Stressed Cats Overgrooming? Your Guide to Cat Hair Loss
Tabby doesn’t deal with office politics and gets to sleep 16 hours a day, but cats still suffer from feline stress. In fact, upset feelings can leave them biting their nails and pulling their hair. Literally.
I’m not talking about normal shedding. Rather than developing ulcers the way people do, a small number of stressed pets go bald or create sores on themselves from excessive cat licking and chewing fur. Nibbling is a normal part of self-grooming, but when these pets feel upset, the behavior becomes a compulsion. Refer to this post on ways humans can (accidentally) hiss off their cats.
Changing The Routine Causes Cat Stress
Some cats get bent out of shape and pull out hair over losing facetime with a family member. A death, divorce, longer work hours, or a best friend going away to college can leave Sheba yowling. Cat separation anxiety can cause stress behaviors, but so can too much togetherness.
Any change in the routine and environment can cause feline stress. Adding a new family member (furred or human), moving to a new house, or simply rearranging the furniture raise the cat’s hiss-teria. With many people working at home during the current virus crises, people mourn the loss of normalcy–and so do cats. Many cats may suffer stress-related health issues. One clear sign of cat stress includes increased scratching behavior, so you’ll need to address claw trims as well.
Signs of Cat Stress
Stress & Feline Pee-Mail: Feline spraying often increases as a result of stress, because spreading this self-scent helps pets feel calm. Even neutered or spayed pets spray when they experience stress. Pets often target areas of the house they identify as important territory such as the missing person’s bedroom as well as objects that smell like a beloved human. You’ll also notice more cheek rubbing and scratching behavior by the cat.
Increased Meowing: Cats typically meow more at humans than each other. Meow-requests (and demands) often increase during times of cat stress.
Overdoing Cat Grooming: Normal cat grooming keeps cats spiffy. Cat over-grooming behaviors are called psychogenic alopecia. Licking releases endorphins, natural painkillers made by the brain that makes the sensation feel so good that some cats progress to self-mutilation. This can also happen with a rare behavioral/neurological condition called hyperesthesia syndrome. But in most cases instead of making sores, the cat self-barbers and licks so much the fur breaks off.
Causes of Cat Over-Grooming
Feline over-grooming most often affects the Siamese, Burmese, Himalayan and Abyssinian breeds. It typically results in a line or stripe down the back, or sometimes on a foreleg, of very short stubbled hair. It looks like a burr haircut. Unlike other causes for hair loss, the skin beneath appears perfectly normal when cats over-groom out of stress.
How to Reduce Cat Stress
You’ll need a veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis. In the meantime, try to figure out the reason your cat feels stressed. If you can identifying the cause and eliminate it, the behavior usually goes away. Here are some tips for soothing kitty angst.
- Have your college-bound student or other long-distance pet lover send an audio recording of her voice to play for the upset pet.
- Ask the absent person to leave behind some unwashed socks in a sealed baggy—NOT for you to do laundry, but to give the pets a scented pick-me-up. The cat will react to this treat like it’s a bouquet of roses!
- Play therapy is also a great stress reliever and can help build a pet’s self-confidence and associate the positive experience with the new house or pet. Interactive games are best, such as chase-the-fishing pole lure or a laser light tag for cats. Offer your cat a tunnel to play hide and seek and get away from stressful situations.
- The spray or plug-in pheromone product, Feliway can be helpful to relieve stress. Feliway is an analog of the check-scent cats naturally produce and rub onto objects and has a calming effect. You can purchase Feliway at most pet product stores.
- Increase environmental enrichment for your cats by bringing the outdoors inside. More tips can be found in this on-demand webinar.
Veterinary Treatment for Over-Grooming & Cat Hair Loss
In most cases, excessive stress licking behaviors require antianxiety drug therapy prescribed by a veterinarian to break the cycle.
Some veterinary behaviorists indicate that the herbal remedy kava-kava may provide mild relief for anxiety, and for treatment of psychogenic alopecia. Always check with your pet’s doctor for the proper dose.
Some studies indicate acupuncture treatments are helpful for behavioral problems such as anxiety, and compulsive over-grooming in cats. Learn more about holistic modalities in this post.
There’s nothing sadder than a bald cat. Keep pets off the “worst stressed list” by soothing their upset feelings.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!