Overgrooming in Cats and What It Means

Lisa K. Campbell, DVM
Cat licking paw grooming himself

A cat can spend 30% of its waking hours grooming, but overgrooming is cause for concern when a cat grooms so excessively that it causes bald patches or areas of irritated skin and open sores. While it is very normal for a cat to groom itself or other cats, when the cat begins to display signs of overgrooming, the problem needs to be addressed.

Understanding Your Cat's Overgrooming

The reasons a cat overgrooms can be medical or behavioral. It can sometimes be tricky to discover which of these is causing your cat to lick excessively. The first step is to discuss the problem with your veterinarian. She will go over your cat's history with you to help figure out what is causing the problem. After the cause has been identified, treatment can be initiated. A medical reason for this behavior will have a much different treatment plan than one caused by a behavioral issue.

Medical Causes of Cat Overgrooming

There are multiple medical causes of overgrooming. The area where the cat is licking can give clues as to the cause.

Parasites

A cat that is licking at the area just above its tail may have a flea allergy. Cat owners sometimes have concerns that worms are causing their cat to overgroom. This is not a common cause of overgrooming. However, cat's can get tapeworms from ingesting a flea, so it is important keep your cat flea free to prevent tapeworm.

Allergies

Cats that lick at mainly their lower abdomen and the inside their back legs may be suffering from allergies. Cats, like humans, can have allergies to fleas, food, and pollutants in the environment.

Infectious Diseases

Skin mites and ringworm are two types of infectious skin diseases. These are more common in outdoor cats or in large multi-cat situations (like shelters or rescue groups). Your cat may be itchy around its ears or licking its elbows or paws.

Pain

A cat may lick a specific area that is a source of pain for her. A cat that is constipated may be licking around her hind end. If there is any sort of arthritis in the spine, she will be licking mainly along the middle or upper part of her spine and might even cry when touched in this area.

Behavioral Causes of Overgrooming

Behavioral overgrooming is called "psychogenic alopecia". Alopecia means hair loss from part or parts of the body. Psychogenic means something is happening from a psychologic cause rather than a physical one. In cats, psychogenic alopecia is caused by stress. Since grooming releases endorphins, cats will groom in order to calm themselves. Finding the cause of the stress in a cat is not always easy and usually requires the help of a veterinarian and sometimes an animal behaviorist.

How to Stop a Cat From Overgrooming

The strategies to stop a cat from overgrooming will depend on what is causing your cat to lick excessively. A medical reason for this behavior will have a much different treatment plan than one caused by a behavioral issue. The difficult part is finding the underlying cause.

Medical Treatments

There are many ways to medically treat a cat that is overgrooming for a physical reason.

Female veterinarian checking a cat's fur
  • Fleas - If your cat is overgrooming from fleas then using flea control should resolve this issue.
  • Allergies -If allergies are the issue, your veterinarian may want you to try a different food or start your cat on antihistamines. In difficult cases, you may need to consult a veterinary dermatologist. He or she may recommend a steroid injection to give your cat some relief.
  • Infectious Disease -Your veterinarian can perform a skin scrape procedure or a fungal culture to rule out mites or ringworm.
  • Pain -Your veterinarian will need to do a full physical exam and blood work to rule out metabolic causes for pain. X-rays can detect arthritis and some forms of spinal disease. Treating the source of the pain with anti-inflammatories and other appropriate medications or supplements can stop the overgrooming.

Behavioral Treatments

The behavioral treatment of overgrooming is more complicated since there are seemingly endless factors that can cause a cat to be stressed. What causes stress for one cat may not cause any issues for another. Removing the stressor is the key if you can identify it. There are some general treatments to help reduce stress in a cat who is overgrooming for non-medical reasons:

  • Provide plenty of enrichment for your cat. Interactive toys or games, as well plenty of one-on-one time with your cat will help make it feel calmer.
  • Provide plenty of "safe" places for your cat to curl up and nap. Provide private spaces for your kitty and areas where she cat can get up high, such as cat trees.
  • Make sure you have one litter box for every cat in the household. Products like Feliway used around the litter boxes can help ease stress in multi-cat households.
  • Keep your cat's schedule as routine as possible. Try to feed your cat at the same time each day and don't move the food bowls around too much.

In the most extreme cases of behavioral overgrooming, your cat may need anti-anxiety medication in addition to the suggestions above. This doesn't mean your cat has to stay on the medication forever. The goal is always to wean her off the medication as she adapts to her environment.

A Permanent Cure for Overgrooming

Medical causes for overgrooming have the best outcome for a permanent cure. Cats with behavioral causes for their excessive licking will have symptoms that wax and wane. It is up to the pet parent to be very observant for signs of stress and to modify their cat's environment as needed to reduce the stressors.

Overgrooming in Cats and What It Means