Updated: Nov 24, 2021
One of the most distressing things I encounter as a Behaviourist are those cases where cats over groom or pull their own fur out. For the cat's owners seeing this behaviour repeated day in, day out can be especially devastating, particularly when the constant trauma inflicted on the skin by the cat's teeth and tongue creates wounds that end up being very sore and can even become infected. But why would a cat mutilate itself in this way?
It is thought that most cases of over grooming comes about either as a result of an issue with the skin that makes it itchy, or from pain in a particular part of the cat's body. The most common cause of over grooming comes from the itch that occurs where a cat develops an allergy to flea saliva. When a flea bites their skin, it irritates them and causes intense itching. This in turn encourages the cat to groom in response and an itch/scratch cycle is created that continues often until veterinary intervention takes place and the underlying irritation is addressed. Cats can also develop sensitivities to certain foods, pollens, trees and plants and even house dust mites – all of which can result in excessive grooming in response to the itch. In these cases the grooming creates a symmetrical pattern of baldness or damaged hair, with the cat grooming those areas it can comfortably reach on both sides.
Over grooming can also be associated with disease and localised pain. In both cases the cat will usually only groom the area where the pain can be felt.
But whilst what causes a cat to over groom or pull his fur out is almost always physical, there are some behavioural reasons why this might happen, including changes to or upheavals within the environment as well as the presence of other cats or pets. A cat suffering from anxiety may use grooming as a way of soothing itself and sometimes this may develop further until it becomes an inherent reward for the cat. This then becomes a very difficult habit to break. My cat Jimmy suffered from separation anxiety and I'd often come back from trips away to a balding Siamese cat.
For this reason a two-pronged approach works well when addressing this behaviour. It’s very important to have the cat assessed by a vet (and if required they may even refer your cat to a veterinary dermatologist), whilst a behaviour specialist will help identify any stressors in the environment that may be exacerbating the problem.
There are also things you can do to help reduce any stress your cat may be experiencing which could be contributing to the over grooming behaviour. One of these is to ensure that each resource that is important to your cat is provided in the correct quantities and are distributed throughout your home in appropriate locations. These include:
Food and water stations. Cats are solitary hunters and don't really like eating next to another cat. So if you have multiple cats in your home ensure that you feed them in separate areas and that their water bowls are located away from food. Even if your have a single cat, giving him a couple of feeding and drinking stations will allow him to choose his preferred location, and give him a sense of an abundance of food and water, his most important resources. Puzzle feeding is a fantastic way to distract your cat from stressors and more information on this can be found in my puzzle-feeding video blog.
High places. Being up high makes cats feel safe, so making space on a wardrobe or cupboard top, shelf, window sill or sofa back and making sure that your cat is able to climb up to it will fulfil this instinctive need. Elderly or disabled cats might need ramps or steps to help them climb.
Hiding places. When cats feel anxious or stressed one of the coping strategies they use is to hide. This is a positive behaviour which helps them to calm down. So it is important that they have dedicated and comfortable hiding places such as on a sleeping bag under a bed, or on a blanket in the bottom of a wardrobe that they can access 24/7. Try to avoid the temptation to visit them in their sanctuary or lure them out, they will make an appearance when they are ready.
Opportunities to scratch. Asides from the obvious reasons why cats scratch, they also use it as a way of marking their territory via the scent and sweat glands in between the pads on the underside of their paws. The more of their scent they can spread throughout their territory, the more secure they feel. A combination of upright scratching posts and horizontal scratchers is ideal. And if you have the budget, multi-level cat trees are great for allowing cats to not only scratch but to perch up high and feel safe. Scratching posts should be tall enough to allow your cat to scratch at full stretch and stable enough to prevent him being put off using them.
Cat beds. Good quality sleep can be a rare commodity for stressed cats, so providing somewhere comfortable, warm and private for them to rest is very important. This doesn't mean spending a fortune on a fancy cat bed. Any soft surface is fair game, or even a cardboard box with a blanket in it. As with my cat Billy, some cats like to be completely covered so creating a covered den for them will help them de-stress.
If you're thinking of investing in a heated pet pad and your cat has itchy and sore skin or open wounds I would ask your vet for advice about whether or not this will be suitable.
Litter trays. In multi-cat households these can be a highly prized resource which provokes competition between cats. An assertive cat may even block access to a tray to prevent a less confident cat from using it. For this reason having at least two litter trays in completely separate areas in your home is highly recommended. If you have just one cat, make sure that there's nothing aversive about the tray set up that makes toileting an unpleasant experience for him such as it being in an open location, being too small or containing litter that isn't soft enough for his sensitive paw pads.
Toys. I'm a great believer in the power of play to help raise a cat's emotional state, so scheduling one or two play session with your cat each day will serve as a great de-stressor and distract him from his fur-pulling activities. Use toys that both replicate natural feline behaviour and keep human hands away from the action such as fishing rod toys that your cat can chase and jump up at.
Make sure your cat a variety of toys to play with, these can include toys that have different textures such as fur and feathers, and different scents such as catnip toys, valerian toys and silvervine toys. You'll find a good selection of cat toys on Amazon or if you'd like to introduce your cat to Tatarian honeysuckle toys these are available here. To keep your cat interested in his toys place them all in a ziplock bag and rotate them daily.
Where there are a number of cats in the home, these resources should ideally be in the quantity of one per cat, plus one in different locations, but this obviously depends on the size of home and number of cats!
Where possible, allowing an indoor cat to have access outside may help alleviate any grooming related to stress from boredom and lack of stimulation.