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, either due to behavioral issues or in response to a medical problem, culminating in your cat licking their fur off. In this article, we will review why cats lick off their fur.
Why Cats Lick Their Fur
Cats will lick their fur to remove odors and dirt. Much of this behavior is instinctual, since they need to remove odors that make them vulnerable to prey. Cats can also lick things other than their fur. For example, some cats may lick you or even obsess over licking plastic.
If a cat licks so much that they lose their fur, this is a problem. Below, we will offer some possible reasons for why a cat would lick their fur off.
Behavioral Causes for Cats Licking Fur Off
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 by another cat and becomes stressed. While trying to decide whether to attack, run, or hide, some cats will respond by self-grooming. This helps them reduce their stress and tension. Typically, this only lasts a few minutes, but can turn into an abnormal compulsive behavior.
Some cats will groom to extremes. It may start as a displacement behavior and, if the stressor continues, become a compulsive disorder. For example, if a cat is repeatedly bullied by another cat, they may take the displacement behavior to an extreme and continue that behavior even when not in a stressful situation.
Excessive grooming is commonly referred to as psychogenic alopecia. Pet parents 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. This 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 Cats Licking Fur Off
There are various medical causes that lead to a cat licking their fur off.
Many cats 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 and itchy, as well as lick their fur off. Cats with allergies to fleas have most of their fur loss in front of their tail, abdomen, and back legs. They will often also have small itchy bumps around their necks. Treatment includes trying to find the underlying cause and remove the problem. For example, if a cat is allergic to fleas, eliminate all fleas in the environment and begin flea prevention medications.
Wounds and infections
There are many types of wounds that can cause loss of hair.
Bite wounds and lacerations will inspire your cat to lick the area. They may also lose fur due to an infection around the wound. Wounds can occur anywhere on the body, but are most often on the paws, face, neck, or around the rear end.
Anal gland issues
Anal gland infections may cause cats to lick near their rectums.
Ringworm, also known as Dermatophyte fungi, can cause areas of hair loss.
Cats may excessively lick their fur or overgroom due to pain. For example, cats with an inflammation of the bladder will lick their abdomens.
Infestation with sarcoptic mange (scabies) is an intensely itchy skin problem that causes fur loss on the ears, elbows, hocks, and other areas. Another mite known as Cheyletiella (also known as walking dandruff) 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 a cat’s skin. These occur in three forms, and your cat may have any or all of them. This condition can cause areas of hair loss on the back of the rear legs, in and around the mouth, on the upper lips, neck, shoulders, and/or on the face.
Treatment for Excessive Licking in Cats
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:
Your veterinarian will obtain a thorough medical history. They will ask you questions about when the problem started, 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.
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of the skin and hair. They will pay close attention to the location of the hair loss and condition of the hair, as well as evaluate any skin lesions.
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.
Ringworm (dermatophytes) can cause hair loss. A culture can be performed by plucking hair from the edge of the lesion and placing it on special culture media. A color change from yellow to red in the culture media suggests the presence of dermatophytes.
A trichogram is a test that looks at hair under a microscope to determine if they are developing normally or if there are broken hairs, which would indicate self-induced alopecia.
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 problem.
3 Methods to Prevent a Cat from Licking Off Fur
Treating and preventing licking depends on the underlying cause of the licking. Saying “No!” to a cat may stop the licking for seconds, but it is not sustainable or effective.
- Bandage. Some wounds can be covered by bandages to prevent licking. For wounds on the torso, an infant t-shirt may do the trick. If the wound is on the front half of the body, put a t-shirt on in a natural way. For wounds on the back half of the body, put the t-shirt on backwards, with the tail going through the head hole and the rear legs going through the arm holes. 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 like Chew Guard®, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, and Tabasco® have been used to deter licking due to their bitter taste. Many 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 known as an E-collar, is often the most effective way to prevent licking. The collar fits around the neck and looks like a lampshade that surrounds the cat’s head. This can prevent licking and removal of fur.
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