Help! My Cat Is Pulling His Own Hair!

Cats groom themselves for comfort, but excessive grooming might mean your cat is stressed.

Find out the underlying causes of cat hair loss.  Via Miyuki Satake/Thinkstock
Find out the underlying causes of cat hair loss. Via Miyuki Satake/Thinkstock

Q:

My 9-year-old male Russian Blue, Campbell, began excessive licking and pulling out large tufts of hair from his back soon after I married my husband and moved to a new home. He was 3 years old at the time. I suspected behavioral issues because of the big life changes. I was working as a vet tech and brought him in to rule out any medical conditions. We did skin biopsies and blood work, and were unable to diagnose any allergies or disease.

Since that time we have moved twice more, and he now pulls hair from his tail, legs and tummy. I have tried different techniques to enable him to feel more comfortable in his environment.

All of the veterinarians who have examined him are unable to offer any advice except for putting him on valium. I would like to avoid medications unless he has a defined medical condition. He absolutely despises pills and becomes very stressed whenever we have to medicate him. If you have any suggestions, I would greatly appreciate hearing back from you. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

A:

It sounds like your veterinarian did a good, thorough medical work-up (blood work and skin biopsy) to rule out a medical disorder.  Psychological disturbances are a very common cause of self-inflicted hair loss in cats.  Cats who pull, chew, or excessively groom their fur do this despite the fact that their skin does not itch.  This may be a manifestation of stress or anxiety.

Were familiar with the stresses that humans face (mortgage payments, traffic jams), but we may not be aware that our seemingly calm cat is actually stressed out about something.  In many instances, the cause is obvious: a move to a new apartment, boarding, a new pet or baby in the household, hierarchical competition in a multi-cat household, etc.

Given the frequent changes in your cats environment (your new spouse joining the household, frequent changes of residence), it sounds like your cat has psychogenic alopecia, i.e. hair loss due to psychological factors. In the past few years, veterinary behaviorists have come to realize that some cats and dogs exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior and excessive grooming can sometimes fall into this category.

Grooming is a comfort behavior, often used by cats to relax themselves. Think about the last time your cat did something foolish or klutzy, such as misjudge a leap or accidentally tumble off the sofa.  We might laugh, but the cat immediately grooms. Whether they feel embarrassment is debatable, but cat lovers recognize this reflexive grooming behavior in their cat whenever uncertainty arises.  It shouldn’t be surprising that in the face of stress or anxiety, they may turn to excessive grooming to dispel their anxiety.

Ideally, the treatment for psychogenic alopecia involves the elimination of the potential stressors in the cats environment.  Unfortunately, this is often impossible or impractical, and anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications are warranted to control the problem. Two commonly used drugs are clomipramine and amitriptyline. Some cats with psychogenic alopecia may also respond to chlorpheniramine (an antihistamine) or systemic glucocorticoids.

I know that your cat hates being medicated, and I understand your concern about giving medication to cats unless absolutely necessary.  Frankly, if the problem isn’t terribly severe i.e. your cat isn’t licking himself to the point where he’s causing abrasions on the skin or having terrible hairball or constipation problems from excessive hair ingestion, you may not need to treat him at all.

Article Categories:
Cats · Health and Care

Comments

  • I have a rescue cat that was homeless and about 3-5 years when I took her in. She was also part of the TNR program (Trap Neuter and Release) As a professional massage therapist, I frequently and for 3-10 minutes each time pet and massage her. Interestingly, I started to notice that when I pet her for a good few minutes after she had a little bit to eat, before during and after eating, it makes her eat more. She’ll eat some then take a break and during this time I’ll pet her. At some point it became a pattern and that’s when I realized that like us humans, we’re much happier when we’re touched and in positive way. We are happier and better adjusted when quality time is spent with us by those who like and care for us.

    When we are getting our “emotional” needs met for caring physical touch and quality time is given to us we eat better, sleep better, work better, etc and it’s the same thing for our beloved furry felines. When she takes break from eating I pet her and then she goes to the food and eats more. She eats, then groom then I pet her and then she returns to eating.

    CONCLUSION: The attention i GIVE her and feel good touch seems to satisfy her needs for loving attention and makes her want to eat more. I also noticed that when I play with her ( i have toys I throw to her while in her tree and she bats it back to me or tries to catch it) really satisfies a basic need. When I don’t play with her each day or if I miss even a day – few days, that’s when she seems to become anxious and besides scratching at the window to get outside her fur-pulling problem begins to flair up with obvious and large areas of missing fur.

    I truly believe that our furry feline friends need lots of loving touch and dedicated play time to fend off and cure the majority of their emotional/ behavioral problems, especially anxiety. Anything emotionally based can be pretty much healed and cured with the right kinds of attention and attending to them on a frequent, consistent and routine basis. I see it with my Luci and it’s obvious she needs this attention and she needs it often. When I’m not too preoccupied and not giving her time and attention beyond feedings and litter box, that’s when her fur pulling and other annoying habits are at their worst.

    Increase your loving touch and playtime and you won’t need to give them any medications. Give it time at least a few weeks so your kitties can see the change and they know you weren’t just teasing them but the play time and attention is here to stay. She sleeps better and is much more calm too. Maybe even play with her a few times a day. I do and whenever I do, she wants to sleep and easily falls back into serenity and rest. Good luck!

    Liz October 16, 2016 4:25 am Reply
  • Another thing to add or reinforce what I just said. Years ago my mother had this beautiful Ragdoll cat which lived her whole life in my Mother’s closet –so sad, I know. But then I took her and she no longer was “imprisoned.” My Mother warned me that she would pee or poop outside the litter box and that she was a “special needs” cat.
    I truly believe that there was nothing at all wrong this cat except for the fact that her (former) owner neglected her and consequently, acted out by pissing in different places. To prove this point, she never once peed or pooped anywhere except in her box after I took her home with me. I showered her with tons of affection and play time and she was the sweetest, most well-behaved cat ever.

    Don’t underestimate the power of positive touch and quality time spent with your animals. They need our time and attention along with dedicated playtime and recreation. If we provide a balanced, loving life for them with plenty of loving touch you will not have to worry about what to do when they don’t “act” right. They will be wonderful and well-behaved felines when they are getting enough time, attention and love in all the right ways on a routine basis.

    Do an experiment-try it for a month and document your results. You’ll see many problems or conditions they have will resolve on their own.

    Liz October 16, 2016 4:37 am Reply
  • My cat Mew-Mew has been ripping out his own fur for a while now, and at first we didn’t really notice until he tore off huge chunks, leaving balled spots on his back and rear legs. My poor kitty has had a difficult life before we got him, so maybe this is his ways of cooping with problems he had suffered when he was living in an abusive environment. He use to have seizures, but I think he’s passed that stage; now he seems like a pretty happy kitty, though at night he would scratch at my door, which I keep close, wanting to be let in.

    Ashley December 5, 2016 12:50 pm Reply

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