First hand experience that anxiety can cause overgrooming in cats

Overgrooming in cats can be quite a serious health problem. Cats can lick the fur off their bodies and don’t even stop there, sometimes. A cat can lick exposed skin raw to the point where it bleeds and becomes infected. Then the skin might itch. Your cat might scratch it and so the problem gets worse and worse.

This is what was happening to my cat, Charlie. There is a page on PoC in which I discuss the possible causes of overgrooming while searching for reasons.

Cat Overgrooming Caused By Anxiety

Cat Overgrooming Caused By Anxiety

I’d like briefly to write about how the problem was cured for Charlie. I am not saying that the cause and effect for Charlie will be the same for all cats. Compulsive grooming due to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) behavior is about the emotions of individual cats and the circumstances under which individual cats live.

It is also unpleasant for a cat caretaker to watch this self-mutilation happening and be powerless to stop it. Well, I was able to stop it because it was my behavior that caused it. I would like to thank the support of the regular visitors to PoC and in this instance, particularly Ruth (Monty’s mom) who agreed that the source of the problem in the case of Charlie was stray cats coming into the Charlie’s home through a cat flap (cat door).

There are a lot of wandering and stray cats where I live and I tend to attract them because I can’t say no when they come for food. A stray cat is good at finding food and they often lose their fear of entering strange homes and eating cat food from cat bowls put down for the property owner’s cat or cats.

I knew that three cats were doing this; two tabbies who were siblings and a large, impressive grey cat. When Charlie first came to live in my home his coat was fine and there were no stray cats coming in.

After about 4 months of stray cats coming in Charlie started to groom excessively. He would also scratch himself. The scratching was in part due to a flea allergy although he had no fleas on him. I believe the scratching was also part of the obsessive grooming process. Cats do scratch when grooming and if they groom excessively they will scratch excessively too.

When the strays came in (on average about every other day) he would watch them from a high vantage point and occasionally try and see them off by growling etc. He is quite alpha in his behavior. I had to cat wrangle to avoid conflict.

Anyway to cut to the chase, on discussions in comments on PoC with the “troops” I decided to block up the cat flap. This meant a complete change in routine for Charlie and for me because he has always used the garden to go to the toilet. He now had to ask me to let him out and in. I am pleased to say that he learned fast. He makes sure he gets noticed and he stands on his hind legs if he needs to make a point. He also puts his head around the bedroom door and just asks to be let out.

The new regime has been in place for about 3 months and he grooms less and his coat has returned in most places or is returning. It is as straightforward as that.

Clearly the constant intrusion upon his territorial home range by stray cats was making him anxious. He had lost control of his home range because of what I was allowing to happen. He probably felt a need to be constantly vigilant to defend his home range. Self-grooming can be a reaction to stress for a cat as it is relaxing. It is a bit like nail-biting for humans. Also humans find comfort in OCD behavior as it is reassuring. It reaffirms that they have control in situations that are out of control.

It is nice to see a direct cause and effect and a complete cure of his OCD behavior.  An added advantage is the fact that in winter the flea bite allergy is more or less eliminated as there are no fleas in cold England. The next hurdle will be summer, to see if we can keep fleas totally off him (even one bite from one flea can cause an allergic reaction) and therefore keep the itching away. Itching causes licking and scratching.

The flea bit allergy and OCD grooming are very similar in what you see by way of visible behavior in response, namely, overgrooming.

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First hand experience that anxiety can cause overgrooming in cats — 28 Comments

  1. Great Michael, well done. I know it must be hard not to let the strays in. Do you leave them something to eat outside now? I would imagine that would be a good compromise. Are they infact strays? Afterall you do live in London and it’s hard to imagine homeless cats in that city- anywhere near the center at least.

    • I call them “strays” but they have homes. “Straying cats” is probably better. One of the tabbies would stay here if given a chance. And the grey cat probably wants a new home too. I do feed them outside and I am not sure if I should! Difficult. I just wanted to pass on the experience as it may help others. There seems to be quite a lot of wandering, time share cats in central London. This may be the preferred lifestyle for some cats. It reminds me of Morocco and places like that where cats share people and don’t have fixed homes.

      I am very grateful to the regulars at PoC for encouraging me to take a fairly drastic step as it did alter our habits quite a lot.

  2. I’m glad Charlie is OK now, sometimes you just have to accept you can’t help all cats as you need to put your own first, although it does make you feel really bad.

    • Yes, it is upsetting having to be tough on cats but it also impossible sometimes to manage stray cats and your own cat at the same time. It just becomes too much.

  3. Hi Micheal I’m glad you got Charlie’s problem resolved but I think you thanked the wrong Ruth I just read your first page and it was our very own Kattaddorra one.
    I’m lucky I don’t have problems with my cats being stressed but I suppose it’s because I’ve got quite a few and dogs and kids as well and we are all used to being a gang and we live where they can go out without worries.

  4. I think I echoed Kattaddorra’s sentiments on this one Michael, so you were right on both counts, but she said it first. That whole cat flap thing seems strange to us here in America. Most people don’t have them. When I was a kid our cat Tippy would ask to be let in by jumping up and hanging onto the screen door with her claws. You’d open the inner door and there she would be clinging to the screen on the window of the outer door. I think things were made better back then, because we never had to replace that screen. Monty pretty much destroyed the screen on our back patio door, climbing up it to ask to be let out. Jeff said today you have to pay extra for a pet friendly screen. In any case, cats let us know what they want.

