Is your cat licking and chewing themselves so much that there are bald spots?

Are you worried that your cat is grooming too much? Spending a few hours a day cleaning and washing themselves is a normal and beneficial activity for your cat but if you have noticed that patches of fur are missing from your cat’s arms or legs, there is a large bald spot on their tummy or your cat constantly bites or chews on a paw, this indicates that something is wrong.

A cat exhibiting excessive grooming (psychogenic alopecia.) Resulting baldness is noticeable around the abdomen, flank and legs. (photo by Steve Browne and John Verkleir)

What could be the cause?

First, it could be a medical issue. Take your cat to the vet.

You want to make sure there is no underlying medical condition that is causing this. For instance, if your cat has fleas or other parasites, it can cause your kitty to chew themselves raw. Hyperthyroidism (a glandular disorder caused by an excess of the thyroid hormone that causes weight loss, hyperactivity, and increased appetite) is another common reason for over grooming. A cat in pain may repeatedly lick or chew one particular area of the body in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. For example, if the bladder is causing pain, a cat can lick their belly stark naked. Excessive grooming can start as a response to fleas, an allergy, a food sensitivity or other skin condition. If your cat is licking itself all over, quite often, this is typical if the cat is feeling itchy. The licking that starts off as a way to relieve itching can become a habit which you don’t want your cat to develop. Because there could be other possible medical reasons, not listed here, don’t delay – get your cat checked out medically.

Or it could be a behavioral – emotional issue. If no medical cause can be found, the overgrooming is probably a behavioral issue and has become obsessive in nature. Constant licking and chewing is an anxiety – relieving mechanism – much like nail biting can be self-soothing for people. Excessive grooming is often a reaction to stress or trauma and the stress builds up so much that the cat must do something to relieve his anxiety – hence the constant washing.

You’ll want to identify what the trigger is for your cat because whatever is causing the cat to feel that anxious is the real problem.

What changes in your life or at home have there been lately? It could be a change in your work schedule, the addition of another pet to the house, the death in the family, other cats in the household or perceived threats from cats outside. It  doesn’t matter if strange cats don’t come inside the house, as long as your cat can smell and see the neighbor cat that keeps coming around, that is enough for yours truly to see the outsider as a threat. Other triggers can be if you recently moved to a new home – or made renovations to the house or the arrival of the new infant.

Think about if changes were made to your cat’s routine or environment because of a move or home construction or the arrival of additional pets or a new baby. Is there anything that has caused you to: feed your cat at different times than before, move the litter box or feeding station, change your cats usual sleeping place. All of these little things can cause stress.  Or…..on the flip side, your indoor cat could be extremely bored – with no activity or stimulation and this itself can trigger overgrooming.

What to do.

Minimize any of the above described adjustments that may have occurred to your cat’s routine or restore them as much as you can.

Provide as much stability and consistency and make his environment as stress–free,  as you can. If the dog barks at and relentlessly chases your cat, make sure the cat has access to safe areas where he can get away from the dog. A cat tree is perfect for this as dogs don’t tend to climb them. Does another cat in the house, torment him? Provide an area to eat and eliminate that is free from possible ambush. To determine if your cat feels anxious while eating, do this: when you place his food bowl on the floor, watch to see if your cat is constantly looking around, frequently stopping to check out her surroundings. If she does, then she is feeling insecure – move the feeding station to an area that is safe, perhaps on top of the cat tree or in a quieter, closed off room.

You may be tempted to try and comfort your cat through more holding and cuddling, but to effectively relieve your cats stress, a cat needs to feel in control of his environment.

Provide a lot more positive activity for your cat than before. Add more interactive playtime as part of his daily schedule. Two or three sessions of play together will help dispel his anxiety as well as building up his positive associations with his environment that might have been soured. And when you leave the house – make sure your cat has opportunities to find rewards and engage in healthy, anxiety relieving behaviors – so put activity toys – boxes or bags to play in and puzzle feeders with tiny yummy treats or kibble to extract,  around the house. Provide plenty of distractions to help your kitty pass the time when you are not home. Move the cat tree in front of a window so your cat can watch the birds.

When home, try to prevent your cat from indulging in the overgrooming habit as much as possible. Pay attention to when she demonstrates the give-away sign that she is beginning to lick herself and redirect her right then, into a short playtime with you. Grab that wand toy and engage your cat’s natural hunting abilities. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, this often can head off an obsessive grooming session before it begins. Bottom line – your cat needs a lot more stimulation from toys and lots of attention and play from you.

What about Medication? The medical term for the behavioral condition we’re talking about is called psychogenic alopecia. In certain cases calming medications along with behavior modification can help mitigate the behaviors. Your vet will advise you if anti-anxiety medication is required. Your vet may also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, or certified animal behavior consultant (you can seek out their opinion yourself – see links below) in order to establish the most effective behavior modification plan for your cat’s specific circumstances.

To find a professional:

American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists (AVSAB)

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.

Raising Your Paws Podcast – Episode Number 42.

Title: How a Cat Shows it’s Feeling Uncertain & Stories of Dogs that Apprehend and Detain criminals.

Full Show Notes for the episode.

Dogs lick their lips as a sign they are feeling uncomfortable, but what does it mean when a cat flicks its tongue out when there is no food around? I’ll explain what this gesture can indicate about a cat’s mood.

Then, in part two of my conversation with, Steve Pearson, a former police officer, SWAT commander and owner and trainer at Performance Kennels Inc. he tells stories about the police K-9 dogs that chase down, apprehend and detain criminals. Hear trade talk about how they learn their special skills and what it’s like to work with these special dogs.

What is the secret to dogs being able to sniff out explosives and narcotics even when smugglers commonly hide them in stronger smelling things to mask their odor? The answer has to do with another remarkable difference between canine and human noses. I’ll explain using the example of a pot of stew cooking on the stove.

Additional Resources.

Steve Pearson, Owner, Trainer at Perfornance Kennels, Inc.

Performance Kennels, Inc. Website.

Performance Kennels, Inc. Facebook page.

Source for story about dogs smelling narcotics. “How Dogs Think,” By Stanley Coren.