Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs
All pets groom themselves. It’s part of their daily routine, not unlike their owners getting ready for a busy day. Cats seem particularly adept at grooming and it is common for owners to find the fruits of their labour show up in the form of a hairball delivered often with great fanfare. It is also quite common for cats to become seemingly obsessive about grooming, in other words they can literally over groom themselves to the point that they completely denude parts of their body. The medical term for this over grooming is called psychogenic alopecia – psycho meaning behavioural, genic meaning caused by and alopecia meaning hair loss. If your cat suffers from this, she is not crazy, but there is a strong likelihood that she is anxious or stressed by some trigger factor. Usually the over grooming is what is called a “displacement” behaviour. In other words, a cat, in response to a stressful event, ends up doing something completely unrelated to the event itself. In this situation, over grooming could be a response to being bullied by another cat or chased by a young child.
Potentially any part of the body that a cat can reach with its tongue could be affected but denuding the entire belly or sides of the flanks are common areas affected. The skin would appear to normal in all respects, except it has no hair. There are two challenges with a cat having this syndrome. The first is whether or not that truly is the problem and the other is what to do about it.
Psychogenic alopecia is probably over diagnosed, and the main reason is that owners may be unwilling to let their veterinarian do sufficient testing to determine that is the problem. It tends to be a diagnosis arising from excluding all other causes of alopecia, rather than a specific test for this syndrome. Anything that causes a cat to feel itchy is a potential cause for the hair loss, in response to a cat licking to alleviate the itch. Potentials would include parasites, bacterial infections, fungal infections, allergies and even hormonal imbalances (although this cause is far less common). Consequently, your veterinarian may want to do skin scrapings, fungal and bacterial cultures, skin biopsies, food elimination trials, etc. to rule out all these causes. If everything is normal, then the fallback diagnosis becomes psychogenic alopecia. Studies have shown that without doing these tests, this presumptive problem was misdiagnosed about 90% of the time.
So, let us assume all the right diagnostics were done and this is what your cat has. Can you do anything about it? In most cases the answer is yes. Knowing that the behaviour is being triggered by anxiety or stress, creating a more stress-free environment alone can be successful. This is usually more successful in single cat households vs. multi-cat households. Offering climbing and perch areas, cardboard boxes and paper bags to explore and hide in, toys filled with treats that require attention and effort to be rewarded, catnip toys, entertaining your cat with lasers and predator-prey toys can all be successful in alleviating stress and occupying their time. If you have young children who (objectively) are “over exuberant” with your cat, offering your cat a place to chill-out away from the kids through an interior cat door may solve the problem.
In multi-cat households the conflict is often between cats, so offering multiple perches in different areas of the house, multiple feeding stations and litters may help to lower the stress levels. When there are multiple cats in the house, it is common to have to resort to pharmacological intervention. Two drugs – fluoxetine and clomipramine – are commonly used. If nothing else works, then discuss the potential use of these drugs in conjunction with the suggestions above to hopefully resolve the problem. If your cat is not very amenable to taking oral medication, you could also discuss with your veterinarian the use of aerosol pheromones, i.e. Feliway, as an alternative to drugs.
The hair loss itself is not really an issue but knowing that your cat is stressed is worth finding a solution.