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Excessive Grooming in Cats: Signs, Causes & How to Help

Written by: Christian Adams

Last Updated on February 19, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

tabby cat licking her paw

Excessive Grooming in Cats: Signs, Causes & How to Help

VET APPROVED

Dr. Maja Platisa Photo

REVIEWED & FACT-CHECKED BY

Dr. Maja Platisa

DVM MRCVS (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Cats are fastidious self-groomers, which is their trademark trait that begins at an early age. Your cat cleans their fur by licking themselves for most of their waking hours. Observing early signs of excessive grooming is challenging, as they may resemble their usual grooming habits.

Skin irritation, pain, underlying medical causes, and stress are a few reasons cats groom too much. While it’s typical for cats to groom, over-grooming isn’t, and it’s crucial to find a vet as soon as possible since it can rapidly reach the point of skin lesions, bald patches, and hairballs, and it may indicate a more severe health issue.

Your vet can help your feline friend stop the constant licking and biting and prevent pain and further skin irritation while getting down to the root cause of the issue. Check out why over-grooming occurs and how to help your cat.

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What Is Over-Grooming?

Most felines spend 30% to 50% of their waking hours grooming themselves.1 However, your pet may be over-grooming if they start spending unusually long hours licking and nibbling compulsively, particularly in one area, so much that they develop skin sores, inflammations, or hair loss.

Regular grooming allows them to look good and “feel good,” but compulsive grooming could result from stress and discomfort. You may witness the incessant grooming sometimes, but there are also other signs that can appear.

white cat its licking paw
Image Credit: peter jung, Pixabay

Signs of Over-Grooming

  • Hair loss
  • Constant scratching and licking, particularly of one body area
  • Grooming too much that it interrupts other cat activities
  • Self-inflicted skin irritability such as redness, rashes, scabs, and pus
  • Discomfort or irritability when scratching
  • Nibbling at their skin
  • Hiding
  • Changes in appetite, drinking, urination, or defecation habits

Why Do Cats Over-Groom?

The two leading causes of compulsive grooming are medical and behavioral.

Medical Causes of Over-Grooming

cat grooming itself
Image Credit: Deedee86, Pixabay

Anything that causes your cat to feel itchy can change their grooming schedule, and it warrants medical attention. However, a few non-itchy or less itchy skin conditions may cause hair loss and skin changes. Some of the underlying causes of overgrooming may include:

Parasite Infestation and Ringworm

Lice, fleas, and mites are nearly invisible or tiny creatures that irritate the skin and cause itching, which triggers over-grooming. If irritation occurs at the tail’s base, it could be flea infestations, while hair loss and scabbing at the ears could indicate ear mites.

Contagious pathogens like fungus and mites can also cause skin lesions such as scaling, thickening, redness, scabs, crusts, and hair loss. Mite infestation are itchy, while ringworm usually isn’t itchy in the beginning unless there is a secondary bacterial infection. Your vet can rule this cause out by performing skin scraping and fungal cultures.

Skin Infections

Bacterial and fungal skin infections can also lead to hair loss and, due to itchiness and discomfort, will often cause excessive grooming. These areas can be red and inflamed with swelling and discharge, have an unpleasant smell, or form an abscess.

Sometimes a wound from a cat fight or trauma will cause the infection in the first place, or the excessive licking due to another underlying cause may lead to self-inflicted skin damage that gets infected. All skin infections need veterinary attention.

Allergies

An over-grooming feline can have an allergic response or irritation to food, flea saliva, or other environmental elements such as pollen and dust. Your feline may chew their skin or scratch and lick excessively. Some cats suffering from allergies also have digestive or upper respiratory signs.

Allergic skin disease is suspected after other causes have been ruled out, such as parasites and infections, and is often a diagnosis of exclusion. Some cats may be referred to a veterinary dermatologist for allergy testing. The treatment will depend on the root causes of the allergy and may include immunosuppressants, immunotherapy, antihistamines, antibiotics, flea preventives, and other medications.

