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How To: Help a Stressed and Over-grooming Cat

 by jaime on 26 Jun 2014 |
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Many cats appear to be pretty cool customers, but that doesn't mean they are exempt from stress and anxiety. If stress becomes a major player in your cats' life, behaviour problems, particularly over-grooming, can become a real issue.

What is it?
Over-grooming, also known as psychogenic alopecia, is a coping mechanism for cats dealing with stressful situations. Some cats go bald or create sores on their body as a result of excessive licking and chewing. While self-grooming is perfectly normal behaviour for a cat - over-grooming is when the behaviour becomes a compulsion and disrupts a cats normal routine. Over-grooming is a common way for cats to cope with stress because the act of grooming releases endorphins so it's no wonder it's a behaviour they turn to when they feel anxious or stressed. Generally, as soon as a cat correlates grooming with a way to ease upset feelings the behaviour may increase and become compulsive.

Like humans, cats deal with stress in different ways and what one cat might become stressed over might not even conjure up a reaction in another. It's important to note that it might not always be obvious what is causing your cat stress or there could be more than one issue that's upsetting your cat.

Common causes of stress include:

    •    A death
    •    A divorce
    •    Owner working longer hours
    •    A family member leaving the house. (e.g. to go to college or traveling)
    •    Changes to routine
    •    New family members
    •    Moving house
    •    Rearranging furniture
    •    Presence of other cats
How to identify
Unfortunately, over grooming is a secretive activity, so many owners report that they find it hard to catch their kitty in the act. This may be because the cat doesn't feel the need to indulge in their secret vice because their owner's presence already gives them positive feelings. Or it may be because the owner has caught kitty out previously so the cat now knows not to do it around them. Fortunately, there are some signs that can help identify over-grooming.

    •    Hair missing in places such as middle of the back, belly and inner thighs
    •    Hair is very short and stubbled, in patches or broken
    •    In extreme cases cat may lick, chew, pluck or bite areas and if you do catch them it's difficult to interrupt.
    •    Grooming takes place out of context and disrupts usual activity
There are certain breeds that are more susceptible to over grooming. These include: the Siamese, Burmese, Himalayan and Abyssinian.

How to help
In the first instance, cat owners will need to distinguish whether their cat is over-grooming because of stress or is suffering from genuine alopecia. You'll know it's alopecia because the remaining hair feels soft and normal to touch, where as with over-grooming, hair is broken and spiky.

There are also other diseases and illnesses that can cause over-grooming so it's also important to rule those out too. These include:
    •    Lower urinary tract disease
    •    Feline hyperaesthesia syndrome
    •    Flea bites
    •    Inhalled allergies
    •    Ringworm

The best thing to do to help is to consult your vet who will be able to make a formal diagnosis.

If your cat is indeed over-grooming because of stress, the best thing to do is identify what is causing the stress and then eliminate it. Sometimes that's not always possible so there are other methods you can try to help stop this compulsive behaviour.

    •    Leave small reminders from missed people such as a voice recording or an unwashed item of clothing to help give cats a little pick-me-up
    •    If stress is caused by another cat, remember to introduce them slowly to keep stress levels down.
    •    Play therapy can help increase a pet's self confidence - interactive games work best.
    •    Plug in pheromone diffusers can help relieve stress.

A trip to the vet will be most definately required though as anti-anxiety drugs or herbal remedies can be prescribed.

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