    • LOL – my cat in Canada used to do the exact same thing on our screen door. When she was little there was her and her sister climbing on the screen and it was very funny. Like little spiders – they would go all the way up and then backwards down again. We never had a cat door in Canad which is why I made a tunnel from my bathroom window eventually. In Canada it was uncommon to see such cat flaps but here when you go to the pet shop for a start there are hundreds of them of all sorts and really alot of houses have them. But its true that in Europe we don’t have racoons or even worse, skunks, and the such who will come in through your cat flap eventually. We had a skunk spray in our dryer air tunnel where the air from the machine goes directly through a tube outside. For about a year it smelled when we used it of course. There are many less predators in Europe, both animal and human, so cats generally mostly are free to go in and out.

      Just to be clear – you are also Rose?

  5. No, I think Rose lives in the UK. I live in the USA.
    Wow, that’s a great story about the skunk spraying in the dryer vent. Eeeewww! Even with my limited sense of smell I can smell skunk. You could be right that skunks are why you don’t see many cat flaps around here.

      • Not true, Michael. You have hedgehogs. I wish we has hedgehogs. You also have badgers, don’t you? Go Bucky! (University of Wisconsin’s football team’s mascot is Bucky Badger.) Do you have opossums? We have those even though they don’t do well this far north. We’ll trade you our opossums for some hedgehogs. Actually not sure hedgehogs would like the cold too much either. Monty is not a fan of winter. He goes out, but not for very long. He has a very loud meow which means, “I’m very cold, let me in NOW!”

        • True, I was being a bit basic. We have badgers and hedgehogs. I never see these animals. I have only seen a hedgehog about twice in the wild years ago and I have never seen a badger in the wild. I only see urban foxes, squirrels and birds. Oh, and a little rat that runs across a building site across the road…Sweet thing he is.

          • I’ve never seen a badger in the wild either. Probably a good thing. We were taught as kids if we ever saw one to just leave him alone. They are small but fierce and will fight to the death to protect what is theirs. This is why a badger is a better team mascot than a beaver. I always have to laugh at the Reedsburg Beavers (my dad’s alma mater). I have seen several beavers in the wild, one right in the city near a creek which runs through a city park.

            • I’m pleased you have never seen a badger in the wild. Makes me feel better 😉 They must be very secretive. They are noctural aren’t they? Must help to avoid the dreaded people with rifles.

          • We have hedgehogs, they are hibernating in the bushes on the edge of our garden at present. But it was a bad year for them last year with being so wet and we took 2 underweight Autumn babies to the hedgehog carer who does a wonderful job, sadly one died. They can’t survive hibernation if under a certain weight.
            The cats totally ignore them when they come out, they are very clever to know they are spikey. When we first moved here we heard terrible screams in the night, we thought someone was being murdered, we had never heard hedgehogs mating before!!!!!OUCH those spikes lol

          • Marion of our local Cats Protection saw the hunt out with all the pack of dogs after a poor fox, when she was feeding ferals last week, even though it’s illegal. Thankfully the fox got away yayyyyyy
            The trouble is young people are needed for sabateuring as it’s too risky for us older people, but they think with it being banned there’s no need to worry.
            It doesn’t matter which way we turn there’s animal abuse going on and we can’t keep up with fighting it all.

          • Sorry to hear you don’t see the fox. I figured he was around still. I watched an old video I guess of him thinking about coming in. He did look pretty scraggly. It is good for the heart and soul to see wildlife doing what they do. I don’t think I could live in an urban area again.

            • I am proud to say I cured his mange by feeding him/her chicken laced with a medicine. Then a neighbor saw me with the fox. I was feeding by hand. Immediately after that moment I never saw him or her again. I was distraught. I think someone killed her/him. I hate that. I truly hate it. If I knew someone had killed her/him, I would hurt that person. I really would and don’t care about the consequences. I think she is dead. I think the fox was female. It makes me sad to think of her.

              • My god are you serious? That is terrible. And the neighbour – have you asked? I mean suspicions point obviously in that direction. Why would somebody not want a fox, especially one who is friendly with a person and apparently quite peaceful. I would be up in arms. I’d be storming over to the neighbour looking for answers in some underhanded way.

                • I could jump around but I have no proof and I won’t find it. I’ll just be branded a trouble maker who feeds foxes and likes cats (in other words he is crazy). The husband of the person who saw me with the fox is known to have regularly killed squirrels. A lot of people in the UK dislike foxes. I love them.

    • Yes I’m in the UK and met up with Ruth when she started the anti declaw troops to help educate about it and she introduced me to PoC.
      I don’t get on that much usually as I’ve a houseful of kids, rescue cats and dogs keeping me busy and happy.

  6. I used to leave my bedroom window open for Tippy and she would come in and out via the top of the railing on the deck above the garage. Until one night a big brown bat came in via that window. After that I put the screen in the window at night.

    • Your bat reminded me of years ago, our late mam, Babz and I were standing outside our door watching a bat go round and round the trees as we rarely saw one, when it suddenly dived at us lol we got in a bottleneck trying to get back in through the door lol

      • This bat had landed on my bed and I got up during the night to throw on another blanket and actually covered him up. I even saw him in my sleep dazed state and I thought he was a brown sock. (I had a very messy room.) In the morning I pulled the quilt off and there he was. He had big teeth and he hissed at me. I should have covered him up again but I screamed and ran out. By the time I could get help he was flying around the room. I was told that I should have left him covered because then they could have gotten him out alive. As it was he ended up being killed during the efforts to expel him. His fur had been so beautiful, a deep brown and he was huge. They threw him out back by the wood pile and I noticed that after he died his fur wasn’t so luxurious anymore and he wasn’t so beautiful as he had been. I felt really bad that I had not thought to throw the blanket back over him. I’m still amazed I didn’t end up getting bitten by him during the night, and I’m grateful for that, but to this day I feel terrible that he ended up being killed. It was my fault, all the way around.

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