Pain

If your cat repeatedly grooms a specific area, they may feel pain or discomfort. The licking could be easing the pain. If the cat licks their genital area, they may have a urinary issue, particularly if there are signs of frequent urination, straining to pee, or blood in the urine.

Urinary issues are especially urgent in male cats, and they may lead to a life-threatening urinary blockage, which always needs emergency veterinary care. Middle-aged and older cats can suffer from arthritis, which causes joint pain and could lead to licking of specific areas on their legs or back.

Medical Conditions

Some endocrine disorders, such as hyperthyroidism, and systemic diseases, like cancer and autoimmune disease, can lead to skin problems and hair loss. It’s essential to speak to your vet if your cat shows signs of overgrooming, hair loss, or skin changes, as it usually indicates an underlying health issue and stress.

Skin Irritation 

If your cat has come in contact with irritants, such as floor cleaners, they may be licking their paws excessively. Harmful and toxic ingredients cause skin irritation, mouth sores, ulcers, drooling, and damage to the esophagus if swallowed during grooming.

Always make sure not to use harmful products and keep your cat out of the area that has been cleaned. Speak to your vet immediately if you believe your cat has encountered any dangerous chemicals.

Some topical feline-only treatments, such as medicated shampoos, flea products, or topical medications, can cause hair loss and skin irritation, leading to overgrooming.


Behavioral Over-Grooming

Behavioral self-inflicted over-grooming is a stress-relief mechanism that also causes psychogenic alopecia in cats. This form of alopecia is not as common as once believed since many of the underlying skin and medical conditions go undiagnosed. It can only be suspected in cats that do not have skin disease and after all other causes have been ruled out by your vet, such as skin parasites, bacterial and fungal infections, allergic skin disease, endocrine disease, autoimmune conditions, skin cancer, paraneoplastic syndrome, pain, etc.

Psychogenic alopecia causes felines to focus on grooming or plucking out hair from their bellies, inner thighs, or forelegs. It may appear as a line or stripe along the front legs, but they can also groom other places.

This condition can be chronic and is prompted by several stressors, including permanent routine and environmental disruptions. It could be the absence of a particular family member, letting a stranger into the home, a perceived threat, or construction work.

Many cats may not cope well in a multi-cat household or in the presence of other felines in the neighborhood. It may not manifest as aggression towards other cats, and the cat may happily snuggle or play, but your kitty friend will resort to compulsive grooming to feel calm.

Although the behavior may stop once you remove the threat, it can be difficult for your cat to control it and may continue long after you remove the threat. While psychogenic alopecia isn’t life-threatening, it still causes discomfort to your cat and other health issues provoked by chronic stress.

Other behavioral causes include:
  • Moving the litter box to another spot
  • Insufficient number of litter boxes
  • Lack of environmental enrichment
  • Chaotic household
  • Moving houses
  • Home remodeling
  • New schedule
  • Small children or noisy household

3 cat face divider

Ways to Stop Your Cat From Over-Grooming

1. Take Your Cat to the Vet

cat and vet. II_Stock-Asso_Shutterstock
Image Credit: Stock-Asso, Shutterstock

Your vet can rule out underlying medical causes, including flea or mite infestations, ringworm, bacteria infections, fungal infections, metabolic conditions, allergic skin disease, pain, or cancer.

They will evaluate the cat’s general health and medical history to rule out the possible causes before confirming the underlying issue. A physical examination, skin scrapes, biopsies, microscopy, skin cultures, and lab work can help the practitioner make a precise diagnosis.

Your vet will evaluate the underlying body part for possible discomforts, such as a urinary issue or arthritis if the cat tends to overgroom a specific body part.


2. Seek Help From a Behaviorist

Once your vet has ruled out medical concerns, you can consider over-grooming a behavioral issue. Grooming releases endorphins and helps the cat calm down. Therefore, it may be hard for the cat to stop over-grooming even when they’re no longer stressed. A cat behaviorist or vet can advise you on encouraging your kitty to modify the behavior.

The following steps for managing overgrooming only apply if the cause is stress and after your cat has had the all-clear bill of health from your vet. Please do not assume stress is the culprit before getting your cat checked, as most often, an underlying illness is the actual cause.

