Over grooming (feline psychogenic alopecia)

In the hurly-burly of our modern lives we ask a lot of pets. Fortunately most cats adapt well to all the changes and excitement around them, managing to fit into our hectic schedules and, in doing so, enrich our lives. Unhappily, there are some cats for whom the stress of modern living is just too much and these poor creatures show us their unhappiness in a variety of ways.

Grooming is a pleasurable experience for a cat, and it is believed that when they are grooming cats experience a rush of opioids from the brain which gives them a natural ‘high’ – a bit like taking drugs. It is natural therefore, that if a cat is feeling anxious and unhappy, and if they get pleasure from grooming, they will do it more often to help them feel better.

Strangely, cats which groom a lot are often not seen grooming by their owner. This is because most of the grooming is done when the cat is left alone and needs more reassurance. Often the cat will lick in a certain area – which is typically a stripe down the middle of the back or on the belly and also the inside of the thighs. The licking causes the hairs to break and so the fur in the licked areas is short and stubbly (and occasionally the hair is removed completely leaving a patch of bald skin).

Usually the skin in these areas looks normal, with no spots or redness. In colour point breeds, like the Siamese (where the hair is darker on ear tips and feet), the hair in a groomed area may be darker than on the rest of the body. It has been said that ‘highly strung’ breeds (such as the Siamese) are more likely to develop anxiety-related diseases.

Of course there are many other reasons why a cat may lose its hair. Most commonly it is because the skin is itchy or sore and the cat licks to ease the discomfort. In the process of doing this she damages and removes the hair creating bald patches. There are other possible skin diseases such as parasites, allergies or hormone problems, which can also cause hair loss.

Other causes of hair loss in the cat are much more common than overgrooming due to stress. If your cat is losing hair, you should take her to see your vet who will do some simple tests to see if there is another reason for her to be losing her hair. If no other cause can be found then it is probably time to look at the possibility of stress being the cause.

Each cat has a different personality – just as all people are different. What one cat can take in her stride will worry another. It is very important for your vet to take a detailed history from you about how your cat lives and particularly how she interacts with people and other cats, and whether there have been any recent changes in your circumstances.

Common causes of stress in cats include bullying by neighbouring cats (particularly if these are invading your home through a cat flap), recent introductions to the household (puppies, new kittens or babies) or a change in your own circumstances. Some cats can be very sensitive and extremely attached to their owner – if you have previously been at home during the day but suddenly return to work your cat may be lonely.

Each case must be managed on an individual basis. It is essential to find out what is upsetting your cat and then to try to resolve that problem. It may be as simple as closing off the cat flap so that the neighbour’s cat does not come into your home but unfortunately, in many cases, the solution is not so obvious. It may take many months or even years of work to resolve the problem.

In a particularly tricky case, your vet may refer you to a specialist in pet behaviour who will have plenty of experience and time to devote to your problem. There are some drugs which can be used to reduce anxiety in your cat, although these can only be prescribed by your vet and should only be used alongside treatment to try to resolve the underlying problem.