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Cat Overgrooming: What’s Normal and What Isn’t?

Cat Overgrooming: What’s Normal and What Isn’t?

All cats instinctively groom themselves. But if your cat is constantly licking, how do you tell if that’s normal for them or if they are grooming too much? And, is overgrooming problematic for a kitty’s health?

Below, we’ll cover some ways to tell whether your cat’s grooming behavior is normal, or if it could be a symptom of stress, pain, or an underlying medical condition. Read on to learn more, and to discover a few ways to help your kitty if they are a compulsive overgroomer.

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

It’s natural for a cat to groom. In fact, when a cat is awake, they can spend 30-50% of their time grooming themselves.

This behavior helps cats keep their fur clean and get rid of mats, tangles, loose hairs, and even certain parasites. Cats’ tongues evolved with backward-facing barbs to assist with this purpose, which is why their tongues feel a bit like sandpaper.

Grooming is also social. Cats who are friendly with one another often groom each other—especially those hard-to-reach areas, like their face and ears.

How to Tell the Difference Between Normal Grooming and Overgrooming

Generally speaking, if your cat has healthy skin and fur and is not displaying any concerning symptoms, there’s a good chance their grooming behavior is normal.

However, if you notice lesions of the skin or coat (such as bald patches, redness, wounds, or scabs), behavior changes, or symptoms of illness, that could mean a kitty is overgrooming.

You may also notice “barbered” fur, or fur that has been shortened (like a buzz cut) rather than bald spots where the fur is entirely licked or pulled away.

A cat’s overgrooming could be a symptom of an underlying illness or stress. And it can lead to skin infections or excessive hairballs. 

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Common Causes of Overgrooming

Why do cats overgroom? The habit may stem from medical conditions, behavioral conditions, or environmental factors. Here are some of the most common reasons for a cat to compulsively lick themselves…

  • Allergic skin issues, including environmental allergens (pollen, etc.), flea or insect bites, a food allergy, or other allergens. 
  • Parasites, such as fleas, skin mites, etc.
  • Skin infections with bacteria, yeast, or ringworm (a fungal infection that is contagious to humans and other pets). 
  • Auto-immune conditions.
  • Any type of skin lesion, such as a wound, mass, or even cancer of the skin. 
  • Underlying health conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, a urinary tract infection, etc. 
  • Pain. For example, a cat with arthritis may lick the skin overlying their aching joints. And a cat with a UTI may lick their belly.
  • Environmental factors, such as a cat who goes outdoors and gets their fur dirty and needs to clean themselves more often, or seasonal shedding.
  • Behavioral overgrooming, also known as psychogenic alopecia. Most commonly, this is due to stress or anxiety, which may be short-term or long-term.Triggers can include changes in the household, noises such as thunderstorms, or even a change in a pet parent’s schedule. Kitties may also overgroom themselves due to boredom. Grooming is a self-soothing behavior that helps a cat feel momentarily better. 

Regardless of what causes overgrooming, if not addressed, the behavior may become a long-term habit, even if a kitty is no longer stressed or ill.

Diagnosing the Cause of a Cat’s Excessive Grooming Behavior

Think through anything that could be causing stress to your kitty, such as changes to the home or schedule. Bring this information to your veterinary visit, since it could help with diagnosing a behavioral cause of overgrooming. 

Diagnostic testing will likely be recommended, since an underlying medical cause needs to be ruled out. Depending on your kitty’s symptoms, age, physical exam findings, and medical history, a vet may recommend starting with a few basic tests, or they may recommend a more extensive workup. 

This process may include skin tests such as a skin scrape and cytology (to look for microscopic parasites, bacteria, or yeast) or a fungal culture. Or, it may include bloodwork, a urine analysis, or other diagnostic tests. 

A skin biopsy or referral to a specialist (dermatologist or behaviorist, depending on the suspected underlying cause) may be recommended for some kitties who need additional care.

Treating a Cat’s Overgrooming Habit

The most effective way to treat a cat’s obsessive grooming is to figure out what caused the habit in the first place.

For example, a cat with environmental allergies may need allergy medications when their symptoms flare up. A cat with a ringworm infection may be prescribed antifungal medications and shampoo. And a cat with a urinary tract infection or hormonal imbalance will need treatment for their underlying medical condition. 

A vet may also prescribe parasite treatment if you live in an area where fleas are common. Cats groom away evidence of fleas, so a flea infestation is still possible, even if you’ve never seen a flea on your cat.

Also, secondary (opportunistic) infections are common once the skin’s protective barrier is damaged from excessive licking. These infections need to be treated to break the overgrooming cycle. 

Tips for Reducing Stress-Related Overgrooming

Once medical causes have been ruled out, it’s likely that a cat’s overgrooming is due to stress or anxiety. Some things that may help these kitties include:

  • Feliway and natural remedies. Feliway is a synthetic feline pheromone that helps cats feel calmer and safer. It comes as a wipe, spray, collar, or diffuser. Additionally, there are calming supplements designed for cats, and even some feline diets designed to help with stress. 
  • Stick to the same routine as much as possible. Cats are creatures of habit, and a daily schedule offers the security of knowing what to expect. If you must change your habits, try to do so gradually.
  • Be proactive during times of potential stress. Maybe you’re going back to work or a child in the home is heading off to school. Maybe you’re getting a divorce, having a baby, moving to a new house, or adopting another pet. Any changes in the home can be stressful to a cat, so talk to your veterinarian about ways to keep your cat calm and happy during a transition.
  • Offer physical and mental stimulation. Cats are smart and they need enrichment to stay active and avoid boredom. This can include playtime, puzzle toys, a bird feeder next to the window so they can enjoy a “bird show,” cat towers for climbing, and anything else to keep your kitty physically and mentally engaged.
  • Offer some TLC. Cats require some interaction and attention each day. Spend some time playing, cuddling, or doing whatever your kitty enjoys.
  • Prescription antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications. These medications can help a cat feel better and adapt while behavioral and environmental modifications are underway. Usually, these medications aren’t needed long-term unless a cat has severe anxiety.

For your cat’s safety, never give a new supplement or medication without first talking to your veterinarian.

When to Call the Vet

If your cat suddenly changes their grooming habits or behavior, or if you’re not sure what’s normal for them, it’s never a bad idea to call your vet team and see if they recommend a consultation. 

Additionally, a vet visit is recommended if any skin or coat abnormalities are noted—such as hair loss, redness, wounds, scabs, or other lesions. This is true even if you don’t catch your cat “in the act,” since a cat’s excessive grooming might only occur when you’re outside the home.

Additionally, any symptoms of itchiness (biting and scratching) or illness (vomiting, changes to food or water intake, changes in bathroom habits, limping, lethargy, etc.) warrant a vet visit

Overgrooming is a common issue in cats, with many possible causes. Fortunately, with a little investigation and the right treatment, these kitties can get back to doing their favorite activities—like playing, sleeping, and cuddling—instead of licking all the time.

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