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Excessive grooming in cats

Excessive grooming in cats

 

If you want mud on the carpet and drool on the sofa cushions, by all means, get a dog.

 

If you prefer things a little cleaner, a cat might just be the companion for you.

 

black and white cat grooming

Cats are clean by nature. They devote up to half of their waking hours to grooming and licking themselves spotless.

 

But sometimes they take it too far, licking themselves constantly, obsessively, and compulsively. Some cats groom themselves bald. Some cats lick until their skin is raw and infected.

 

Before we talk about why cats over-groom and what to do about, let’s first talk about why cats groom at all.

 

A cat’s life starts with grooming

 

A new kitten, barely emerged from her mother’s womb, begins life with a grooming session.

 

mother cat licking a kitten

As soon as a kitten is born, his mother will remove the amniotic sac, the thin membrane that surrounded him in the womb, and begin licking her new baby with a rough tongue. This first groom will not only clean him, but it will help stimulate his breathing, wake him for his first suckle of milk, and help him release urine and feces. She will continue this practice with all of her kittens until the babies are old enough to leave her nest.

 

At around four weeks of age, kittens begin grooming themselves, and even licking their mother and littermates. Licking and grooming family members is a behavior that continues for the rest of a cat’s life.

 

Here's an absolutely adorable video of a mother cat grooming her kittens. I could watch this on a loop all day long. You're welcome.

 

  

Cats were designed for grooming

 

Cats seemed to be especially designed for the activity of grooming.

 

They are flexible creatures, who can bend to reach the furthest corners of their bodies with ease. Their elastic spines, designed with especially malleable disks between each backbone, allow them to turn and twist every which way.[1]

 

cat tongue

Cats have a special “hair brush tongue” covered in firm little hooks called papillae, made from keratin, the same material our fingernails are made of. Mechanical Engineer Alexis Noel studied cats’ tongues and demonstrated how their unusual design effectively traps loose hair without becoming clogged with it.[2]

 

If a cat’s tongue is a built-in hair brush, a cat’s paws act as combs. A cat can drag her own claws through her thick fur to separate and untangle the strands. A cat can also use her paws to stimulate the tiny oil glands on her head, and then distribute the sebum through her fur.

 

A cat’s teeth were designed for grooming, too. The sharp little incisor teeth allow a cat to nibble deep into her own fur to remove debris.[3]

 

Why do cats groom?

 

orange and white cat licking his paw

Grooming is essential to a cat’s health. There are so many health benefits to regular grooming, it’s no surprise that most cats spend between 30 and 50 percent of their day grooming.[4]

 

To regulate body temperature. A cat has a limited ability to sweat. A cat has sweat glands only in a few hairless places on his body, including his paws, lips, chin, and the skin surrounding his anus.[5] But licking serves much the same purpose as sweating. Sweating helps cool a body down through evaporation. Licking helps cool through the evaporation of saliva.
 
To eliminate parasites and allergens. Grooming allows a cat to remove parasites from her body one by one. She can use her tongue to lift and discard fleas, for example. Licking also serves to physically remove environmental allergens, like pollen, from a cat’s body.
 
To stimulate circulation. Healthy circulation means that blood and oxygen are flowing freely through a body, allowing the lungs, heart (and other organs), and muscles to function properly. Grooming can help stimulate healthy blood flow.
 
To prevent infection. While it’s true that a cat’s mouth can harbor plenty of bacteria, there is also evidence that cat saliva contains a number of compounds that have antimicrobial qualities, too. It’s possible that when a cat licks her own wounds she’s actually helping to prevent a serious infection. This is controversial though, because it’s clear that whatever antiseptic attributes are present in the saliva, they’re not enough to kill the bad bacteria in a cat’s own mouth![6] Probably the greatest service a cat is performing for herself when she is licking an injury is removing debris, such as soil or dried blood, from a wound.
 
To keep his coat dry. It seems counterintuitive that a cat could “lick himself dry,” but grooming is about more than washing. Grooming activity also involves stimulating the sebaceous glands at the base of each hair and distributing that sebum, or skin oil, throughout the hair. The oil guards against dampness, and is one of the reasons a cat can seem practically waterproof in the tub, if you find that your cat needs a bath.
 
