chiropractic problem, parasites, food allergies, or a reaction to dust, pollen, or mold.
Conditions that aren't skin-related but can cause excessive grooming include cystitis, hyperthyroidism, and anal sac problems.
Identifying and correcting underlying medical issues is important before assuming your cat is licking for an emotional reason.
How to Spot Excessive Grooming Behavior
Cats spend about 30 to 40 percent of their day grooming themselves, and much of the remaining time is spent snoozing. So it's common for pet owners to have no clue there's a problem until they notice significant hair loss, bald spots, or scabs from over-grooming.
It's also possible cat owners don't notice the behavior because when the person is there, the cat feels more comfortable and relaxed and doesn't need to self-soothe by licking.
Obvious signs of psychogenic alopecia are excessive licking and chewing. More aggressive kitties can resort to biting themselves and pulling out patches of hair. Hair loss and skin damage will be localized to areas of the body where the cat actually can reach to lick and chew.
In addition to excessive licking, there can be other signs of stress, including hiding, refusal to eat, and nervousness. These are all general tip-offs that the behavior could have an emotional rather than a physical root.
Helping a Cat With Psychogenic Alopecia
When all medical causes have been ruled out or resolved and you've narrowed the problem down to an issue of obsessive behavioral licking, treatment should be focused on stress reduction and environmental enrichment.
Cats like to eat at the same time every day, so make feeding time very consistent. Keep food bowls and litter boxes in a consistent location and, of course, very clean. Provide your cat with hiding boxes, access to high perches, and appropriate scratching surfaces.
Most kitties enjoy interacting with people, so take time every day to make sure your cat's emotional needs are being met. You can involve physical activity with an interactive toy like a laser pointer. Brushing your kitty is beneficial for removing hair and cutting down on hairballs, and is quite enjoyable for many cats.
Consider investing in a treat or food-dispensing toy for your cat. You can also think about window perches or even kitty videos to help provide environmental enrichment.
You can talk to your holistic vet about stress remedies for anxious kitties. I've had success in treating these kitties with flower essences, homeopathics, and also acupuncture. Consider reducing stress with feline facial pheromone sprays such as Feliway.
Most importantly, you need to be patient, as excessive grooming problems usually take quite some time to resolve. But with consistent attention, affection, and routine, most kitties do get their psychogenic alopecia under control. They re-grow their hair, and their quality of life improves within a few months' time.
Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: MercolaHealthyPets.com.
Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.
By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.