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Cats, and overgrooming

Is OCD kicking in?: grooming is a natural part of a cat’s daily routine, but it can sometimes become obsessive, Lucy Richardson warns

I love to watch my cats grooming themselves. It’s such a methodical and calming action that is a natural part of their daily routine.

Grooming releases endorphins in cats and really makes them feel good. But in some cats, this repetitive event becomes obsessive and can lead to a syndrome called “overgrooming”.

Overgrooming occurs when a cat continuously licks the same area causing the hair shaft to break leaving rough feeling stubbly hair, and in some cases no hair at all.

In the most extreme incidents, the cat will self-harm the skin surface causing sores and inflammation.

There are many reasons for overgrooming, some more obvious than others. The most usual culprit is our old foe the flea.

Flea bites lead to very itchy skin, which can lead to overgrooming. The good news is there’s an easy fix, the application of a suitable flea control product every month, and this is where I often start with my overgrooming kitties.

Itching can also be triggered by fur mites and fungus such as ringworm, and these are usually easy to diagnose and treat.

Bacteria in the skin can also be very itchy and should be treated with a skin-specific antibiotic before assessing the remaining underlying itch level. Often, once the infection is cleared the itching goes away completely.

There are some immune-mediated skin conditions which cause itching, such as eosinophilic granuloma complex.

Other itches are allergy related, a reaction to food or environmental allergens. And some cats itch because they are stressed, in the same way that some people chew their fingernails or have skin flare-ups when the pressure is on.

Once the underlying cause of the itching has been found, the appropriate treatment can be started. Sometimes this means steroids given as tablets or via injection, other times we can change the environment to lower the cat’s anxiety levels.

I often say to clients that things that stress cats out are very different from things that stress people out, so you must get thinking like a cat.

Territory wars are a common stressor, as is the introduction of a new baby or a pet to the home. Moving house is also a likely trigger, as are home renovations.

Calming diffusers such as Feliway, or herbal supplements like Zylkene can make all the difference during stressful times.

Even simple changes like adding perches or increasing the number of litter trays can help. When we come to your home for a vet visit, we assess the environment and help you make these subtle changes which will greatly improve your cat’s quality of life.

Occasionally we need to bring out the anti-anxiety medications, (Valium for cats is really a thing), but we often find we can wean our patients off these as we start to address the underlying causes.

Patience is a key component when treating an overgrooming cat, as it takes time to build up the healthy skin and fur barrier once it has been damaged.

Cats can become habitual in their overgrooming; again time is needed to break these habits.

I know people sometimes use the dreaded cone to block the cat from licking, but I always think it must be stressful for cats to be unable to groom at all, so it’s not something I use if I can help it.

So, if your feline friend is overgrooming there is a lot we can do to help them. Speak with your vet and help your cat to scratch that itch once and for all. They will be very thankful you did.

Lucy Richardson graduated from Edinburgh University in 2005. She started CedarTree Vets in August 2012 with her husband, Mark. They live at the practice with their two children, Ray and Stella, and their dog, two cats and two guinea pigs. Dr Lucy is also the FEI national head veterinarian for Bermuda

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Published December 01, 2022 at 7:53 am (Updated December 01, 2022 at 7:53 am)

Cats, and overgrooming

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