Itchy Kitties: Cats that Self-Groom Excessively

Cats are both predators and prey. As an instinctual survival strategy, to avoid detection they are extremely fastidious about their personal hygiene. Amazingly, cats can spend up to 50% of each day self-grooming.

Why is my cat overgrooming?
Why is my cat overgrooming?
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There are times however, when cats overdo this fastidious behavior and begin over-grooming; a behavior which can result in open skin sores which then may lead to serious infections.

Grooming is a natural feline behavior. Since cats often overgroom late at night or when we are away, it can be hard for guardians to even notice that their cat is grooming excessively. But once you are aware that your cat is constantly licking him/herself or pulling out his/her hair, it is time to have your kitty’s grooming behavior evaluated quickly by a veterinarian.

Why do cats overgroom? Excessive grooming can be caused by a variety of physical reasons which can include an allergic reaction to flea bites, mites, mange, environmental or food-intolerance allergies, bacterial skin infections, drug reaction, hormonal/ endocrine imbalances and poor diet. Stress and emotional upset can also be responsible for causing cats to over groom. Many of these conditions can be diagnosed through dermatological testing which your veterinarian will no doubt perform.
What are the signs of feline over-grooming? According to Vet, the most common indications that a cat is over-grooming are skin irritations, hair loss- mainly on the legs, chest, the abdomen and the flanks; areas on which cats can most easily reach.

Other signs of overgrooming include: Obsessive scratching, rashes, redness, scabs or pus on bald areas, discomfort or irritability when scratching, or if the cat’s other activities are interrupted by grooming behavior.

Once your veterinarian has ruled out any underlying medical conditions causing your cat to over-groom, your itchy cat may possibly be diagnosed with psychogenic alopecia. This is a compulsive disorder generally caused by stress or anxiety. Kitty guardians are well aware that self-grooming is inordinately comforting to a cat. We all have observed times when our cats are confronted by a perceived threat, a sudden change to the environment, or even just an overnight guest when our kitties may often start grooming themselves in order to self-soothe. Generally when the anxiety-producing event is over, this grooming behavior will stop.

This said cats that continue licking and vehemently grooming themselves may have already formed a compulsive habit with which the cat has difficulty controlling. Although psychogenic alopecia is certainly not a life-threatening condition, it can be symptomatic of a cat who feels overly stressed or extremely anxious. This is when veterinary intervention is necessary to treat the condition.

Feline Psychogenic Alopecia
Feline Psychogenic Alopecia. Photo Credit: Flickr Users: Steve Browne & John Verkleir

How is excessive grooming treated? This of course depends on the cause of the behavior. If it is considered a food reaction, your veterinarian may recommend allergy testing and then a change in diet. If the behavior is due to parasites, your vet will prescribe various medications depending on the type of the parasitic condition. Hormonal or endocrine issues will be addressed with appropriate medication as well.

For stress related over-grooming behavior there are several things that can be done to try to help alleviate the behavior which include both environmental changes and if necessary utilizing anti-anxiety medications.

There are things that guardians can do to help their cats. Keep your cat on a regular routine daily schedule of play, exercise and feeding. “Catifying” your environment with cat trees, a window perch, cardboard boxes and a variety of new toys will help ensure that your cat is intellectually stimulated.

Interactive “play therapy” for between 10- 15 minutes a day not only solidifies bonds; it also helps to work off some of that pent-up feline predatory energy. Providing your cat with a catnip or catmint plant is also a great idea.

Above all, never punish your cat for over-grooming behavior because it can intensify the behavior. You can also ask your veterinarian to recommend behavior modification techniques.

Have you ever had a cat that over-grooms? What additional ideas can you recommend to help reduce or eliminate this behavior? Please share them in a comment.

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4 thoughts on “Itchy Kitties: Cats that Self-Groom Excessively”

  1. Some of this is in evidence right now in our home, Jo, because we have lost our beloved Maine Man, Sammi, on the 8th. He was 21 years young and absolutely magnificent. We are all in grief because of our loss, and our torti beauty Tarifa is experiencing some alopoecia, partly evident before Sammi’s passing and could possibly be stress-related because sometimes we do have stress.

  2. A short time after we adopted Sir Hubble Pinkerton, my husband and I had to take a trip for a week. We boarded him and his brother with our vet (we were living in NY at the time) and when we returned and picked the kitties up I noticed that Sir Hubble had started licking himself excessively and had pulled out a huge amount of fur- and had scratched himself under his neck until the area was open and bloody.

    It took a lot of veterinary attention and nursing care, to heal him. He was fine until we moved to Florida. He was so stressed out that he again started over-grooming and chewing on himself. In addition to considerable veterinary intervention and anti-anxiety medication, we also changed his diet to grain-free (that was 14 years ago) and eventually this behavior stopped. So far he hasn’t started this compulsive behavior again and I am crossing my fingers and toes that he won’t. It is a very upsetting behavior as far as I am concerned. Funny thing is that he left his belly hair intact.

  3. My Charlie suffered from overgrooming at the time of my mother’s death (she was his caretaker). I adopted him on her death and he gradually stopped overgrooming and his hair returned. He groomed his belly and the inside of his hind legs – classic places where cats overgroom because they are easy to get at.


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