Our lives are often hectic and we ask a lot of our cats, expecting them to just fit in. Fortunately, most cats adapt well to all the changes and excitement in their environment. Unfortunately, there are some cats who cannot adjust to our busy lifestyles and for whom the resulting stress is too much. Such cats may start to over-groom as a way to cope with the stressful situation.
Grooming is a normal behaviour which the cat performs in order to keep its coat clean and healthy. It is also a pleasurable experience. Therefore, a cat feeling anxious or frustrated may learn that it feels better when it grooms and may consequently groom more in future, especially in situations that cause it to be unhappy.
This may sound like an odd question, but cats that over-groom often do not groom in front of their owners, perhaps because the owner’s presence provides the comfort the cat seeks through grooming and therefore only needs to do it in the owner’s absence. Alternatively, the owner may tell off the cat for grooming and so the cat avoids grooming in front of the owner, in order to avoid being told off. Consequently you may not realise that your cat is over-grooming until you notice bald or stubbly areas in your cat’s fur. Stressed cats often just lick one or two areas, typically down the middle of their back, on their belly or the inside of their thighs. Licking sometimes removes the hair completely, leaving bald patches, but sometimes the only indication of the over-grooming is a slight rough feeling to the fur, where the licking has caused the hairs to break and become short and stubbly.
Although over-grooming due to stress is a common reason for hair loss, there are several medical reasons why a cat may lose his hair, such as pain, parasites, allergies or hormone problems. If the skin becomes itchy or sore the cat may lick it to ease the discomfort. Deeper pain, for example the pain associated with cystitis, can also cause the cat to lick the skin covering this area. As in stress-related over-grooming, the hair can break or be removed completely. Licking itself can further irritate the skin which encourages the cat to lick even more, even once the original medical reason for the cat’s itchy or sore skin has gone. Cats that learn that grooming relieves negative feelings such as pain or discomfort may learn to use grooming as a way to relieve other negative feelings associated with stress, such as fear, anxiety and frustration. Therefore, before assuming that your cat is over-grooming because of stress you must take your cat to your vet for a thorough examination to rule out any possible medical explanation.
Cats are all individuals, just like people, and what will stress one cat may be accepted as normal to another. Common causes of stress for cats include the presence of other cats: either other household cats it lives with; or neighbouring cats that it encounters outside, can see from windows or doorways of the house, or that come into its own house via the cat flap or open door or window! Any changes within the house can also be stressful, such as new additions to the family, such as a new pet, a baby or step family. Family members leaving the household, such as a child going to university can also remove a source of reassurance for stressed cats, making them feel more anxious. A change in your routine can also upset some cats, for example if you change your working hours. However, the cause of the stress might not be very obvious or there may be multiple issues upsetting your cat.
As there may be no obvious source of stress to your cat, or because there may be no obvious way of addressing the identified issue or issues likely to be contributing to your cat’s behaviour it is recommended that your vet refers you to a behaviour specialist, after they have ruled out medical problems. The specialist will take a detailed history from you about your cat’s behaviour, including his interactions with family members and other animals, and his environment. With all of this information the behaviour specialist should be able to work out what is causing your cat stress. This might be one issue or multiple issues. The behaviour specialist will then be able to devise a suitable treatment plan that is appropriate to your circumstances and to your cat’s personality. Every cat and every owner and their circumstances are different so it is very important that you receive tailored advice. This will ensure that your cat’s over-grooming is resolved as quickly as possible. However, resolving underlying sources of stress may not be easy to remedy and you may have to persevere with the treatment plan for a long time before seeing any improvements. If your cat is too anxious for the treatment plan to be effective, the specialist may suggest to your vet that they prescribe a drug to reduce your cat’s anxiety. These can only be prescribed by your vet and should only be used in addition to the treatment, not instead of it.