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Cat Stress - The Many Reasons Your Cat is Licking Itself to Oblivion aka Over-Grooming.

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

There are a ton of causes for over-grooming in cats (also known as excessive grooming). This blog is akin to the over-grooming cat discussion that I have with friends. This happens more than you think.

Possible causes of over-grooming can include, but are not limited to:

  • Allergies - Food or something in the environment.

  • Fleas - Very common in FL. It only takes ONE flea to cause a reaction. Just like it only takes ONE bee sting to cause anaphylaxis in people.

  • Behavioral - Stress, boredom, anxiety disorders or compulsive disorders

  • Pain - Pain in the joints or abdomen can cause excessive licking in that area. Similar to people who grab their stomach when they have a stomach ache.

  • Mites - uncommon in strictly indoor cats that have no history of mites. Very common in outdoor cats. Or cats with poor immune systems.

  • Bacterial Infection - uncommon in indoor cats that are healthy and have no history of previous skin issues. Increased possibility if cat is immunosuppressed.

  • Fungal Infection - uncommon in indoor cats that are healthy and have no history of contact with a source of contamination. Increased possibility if cat is immunosuppressed.

  • Cancer - uncommon in young healthy cats. Almost impossible if there are NO visible lesions on the skin, unless the lesions are VERY early.

Even with all the possible causes for over-grooming, the most common causes are allergies and behavioral changes.

Since cats can’t talk, we can’t diagnose behavioral unless we rule everything else out OR try behavior modification techniques. If we can modify the behavior of over-grooming by using modification techniques - then we have our answer.

Allergies are also difficult to diagnose. We have to take the time to note EVERYTHING in the cats direct environment that may have changed since the behavior started. Some common possibilities are:

  • Seasonal Changes like summer or fall.

  • Moving to a different location with different pollens around the home.

  • Humidity changes - Dry winter time.

  • Detergent changes

  • Litter changes

  • Hand lotion changes

  • Floor cleaner changes

To rule out whether or not a recent change is the cause of your cat's over-grooming, you will need to go back to the way thing were, before the problem started. You need to think about every change you made in your cat's environment. If you moved locations, that may be your answer. And resolution will be more complicated as moving can induce stress OR allergies due to the pollen in the new area.

So how do we start eliminating possible causes of over-grooming in my cat???

Ruling out an allergic reaction is the easiest place to start. We can give the over-grooming cat a steroid and/or antihistamine to eliminate any potential inflammation due to an allergic reaction. If we administer a steroid and the over grooming is NOT effected, then we can assume that the cat is not over grooming due to inflammation from an allergy. Meaning that are not over-grooming because they are itchy.

If your cat stops over-grooming with a steroid, then we need to try and figure out what they are reacting to. Go back and change as many things as you can to what they were before the problem started. Do the best you can. Then one by one you can start reintroducing the changes slowly to see if your cat has a reaction.

For example:
You changed to a new cat litter and a new detergent one month ago. Sometime after those changes, you noticed that your cat was over-grooming.
Go back to using the old cat litter and the old detergent. If your cat stops over grooming, you know that one of those changes may have caused the issue.
Once your cat is back to normal you can experiment again. Go back to the new cat litter and monitor your cat for a few weeks to look for a reaction. If there is no reaction to the new cat litter, you can try the new detergent and monitor for a reaction. If there is no reaction to either of the new changes AND nothing else AT ALL had changed, you might assume your cat had initially reacted to something else. You may have incidentally eliminated the cause of the allergy and never realized it. Or your cat reacted to something beyond your control, like the seasonal pollen.

So my cat didn’t stop over-grooming after trying allergy medications. Now what?

Well, we can either start doing diagnostic tests for the less common causes of over-grooming or we can try behavior modification. If everything else is completely normal with your cat, other than the missing fur, we have time to try behavior modification techniques. Think Stress, OCD, Depression and Boredom in people. Your cat can have chemical imbalances also.

So what can we do to alleviate behavioral issues?

First, let’s try enriching your cats environment, so that they are always stimulated.

I do not recommend trying ALL of the following enrichment techniques at once. If you do try them all at the same time AND they all work, you will have to keep up with this lifestyle forever or face regression. You won’t know if only one technique was effective or if they are all must be provided together to solve the behavioral issue.

Aside from the usual kitty condos and cat scratching posts, interactive toys can stimulate your cat even when you aren't home. To enrich your cat's living space try these special toys and feeding dispensers. There are many more options available, but here are some of my faves.

This activity center can be used to feed your cat every day. Just put a daily amount of food in the board and your cat will have to work for it. It will keep them entertained for much longer than the traditional bowl of food.

This interactive toy can entertain your kitty, as long as it isn't overused. You can turn it on for 15 minutes just before leaving the house, so that your cat won't even realize that you are leaving. Remember to leave rewards around where the beam will go, so that your cat isn't discouraged. This toy should be a special treat, as opposed to something used daily.

With enough ambition, you could probably fashion a toy like this using a cardboard box. However, if you're not up to the challenge, this relatively inexpensive toy can keep your cat busy for a while.

***Don't forget to give your kitty the box that these toys came in. Cat's love boxes and PAPER bags.

To create a calming environment, try using a diffuser or supplements to reduce stress: You do NOT need to try them at the same time. You can try one for a month and if it doesn’t work, move on to the next option.

This diffuser releases pheromones in any space, to create a calming effect on your cat. You can also use this plug-in together with both of the supplements mentioned below.

Anxitane is a natural supplement that can have a calming effect on cats. Virbac is not the only brand that uses this calming enzyme. VetriSCIENCE has a similar product called Composure treats. Make sure you get the right dosage and follow the instructions on the package. This is not a prescription item.

Zylkene has enzymes that re-create the nursing experience in kittens. This helps reduce anxiety in adult cats. Reviews on Amazon support that this works for certain pets. Make sure you get the right dosage and follow the instructions on the package. This is not a prescription item.

If none of these over-the-counter options work alone, you can NOW try using them in pairs or even ALL together. Sometimes the above products work synergistically to reduce both boredom AND stress. If trying multiple stress relieving techniques at the same time works for your cat, you will have to maintain this lifestyle. And your cat is a Diva =)

It’s been 6 months. I ruled out EVERYTHING and I’m pretty sure my cat is still over-grooming due to behavioral issues. Now what?

Call your veterinarian. It’s high time that you have a talk about using anti-depression medications to help your cat relax. Anxious cats love tricyclic antidepressants just like anxious humans do.

If you’ve done everything to make sure that you gave your cat the best life, it doesn’t matter. It’s not your fault. Celebrities experience depression and it would seem that they have a very nice life. It’s a chemical imbalance. Let's fix it!

Written with Love - Dr. J

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