Over-grooming is a stress-related disorder and can be classified as obsessive-compulsive behaviour. During grooming, endorphins (hormones that make your cat happy) are released, making grooming a pleasurable and relaxing pursuit. So it seems quite natural that when the cat becomes stressed, he attempts to calm himself down by pursuing a relaxing activity such as grooming.
Over-grooming can start 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, chewing or pulling out tufts of fur. The most commonly affected areas are the inside of the thighs, and nearby abdomen and groin.
Are certain breeds more prone to over-grooming?
Siamese, Orientals, and Abyssinians can be more prone to compulsive behaviour as they are more highly strung than other breeds. However, over-grooming can happen in any cat. It seems to be slightly over-represented in female cats.
The first thing you should do is take your cat to the veterinarian. It is important to rule out a medical cause. Several medical conditions can cause overgrooming and/or hair loss, these include:
- Contact, inhalant or food allergy
- Bacterial pyoderma
- Flea bite hypersensitivity
- Eosinophilic granuloma complex
- Patches of bald or thinning hair. The hair shaft may be damaged and shortened, and the belly and thighs are the most common areas to be affected.
- Other behaviours may also present; these may include withdrawal from the family, or in contrast, clinginess, excessive crying, loss of appetite.
- Over time, the skin may become damaged, leading to infection.
The veterinarian will perform a complete physical evaluation and obtain a medical history from you. Questions you will be asked include:
- When did the behaviour begin?
- Have you noticed any triggers?
- How often is he doing this?
- Are there any other behaviours you have noticed?
- Are there any changes to your cat’s home life? New baby, divorce, death, new pet, moved house?
- Does your cat spend long periods at home alone? Could he be bored?
- Are there other cats in the household, how do they all get along?
- Is your cat getting enough human attention?
- Are there any other cats outside who could be stirring up your cat?
Diagnostic tests will be necessary to rule out an underlying cause, such as parasites.
Baseline tests: Complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of the cat.
Dermatological tests: Skin scrapings to rule out parasites and fungal infections, flea comb the coat, skin prick tests, fungal cultures and in some cases, food trials to rule out food allergies.
- 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 with a rich and stimulating environment. If you are out for long periods, you could consider a cat video or a fish tank for your cat’s viewing pleasure. Provide perches as well as interactive toys.
- Take the time to play with your cat every day. 15-30 minutes of active play can keep him stimulated, relieve boredom and stress.
- Feliway is a synthetic pheromone that can be used to calm down a stressed cat. It mimics the natural facial pheromone that cats rub on furnishings and objects to mark their territory and feel calm. Feliway comes in plug-in or spray form.
- If the cat is bored, consider providing access to the outdoors (safely) with a catio or cat enclosure.
- Try to keep neighbourhood cats out of the garden. Speak to the neighbours if possible. There are products available from pet stores or garden centres which claim to deter cats from your garden, which may be of some success. If it is not possible to keep cats out of your garden, try to restrict your own cat’s view of the unwelcome visitor by closing blinds to that part of the garden (where possible).
- If the problem is other cats within the home, you may need to set up separate areas for them and provide multiple litter trays, food, and water bowls. It may be necessary to completely separate cats for a period time and slowly-re-introduce them over several weeks. This typically begins with feeding the cats on either side of a screen door, so that they can see each other, slowly moving the bowls closer together. Eventually, opening the door and having them eat close to each other. Additionally, playing with both cats in the same room can help to settle them and assist with re-introduction. Jackson Galaxy from My Cat From Hell has some excellent videos on how to re-introduce cats who don’t get along.
- If it isn’t possible to bring the cat’s behaviour under control with environmental modification and reducing stress, it may be necessary to try medications. The goal is to give this medication until the behaviour decreases and then gradually taper off the medication. It can take several months for the fur to re-grow. Always use medications in conjunction with behaviour modification.
If all of the above methods haven’t helped, your veterinarian may recommend your cat see a feline behaviourist who can work with you and your cat to reduce stress and break the habit of over-grooming.