How do you deal with a cat that is licking his or her fur off? What causes it and what can you do? There are many reasons that cats lick and for the most part, these are for normal instinctual grooming reasons. However, this behavior can become excessive with behavioral problems or in response to a medical problem to the point that it leads to the cat licking their fur off. In this article, we will review why cats will lick off their fur.
If you are interested in why cats lick in general, learn more at Everything You Need to Know About Cat Licking.
Some cats make a noise like they are licking their fur but they are actually just licking or smacking their lips. Learn about What it Means When Your Cat is Smacking Her Lips.
Why Cats Lick Their Fur So Much
Cats will lick their fur to remove odors and dirt. Much of this behavior is instinctual to remove odors that can make them vulnerable to prey. Cats can also lick other things, for example, some cats may lick you or even obsess over licking plastic. Learn more about these two behaviors in Why is My Cat Licking Plastic? and Why Do Cats Lick You?
What It Means If Your Cat Starts To Lose Fur
If a cat licks so much that they lose their fur, this is a problem. The problem can be behavioral or medical. Below we will offer some possible causes for cat’s licking their fur off.
Behavioral Causes for Cat Licking Fur Off
- Displacement behavior. Some cats will lick their fur when stressed. This is commonly called a “displacement behavior.” A displacement behavior helps cats cope with stress by lowering their arousal level. An example is when a cat is confronted with another cat and is stressed…trying to decide if they attack, run, or hide. Some cats will respond by self-grooming, as a way to reduce their stress and tension. This generally only lasts a few minutes but not to the point that the cats licks their fur off. Sometimes displacement behaviors can turn into abnormal compulsive behaviors.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorders. Some cats will groom to extremes. It may start as a displacement behavior and if the stressor continues, can become a compulsive disorder. For example, if a cat is repeatedly bullied by another cat, they may take the displacement behavior to extremes and continue that behavior even when not in the stressful situation. Learn more about Feline Compulsive Behaviors.
- Excessive grooming is commonly referred to as psychogenic alopecia. Clients will notice their cat licking fur off their abdomens, chest, backs or legs. Some cats will pull the hair out with their teeth and create skin wounds and ulcerations. The behavior is often associated with some new stressor in the cat’s life. Psychogenic alopecia is more common in young female cats but can occur in any cat.
Medical Causes for Cat Licking Fur Off
There are various medical causes leading to a cat licking fur off. Below are some of the most common causes.
- Skin allergy. Some cats can suffer from a medical condition called Allergic Dermatitis. The allergy can be caused by a hypersensitivity to parasites (most commonly the flea), food, dust, pollen or mold. This can cause cats to feel uncomfortable, itch, and lick their fur off. Cats with allergies to fleas have most of their fur loss over their rear end in front of their tail, abdomen, back legs and tail. They will often also have small itchy bumps around their necks. Treatment includes trying to find the underlying cause and remove that problem. For example, if a cat is allergic to fleas, eliminate all fleas in the environment and begin flea prevention medications.
- Wounds & Infections. There are many types of wounds that can cause loss of hair.
Cats with wounds such as a bite wound or laceration will lick that area. They will often lick off their fur or the wound may cause the fur to fall off due to infection around the wound. Wounds can occur anywhere on the body but are often on the paws, face, neck, or around the rear end.
- Another reason cats may lick and loose hair is from anal gland problems. Anal glands can become infected which can cause cats to lick near their rectums.
- Ringworm, also known as Dermatophyte fungi, can cause areas of hair loss.
Some licking may be okay but when excessive licking can delay healing and/or remove sutures that will need replacing.
- Pain. Some cats will excessively lick their fur due to pain. Some cats with inflammation of their bladders will lick their abdomens over their bladder. Some cats will over-groom when they don’t feel well from a variety of medical problems. Some cats will continue this behavior until they feel better.
- Parasites. Infestation with sarcoptes mange (Scabies) mite is an intensely itchy skin problem that causes fur loss of the ears, elbows, hocks, and other areas. Another mite known as Cheyletiella (also known as walking dandruff mite) causes hair loss and itching.
- Feline Eosinophilic Granuloma Complex. The term eosinophilic granuloma complex (EGC) refers to a group of skin lesions that represent an allergic reaction in the cat’s skin. These occur in three forms, and your cat may have any or all of them. It can cause areas of hair loss that can occur on the back of the rear legs, in and around the mouth, on the upper lips, neck, shoulders, and/or on the face.
How To Help Your Cat
The best way to help your cat is to determine the cause of the problem that is causing them to lick their fur off. The best way to do this is to take your cat to your veterinarian. They will likely do or recommend some or all of the following:
- History. Your veterinarian will obtain a thorough medical history. They will ask you questions about when this problem started when the licking fur out occurs, the degree of itching, what medications or treatments you have tried, if you are giving any medications and anything that has made the problem better or worse.
- Examination. Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam and careful examination of the skin and hair. They will pay particular attention to the location of the hair loss, condition of the hair, and evaluate for any skin lesions.
- Skin scrapings. A procedure called a “skin scraping” is commonly recommended. A sharp blade is gently scraped over the skin to collect cells to look for mites and other skin parasites. These scrapings are examined under a microscope.
- Fungal cultures. Ringworm (dermatophytes) can cause hair loss. A culture can be performed by plucking hair from the edge of the lesion and placing it on a special culture media. A color change from yellow to red in the culture media suggests the presence of dermatophytes.
- Trichogram. A trichogram is a test that looks at the hair under a microscope to determine if hairs are developing normally and show broken hairs which would indicate a self-induced alopecia.
- Food trial. A hypoallergenic food trial or testing for allergens may be done to rule out allergy if the alopecia is related to pruritus.
- A skin biopsy can be very helpful in diagnosing the cause of fur loss. One or more small pieces of skin are taken from a skin lesion and submitted to a veterinary pathologist for examination.
Once the underlying cause is known, specific treatments can be recommended to address the cat licking fur off problem.
3 Methods to Prevent a Cat from Licking Out Fur
Treating and preventing licking depends on the underlying cause of the licking. Telling the cat no can work for seconds but is not sustainable as you can not be with your cat all the time.
- Bandage. Some wounds can be covered by bandages to prevent licking. For wounds on the torso, an infant t-shirt may do the trick. For the front half of the body, put a t-shirt on in a natural way. For wounds in the back half of the body, put the t-shirt on backward, with the tail going through the hole for the head and the rear legs going into the arms. You may have to use a strip of sticky tape to tape the bottom hem of the t-shirt to the cat to prevent the shirt from slipping. Some cats detest clothing so this may not work.
- Topical Products. Some products such as Chew Guard®, cayenne pepper, lemon juice or Tabasco® have been used to deter licking due to the bitter taste. Some products can even safely be applied directly to the wound or placed on the bandage. Discuss the best product and plan with your veterinarian before applying any of these products directly to a wound.
- E-Collars. The Elizabethan collar, commonly called an E-collar, are often the most effective way to prevent licking to some areas. The collar fits around the neck and looks like a lampshade that surrounds the cat’s head. This can prevent licking and pulling your cat’s fur out.
Additional Articles that May Be of Interest About Cat Licking
What it Means When Your Cat is Smacking Her Lips
Why is My Cat Licking Plastic?
What is Pet Insurance?
How Does Pet Insurance Work?
When is the Best Time to Get Pet Insurance for Your Cat?
Questions To Ask When Choosing A New Vet
How to Have a Trauma-Free Veterinary Visit for Your Cat