In a study conducted in 2006, only two out of 21 cats referred to a dermatologist had psychogenic alopecia without any medical causes, which makes the condition overdiagnosed.

However, if your cat has been diagnosed with stress-related over-grooming by your veterinarian, consult the behaviorist and identify the cause of stress so it can be eliminated or reduced.

cat_pasja1000, Pixabay
Image Credit: pasja1000, Pixabay

3. Tips for Managing Stress

Try to Eliminate the Sources of Stress

Try to take your cat’s perspective and reflect on any issue before the compulsive grooming. Cats don’t love change, and relocating, furniture rearrangement, new pets or family members, the loss of a family member, boredom, and noise can trigger stress. If you’ve moved to a new home, keep your feline in one room for before you gradually introduce them to the rest of the house.

Develop a Routine

Observe your kitty’s daily routine as much as possible, with key events such as playtime, feeding, and exercise occurring at the same time every day.

Felines thrive on a routine because it provides the stability they need. If you intend to disrupt their routine, ensure you gradually accustom the pet to the changes to limit the stress and help them feel settled naturally.

a cat playing with toys_winni-design, Shutterstock
Image Credit: winni-design, Shutterstock

Play Therapy

The next most important step is to provide plenty of environmental stimulation. The enrichments could be interactive playtime, new play centers, perching areas, outdoor time, and brain games. It’s best to vary the activities to keep the feline more interested. Play therapy helps stimulate a cat and gives them an outlet for their natural behaviors, like hunting.

Patience

While the medical causes for compulsive grooming can be treated or managed, behavioral over-grooming can be more challenging in some cats and requires more time and patience. Any changes in their routine can cause them to over-groom again, and their baldness and lesions can come and go over an extended period. Your vet and a feline behaviorist can determine the best treatment options for your cat.

Provide Hiding Spaces, Climbing & Scratching Spots

Give your cat a serene place to hide, rest, and feel secure. A safe spot can act as the cat’s break room, where they can go for a personal time out to help them deal with the stressful situation. It’s essential to keep other pets or children out of this area.

It’s equally vital to provide climbing perches and scratching spots to keep the cat distracted.

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Consider Synthetic Pheromones to Calm the Cat

A spray or a plug-in diffusing pheromone can help calm your cat, reassure them, and relieve stress. Feliway and other pheromone products mimic the scents cats naturally produce when marking objects and areas as safe. You can spray it on objects to help the cat feel secure in their environment.

woman hand petting a cat_zavtrak92, Pixabay
Image Credit: zavtrak92, Pixabay

Drug Therapy

In severe behavioral cases, like psychogenic alopecia, where there are signs of skin damage, a behaviorist and your veterinarian can offer additional medication recommendations and specific methods you can conduct in your home.

Your practitioner may recommend antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and behavioral modification techniques. The ultimate goal is to eventually wean the cat off the treatment plan once they feel balanced and safe in their home again.

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Hair Loss Without Over-Grooming

Over-grooming can cause bald patches on a cat’s skin, but it may not be the only reason the fur isn’t healthy. Other causes for baldness can be spontaneous, without overgrooming or itching, and can include early ringworm or fungal infection, some types of mite infestation, or cancer-related.

In these cases, the cat is not seen overgrooming, but there is hair follicle damage and loss. However, they are less common and often become itchy as the disease progresses and secondary bacterial or fungal infection occurs. Check with your vet for a proper diagnosis and how to treat it.

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Summary

It’s not uncommon to have an over-grooming kitty, but it can be particularly frustrating because there’s no quick or easy solution to the problem. So, be patient and consult your vet as soon as you notice the issue so they can help with the situation. Most causes of over-grooming are due to underlying medical conditions that cause the skin to be itchy or uncomfortable.

Less commonly, it’s a behavioral issue related to stress, and the skin is not the problem. The bottom line is that compulsive grooming in cats is preventable as long as the root cause is promptly identified and adequately managed.


Featured Image Credit: SJ Duran, Shutterstock

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