To keep her coat clean. Grooming mechanically removes all the loose hairs and dander that collect continuously in the fur. Loose hair that remains in the fur can start to tangle, ultimately leading to painful mats that tug at the skin and cause infection.
 
To clean up after a meal. Cats are predators. They need to quickly clean up after a successful hunt so as not to alert other prey animals that there is a hunter in their midst. Cats are also prey animals. The scent of blood from a successful hunt could alert other predators to a cat's presence, putting him in danger.
 
To calm herself. Grooming is not just a practical exercise, it offers psychological benefits, too. Many, if not all, cats will groom to self-soothe when they are bored or stressed.
 
To reestablish her own scent. Does your cat ever groom immediately after you pet her or brush her? Does she begin grooming the minute you leave the vet’s office? Your cat may groom to “overwrite” your or the vet’s scent with her own scent.[7]

 

Sometimes, a cat can groom too much

 

While grooming is most often a good thing, it's possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to grooming.

 

cat on the street, grooming

Some cats will groom, and groom, and groom, to the point that individual hairs begin to break off, ultimately leading to bald patches. Some cats groom until their skin is raw and full of sores. And still they groom.

 

An over-grooming cat might not stop at just licking her own fur. She might chew off her fur until there is only stubble left. This behavior is called barbering. She might even pluck her own fur out.

 

Note that just because you don’t see your cat groom, doesn’t mean she isn't over-grooming. Many cats are “secret groomers” who are very good at hiding excessive grooming behavior. If your cat has bare patches, stubbly hair, or an overabundance of hairballs, she is likely grooming too much.

 

Most of the time, when a cat is excessively grooming it is due to a medical problem. Some of the medical causes of over-grooming include:

 

A fungal infection. Ringworm is a common fungal infection that can be extremely itchy. (It has nothing to do with worms, by the way.) This skin condition causes bald patches, and the itching that is associated with it can cause constant grooming, which in turn, can make the hair loss even worse. Ringworm is contagious to other animals and humans, so it’s important to bring your cat to the vet as soon as possible to be diagnosed and begin treatment.
 
An environmental or food allergy. Cats can be allergic to the same things as us: dust mites, pollens, and food, for example. Cats can be especially allergic to flea bites. When fleas bite, they inject saliva into the tiny wound to keep the blood from clotting. Some cats are allergic to the flea saliva.[8] The itchiness that is associated with allergy can cause a cat to groom too much.
 
Mites. Mites are a parasite that live on an animal’s skin. It can lead to mange, which is a disease that causes itching, flaking, inflammation, and hair loss. It’s actually very uncommon in cats.[9]
 
Any disease that causes discomfort. Hormonal problems, cancer, arthritis, and bladder infections are just a few of the medical conditions that can cause a cat to groom excessively.
 

How do you know if a medical problem is causing your cat to groom too much?

 

cat on a bench outside, licking his paw

It can be very tricky for even a veterinarian to diagnose the cause of over-grooming sometimes. But take your cat to the veterinarian to begin the process. You want to get to the bottom of things and stop your cat's suffering.

 

Your vet will be looking first for signs of pain or illness. Sometimes the pattern of hair loss can tell a vet a little bit about what might be causing the over-grooming. A 2011 study in Switzerland involving 502 cats tracked the pattern of hair loss in cats and found some trends.[10]

 

  • Hair loss on the lower back and tail often relate to fleas.
  • Hair loss on the belly happens with almost everything that causes hair loss.
  • Hair loss on the front and back legs was unlikely to be associated with food allergies.
  • Hair loss on the face seems to be associated with everything that causes hair loss.
  • Hair loss on the head and neck was very common in cats with food allergies.[11]

 

Some other possible patterns worth noting that were not in this study:

 

  • Hair loss and scabbing on the neck and ears might be associated with ear mites.
  • Chewing of the paw pads can sometimes be related to environmental allergies.[12]
  • Widespread licking can be associated with any disease that causes systemic itching.

