Over-Grooming in Cats

Cat grooms itself.
Cat grooms itself.

Have you ever noticed your cat licking their fur throughout the day?

This isn’t an odd habit, but a process called grooming, which helps keep the skin and coat clean and healthy. Additionally, grooming can aid in thermoregulation by cooling the skin via evaporation of saliva from the coat. In general, cats are notoriously attentive groomers, but excessive grooming can be a sign that your cat is itchy or possibly suffering from an underlying allergic skin condition.

How Much Grooming Is Too Much?

Cats tend to groom multiple times a day and though you may notice this behavior intermittently, seeing your cat clean themself with increased frequency may be an indicator that they are over-grooming.

Since obsessive licking is typically concealed or hidden, most pet parents don’t notice abnormal behavior until their cat shows signs of thinning hair or bald patches (alopecia). Excessive hairballs are another clue that your feline friend may be suffering from a skin condition.

How Do Vets Diagnose Over-Grooming?

Veterinarians conduct a full dermatological exam, focusing on the skin and hair, to determine the cause of a cat’s grooming issues. In addition to hair loss, redness of the skin (erythema) may suggest an inflammatory cause or secondary lesions seen with self-trauma (sores and crusts).

Vets may also conduct a cytology test to look for inflammatory cells or bacteria, a trichogram to evaluate hair-follicle health, a skin scrape to uncover parasites, or a fungal culture to rule out ringworm.

What Causes Itching in Cats?

Over-grooming is often misclassified as a behavioral problem, but an allergic reaction, like itching, is commonly the culprit. Other allergic signs in cats can include: ear infections, scratching, or development of eosinophilic lesions. Unlike dogs, cats have a unique group of signs, known as the eosinophilic granuloma complex, which is associated with allergic inflammation.

Eosinophilic granuloma complex is made up of eosinophilic plaques which present as thickened, crusted sores and indolent ulcers, resulting in thickening and ulceration of the lips. Crusted red bumps (papules), also known as miliary dermatitis, are another unique manifestation of skin allergies in cats. Over-grooming can also lead to skin trauma and secondary bacterial infection, which can cause crusting and sores.

How Do I Stop My Cat from Over-Grooming?

Although Elizabethan collars (e-collars) or clothing may be used as short-term preventive measures, they are not a long-term solution for excessive trauma to the skin caused by excessive licking. The best way to stop your cat from over-grooming is to determine the cause of their itching. Your veterinarian may try different medications to decrease the inflammation leading to the itch sensation, which triggers the licking behavior. They may also need to treat secondary infections if present. In more difficult cases, you may be referred to a veterinary dermatologist to help formulate a treatment plan.

Ultimately, bare bellies and broken hairs are more than just a cosmetic issue and generally indicate a bigger problem in your cat! It’s always best to seek veterinary treatment for all dermatological issues.