What is overgrooming?
Overgrooming is when your cat starts to excessively groom themselves, which can lead to sore and inflamed skin, with thinning or loss of fur.
What causes a cat to overgroom?
Cats tend to start overgrooming for two main reasons:
- Behavioural for example as a stress-relief mechanism – it is sometimes referred to as “psychogenic alopecia”. Cats can become stressed by various factors, including new pets in the household or neighbourhood, moving home, a new baby, new furniture or a change of routine. They will often focus the overgrooming on the belly, inner thighs and the forelimbs.
- Medical – there is an underlying cause that is making them itchy, for example:
- Skin allergies – your cat may be allergic to something in their food or an environmental allergen such as dust mites or pollens.
- Parasites such as fleas and mites. One of the most common reasons for overgrooming is an allergy to flea saliva (flea allergic dermatitis – please see our information sheet).
- Ringworm – this is a fungal infection that be itchy and causes scaly, inflamed skin and patchy fur loss.
- Pain e.g. due to feline lower-urinary tract disease (please see our information sheet on FLUTD in cats for more information).
- Feline hyperaesthesia syndrome – this is a poorly understood condition that can cause a cat to overgroom and self-mutilate often around the tail and hind feet. It is also associated with skin twitching and bizarre behaviour.
What are the signs of overgrooming?
Interestingly, cats that overgroom tend to do so in secret, so you may well not see your cat constantly licking or chewing, like you would with a dog. It is therefore important to keep an eye out for the symptoms below and speak to your vet if you notice any of these in your cat.
The typical symptoms of overgrooming include:
- Loss or thinning of fur in areas where it would normally be present, which can lead to spikey fur and bald patches. Overgrooming is a common cause of bald patches (alopecia) in cats, but other causes also need to be ruled out during the investigation.
- Skin feels bumpy with small scabs (military dermatitis).
- Patches of wet fur and red inflamed skin (eosinophilic granulomas).
How is overgrooming diagnosed?
The vet will start by asking you lots of questions, including any changes that there may have been in the cat’s environment and whether they are up to date with their flea treatment (check out our subscription package so you never forget a treatment!).
They will then do a full physical examination including a thorough dermatological examination, looking for evidence of skin parasites. They may take samples from your cat’s skin and fur. They can look at some of the hairs under a microscope to see if they are broken, which would suggest that the cat has been overgrooming rather than hair just falling out on its own. Specialist dermatologists can check for allergies using skin tests.
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Depending on the skin lesions, further investigations such as a skin biopsy may need to be considered. A blood a urine test may need to be performed if there was concern about a possible underlying medical condition such as FLUTD for example.
The vet will normally seek to rule out medical causes of overgrooming before diagnosing a behavioural issue.
Treatment for overgrooming
The treatment will depend on the cause of the overgrooming. If the cause is behavioural then treatment will be aimed at trying to reduce stress and using products such as Feliway to help the cat feel more secure in its environment. Various anti-stress products are available to order from our Shop.
If there is an underlying medical cause for the overgrooming then this will need to be treated appropriately. For example, cats with flea allergic dermatitis must have strict flea control in place (including treating the environment), while cats with skin allergies are normally treated with a combination of removal of the allergen if possible (e.g. a special diet with food allergies) and medication to help reduce the itchiness.
What can I do to help reduce the risk of my cat overgrooming?
Cats do not like change, therefore try to keep your cats environment as consistent as possible, or if changes are needed then try to make them gradually. If you know a period of potential stress is upcoming for your cat (for example moving house or a new baby) then consider using a product such as Zyklene or Feliway to help reduce the stress for your cat. Remember that stressed cats can also develop other problems such as feline lower-urinary tract disease. Keep a close eye on them and speak to your vet if you have any concerns.