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Overgrooming (psychogenic alopecia) in Cats

What is over-grooming in cats?

Over-grooming is a stress-related disorder, and can be classified as obsessive compulsive behaviour.  Self grooming is relaxing to the cat, so it seems quite natural that when the cat becomes stressed it attempts to calm itself down by pursuing a relaxing activity such as grooming.

Over-grooming may start out as a result of an environmental change (new member to the household, moved house etc.,) but over time this behaviour becomes compulsive, even if the original cause of the stress is no longer around.

This behaviour may take the form of excessive licking at the fur or pulling out tufts of fur. The most commonly affected areas are the inside of the thighs, and nearby abdomen and groin.

What should I do if my cat has bald patches?

The first thing you should do is take your cat to the veterinarian. It is important to rule out a medical reason causing either the over grooming or the baldness.  There are several medical conditions which can also result in bald patches, such as; hyperthyroidism, allergies (food or inhalant allergies), bacterial pyoderma, fleas or flea bite hypersensitivity, mites, eosinophilic granuloma complex and ringworm.

How is it diagnosed?

Your veterinarian may take skin scrapings from the damaged area(s) to rule out skin parasites and fungal infections, flea comb the coat and may perform complete blood testing.

How is over-grooming in cats treated?

  • Your cat may be put on a trial diet to rule out food allergies.
  • If the cause is an underlying medical condition or parasitic infection, treatment will hopefully result in the behaviour stopping.
  • Finding the cause of the stress and eliminating where possible. This may not always be possible, as has been stated above, the behaviour may have started in reaction to a stress, however it has become compulsive behaviour now, even though the reason for the original stress may have been resolved.
  • Keep your cat's day as routine as possible. Make sure you feed, play, exercise your cat at the same time daily. Cats like routine.
  • Provide your cat a rich and stimulating environment. If you are out for long periods of time you could consider a cat video or a fish tank for your cat's viewing pleasure. When you are home, set aside a play date with your cat every day.
  • Drug therapy: If it isn't possible to bring the cat's behaviour under control by changing the stress and environment then it may be necessary to try medications such as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications.  The goal is usually to give this medication until the behaviour decreases, and then gradually taper off the medication.
  • If you do see your cat engaging in over-grooming behaviour don't punish him, rewarding this behaviour should also be avoided. Both punishing and rewarding can quite possibly make the problem worse.