 

But while patterns can be helpful in pointing your vet down the right path, they can’t be used for diagnosis.

 

cat licking his paw

Diagnosing the underlying cause of over-grooming can be so difficult, in fact, that you may need to see a board-certified veterinary dermatologist to get to the root of the problem. Sometimes,  a cat will be diagnosed with “self-induced” alopecia – meaning that there is a behavioral cause for hair loss (more on that below) – when in fact there is a dermatological problem that's just really tough for a veterinary general practitioner to diagnose.[13] You have to be your cat’s best advocate to ensure that he gets the treatment he needs for the problem he really has.

 

Excessive grooming can be caused by behavioral factors

 

Sometimes there is no medical basis for over-grooming in cats. When all medical causes are ruled out, a loving pet owner needs to look at any source of stress that could be causing your cat to lick herself excessively.

 

white cat on a white background licking a paw

Grooming releases endorphins (hormones that make cats feel happy).[14] So, an over-grooming cat may be constantly licking in an attempt to help himself feel better when something in his world isn’t exactly right. This kind of grooming is called displacement grooming.[15] It’s a kind of coping mechanism for stress that helps him keep his anxiety level in check. The resulting hair loss from this kind of over-grooming is called psychogenic alopecia.

 

Over-grooming becomes a kind of obsessive behavior, which refers to any behavior that is repetitive, constant, and appears to serve no obvious purpose. It’s your job, as your cat’s guardian, to look at your cat’s life through kitty eyes to see if there is anything that could be causing your cat to engage in obsessive grooming.

 

sad looking black and white cat hiding under a blanket

Has anything changed in your cat’s life? Have you moved, changed her diet, remodeled your home, added a new pet to the family, or even a new human? Is your cat suffering from separation anxiety, or lack of stimulation? Have you lost a human or animal household member recently?

 

What can you do to help a cat suffering from behavioral over-grooming?

 

If you have moved homes, be sure to bring a cat’s familiar items: toys and bedding, to the new home. If you are adding a new pet to the household, introduce the new family member gradually to your existing cat. Help make a cat feel safe in her own environment by giving her safe spaces to hide in, and vertical spaces to retreat to when she needs it.

 

cat playing with a fishing rod toy outdoors

If your cat is bored – which is unfortunately very common in indoor cats – find time to play with him, 10-15 minutes at a time, several times per day. Play alone can be a stress reliever for a cat.[16]

 

Unfortunately, any behavior that starts out as a self-soothing behavior that can calm and comfort a cat can become a hard-to-break habit. The pleasure that a cat gets from all that grooming just reinforces the behavior. So, even if you identify the cause of stress and resolve it, the licking can persist anyway.

 

Any activity that you try with your cat to break the cycle of licking needs to compete with the urge to lick.[17] Training can be helpful. Cats can be trained to come, sit, jump or do other tricks in return or food or other rewards. When you see cat engage in excessive grooming, you can interrupt the behavior with a learned command. The goal is to substitute another pleasurable, stimulating activity for the obsessive licking.

 

Sometimes psychogenic alopecia will resolve on its own over time, or with help from you. But sometimes a cat will need to be given a temporary anti-anxiety or anti-depression drug therapy prescribed by a vet. Your vet can discuss all the options with you.

 

What if my cat is actually under-grooming?

 

Sometimes grooming too much isn’t the problem, but grooming too infrequently is. This is called under-grooming.

 

The signs of under-grooming are clear:

 

  • A greasy coat
  • Mats of fur
  • Urine stains on the fur
  • A foul smell
  • Food particles that remain on a cat’s face or chest after eating

 

cat on a red and white checked floor, grooming

Most cats are so fastidious you should be immediately concerned if your cat suddenly stops grooming. A sick cat may stop cleaning herself. Under-grooming can also be a sign of arthritis, pain, or dental problems. Read this blog post, “How do you know if your cat is sick,” for more information, but contact a veterinarian right away if you suspect he is. Note that a cat who is overweight may also not groom sufficiently, as they are unable to reach all of their body parts. Read, “How to help a cat lose weight,” to learn about helping an obese cat trim a few excess ounces or pounds.

