Why Does my Cat "Mow his Fur"?

 |  Oct 22nd 2011  |   7 Contributions


'Look, I'm not happy about this' photo (c) 2009, jim crossley - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
Hello Dr. Barchas,

My 4-year old cat developed a "fur mowing" issue (as my vet calls it) out of the blue back in August to his belly and hind legs. There have been no changes to the environment that we can pin point and he hasn't been exhibiting any other behavioral issues aside from this mowing - he's still his normal, overly happy self. He's always been an extremely affectionate cat and purrs pretty much every second of the day, and he still is/does, so we don't think he's scared or upset about anything. Our vet has run tests - blood work, physical examinations, even x-rays of the areas he's pulling the fur out of - and they can't find anything wrong.

They put him on Prednisolone for a few weeks, but that didn't do anything. Now, he has been on a 1/2 pill of amitryptiline once a day for a couple of weeks and it doesn't seem to be doing anything other than making him sleep all the time - but he still finds time to pull out his fur... and he pulls it out to the point of making himself bleed.

The vet says that it could take a few more weeks for the meds to really kick in, but if not, they want to put him on Prozac - and I really don't want to do that. I don't want to give him any medication that may alter his wonderful personality if I don't have to (of course, we will if it is the only way to make him better). We have put the "cone of shame" on him a few times, but I'm leary to leave it on him when we aren't at home and able to make sure he isn't getting stuck somewhere.

How do you usually treat this type of issue? Is there something that we could be missing that might be causing him to do this? Any advice you can offer would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Hailey
Denver, CO

The "fur mowing" you describe is a very common syndrome among cats. It's called psychogenic alopecia.

Cats with psychogenic alopecia over-groom themselves. They usually start on their abdomens, then work along the rears of their thighs, and then work their way up their backs. I have met cats who were bald from the neck to the tip of the tail due to the syndrome.

Psychogenic is the way veterinarians say psychological. Alopecia means baldness. In other words, psychogenic alopecia is baldness caused by presumed psychological causes. Most experts believe that the syndrome is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and trichotillomania in people.

The good news: psychogenic alopecia is not fatal. Sadly, there is also bad news: the syndrome is devilishly hard to control.

You have already done much of what can be done. Blood work, urine tests, and X-rays should be run to confirm that no medical problem is causing over-grooming. A high quality flea preventative should be used consistently. As a next step I generally recommend enrichment activities. If you're not already doing it (and, based upon your evident diligence, I'm guessing you already are) make sure that your cat gets plenty of affection and exercise (laser pointers and feathers on strings are good for exercising cats). Consider offering food from a foraging ball (a plastic cat toy, available at pet stores, that dispenses food as your cat plays with it). Have plenty of toys available, and consider mental enrichment through training.

Medications are a last resort for psychogenic alopecia. I do not recommend prednisolone for the syndrome. Amitriptyline (Elavil) and fluoxetine (Prozac) are the two most effective medications, but even they do not consistently solve the problem. Medications should not be used alone. Rather, they should be used in combination with the enrichment activities listed above.

Much more information on psychogenic alopecia can be found on my website. Click here to read it.

Photo: the very, very last resort for controlling the syndrome.

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