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cat hair loss

Fur Mowing (Overgrooming) in Cats

Although cats are often referred to as being “curious,” the overwhelming majority of them do not tolerate stress or change in any shape or form. Stress can cause cats to do all sorts of things such as hide, poop, or pee outside the litter pan, become aggressive, or even over-groom themselves. Over-grooming or “psychogenic alopecia” is not that uncommon in our furry feline friends, but what exactly does it look like, and what helps to prevent or treat it? Read on to learn more about fur mowing and overgrooming in cats.

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Why do cats overgroom themselves?

The term “psychogenic” means that a problem begins in a mental or emotional conflict. “Alopecia” means hair loss. Psychogenic alopecia is the condition of hair loss as a result of overgrooming. Cats may obsessively lick or groom themselves to the point of hair loss or even skin sores. A form of self-trauma, they just can’t stop the compulsive licking as a response to stress or conflict.

There are many potential causes of stress in cats’ lives, some are pretty obvious to us, others not so much. Below are just a few:

  • Moving to a new home
  • Getting a new pet
  • Bringing a baby home from the hospital
  • Moving the litter pan or changing the type of pan or litter
  • Moving the food/water bowls or changing the type of diet
  • Boredom or lack of environmental enrichment
  • Any sort of change in the household routine

Symptoms of Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

Psychogenic alopecia occurs when a cat pulls so much hair out that the coat becomes uneven, thin, or bald. The cat cannot stop licking and overgrooming and pulls out hair that is not ready to be shed.

Although it usually occurs on the side (flank), abdomen, or inner thighs, it can occur anywhere on the body. Some owners may not even notice the excessive licking or overgrooming as oftentimes, cats feel the need to do it at night or when alone as a form of self-soothing.

How is psychogenic alopecia diagnosed in cats?

It’s important to rule out any medical forms of skin issues first, such as infection (bacterial vs. fungal), trauma, or parasites. Blood work including a thyroid level, urinalysis, skin culture, parasite treatment (e.g. fleas), skin scrapings to look for mites, as well as a food trial with a new or novel protein source are all helpful. It becomes a “diagnosis of exclusion” or ruling out certain medical conditions.

If your vet is unable to determine a medical cause for the hair loss then a deeper look into your cat’s environment for any source of stress may yield some potential reasons why your cat may be overgrooming.

Treatment at the Vet/Home Remedies for Overgrooming

The first and most obvious at-home treatment would be to eliminate, or at the very least minimize, the source of stress. That’s not always possible, however, so the next best thing is to increase your cat’s daily exercise or playtime as well as environmental enrichment such as food puzzles, high perches, interactive games, etc.

The next step is using pheromone therapy such as Feliway either in a spray or diffuser. Feliway is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone used by cats to mark their territory as “safe.” When a cat feels comfortable in their environment, they rub their cheeks against objects leaving behind a facial pheromone.

By helping to create that state of familiarity and security, Feliway comforts and reassures cats while they cope with a challenging situation such as moving or traveling. It helps reduce or prevent unwanted behaviors caused by stress. It comes in both a small spray bottle or atomizer/diffuser (like a Glade Plug-in). Don't worry, though, we can't smell it - only cats can! You can read about it at feliway.com.

Behavioral medications can be very effective when other methods of treatment fail. The anti-depressants Prozac (fluoxetine,) Elavil (amitriptyline,) and Clomicalm (clomipramine) are all good options. However, it may take up to 4-6 weeks for benefits to occur.

How to Prevent Your Cat from Overgrooming

The best way to prevent psychogenic alopecia is to get to know your cat and determine what makes them happy and what may cause them stress. Many of the aforementioned treatments can be used before there’s a problem.

When the overgrooming has stopped and the hair has grown back, you can slowly try to discontinue the medications, but close monitoring will be very important to see if it returns. While some cats will adjust, others may need medication for a long period of time, potentially for life. If all else fails, a referral to a veterinary behaviorist may be your best bet.

When to Contact a Vet

If you’re noticing your kitten or cat licking themselves more than usual or having any sort of hair loss, you should plan to call your vet, as an exam is now a good idea. You can book a video call with us at FirstVet to get an initial assessment of your cat and to help determine if any follow-up might be needed.

Read more:

Separation Anxiety in Cats

Noise Anxiety in Cats and Dogs

Your Guide to Kitty Body Language

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