 

Occasionally, cats who were taken away from their mothers too early as kittens may not have learned all they needed to know about grooming, and may not have learned how to clean themselves properly. You may have to lead the way with daily brushing sessions, which will also accomplish many of the same health benefits that a cat would have enjoyed from self-grooming.

 

And finally, when your under-grooming cat does appear to be starting a grooming session, don't interrupt her. This would not be the time to call her for dinner or a petting session. Appropriate grooming is an essential part of happy cathood.

 

Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin for your boards!

Excessive grooming in cats - Pinterest friendly pin 

 

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FOOTNOTES

 

[1] Inc, Sanmita. “Home⁄ FAQs⁄ Why Are Cats so Flexible?” Cornell Center for Materials Research, www.ccmr.cornell.edu/faqs/why-are-cats-so-flexible/.

 

[2] Noel, Alexis C., and David L. Hu. “Cats Use Hollow Papillae to Wick Saliva into Fur.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 4 Dec. 2018, www.pnas.org/content/115/49/12377.

 

[3] “9 Interesting Facts About Cat Teeth.” PetMD, PetMD, 11 Feb. 2021, www.petmd.com/cat/care/9-interesting-facts-about-cat-teeth.

 

[4] “Cats That Lick Too Much.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 22 Nov. 2019, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cats-lick-too-much.

 

[5] Wooten, Sarah. “How Do Cats Sweat?” PetMD, PetMD, 10 Feb. 2021, www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/how-do-cats-sweat.

 

[6] Engelhaupt, Erika. “How Dog and Cat 'Kisses' Can Turn Deadly.” Science, National Geographic, 10 Feb. 2021, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/dogs-cats-clean-licking-bacteria-health-science.

 

[7] Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “Why Do Cats Groom so Much?” Pam Johnson-Bennett Answers the Why, When & How of Cat Behavior Issues, 10 Sept. 2020, catbehaviorassociates.com/why-do-cats-groom-so-much/.

 

[8] Sadek, Tammy. “Overgrooming – or, My Cat Is Licking Itself Bald!” Feline Docs, 9 May 2013, felinedocs.com/dr-tammy-sadek/overgrooming-or-my-cat-is-licking-itself-bald/.

 

[9] “Cat Mange and Scabies: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments.” WebMD, WebMD, 9 Feb. 2021, pets.webmd.com/cats/cat-mange-scabies#1.

 

[10] S, Hobi, et al. “Clinical Characteristics and Causes of Pruritus in Cats: a Multicentre Study on Feline Hypersensitivity-Associated Dermatoses.” Veterinary Dermatology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 22 Oct. 2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21410570/.

 

[11] Spanner, Andrew. “Overgrooming, Over Licking & Hair Loss In Cats.” Walkerville Vet, 28 Nov. 2020, www.walkervillevet.com.au/blog/cat-hair-loss-causes/.

 

[12] Stilwell, Natalie. “Why Cats Overgroom and How You Can Stop It.” PetMD, PetMD, 12 Nov. 2020, www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/how-tell-if-your-cat-over-grooming.

 

[13] Frank, Diane. “Overgrooming in Cats.” Home, Mar. 2003, www.cliniciansbrief.com/column/applied-behavior/overgrooming-cats.

 

[14] “Overgrooming Cats • MSPCA-Angell.” MSPCA, 14 Sept. 2017, www.mspca.org/angell_services/overgrooming-cats/.

 

[15] Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “Why Do Cats Groom so Much?” Pam Johnson-Bennett Answers the Why, When & How of Cat Behavior Issues, 10 Sept. 2020, catbehaviorassociates.com/why-do-cats-groom-so-much/.

 

[16] Stilwell, Natalie. “Why Cats Overgroom and How You Can Stop It.” PetMD, PetMD, 12 Nov. 2020, www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/how-tell-if-your-cat-over-grooming.

 

[17]  Frank, Diane. “Overgrooming in Cats.” Home, Mar. 2003, www.cliniciansbrief.com/column/applied-behavior/overgrooming-cats.

 

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