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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

First of all, thank you very much for your site. I recently adopted 2 kittens (brothers born June of this year), and these are the first and only cats I’ve ever had. I’m one of those “I’m-a-dog-person-not-a-cat-person” people, so I know nothing about cats. I’ve learned so much from your site! I’m hoping you can help me with one little issue I’m having.

As I said, these two are brothers. EekEek is the more outgoing and adventurous of the two, while Emo is the quiet, reserved one. Getting brothers was a God-send, because they take care of and entertain each other. They get along very well, and I have been blessed with no real problems with either one of them. They are not neutered yet because of their age. They seem well adjusted, they get along well with each other and with me, and I do not notice any obsessive behavior from either of them. Except for recent behavior from EekEek. They are both Birmans, so they are supposed to have big fluffy tails that they proudly display around. Emo fulfills his duties, but EekEek has started chewing on the tip of his tail. He has very effectively chewed the last 1 to 1 1/2 inch of fur completely off of his tail … down to the bone … I mean completely! And he continues to chew on it every chance he gets! Is this a sign of something I need to be concerned about? And how do I stop him from doing this? They are both beautiful cats, and I love them both no matter what their tails look like. But EekEek looks like he had an accident, and I’d love to see his tail back in its full glory. HELP!

Thank you in advance,
~Furless (and frustrated) in Seattle

Siouxsie: Well, Furless, there are three main reasons why cats engage in excessive grooming: fleas, allergies, and stress.

Thomas: In reality, the flea issue could also be considered an allergy. Some cats are hypersensitive to the chemicals in flea saliva, which causes flea bites to itch more excessively than usual. Typically cats respond to fleas by scratching the itch, but when the itch becomes severe, a cat may respond to that by chewing to relieve the discomfort.

Dahlia: You typically won’t see fleas on a cat unless the cat is completely infested. We cats are very good at grooming and if we have one or two fleas, we tend to swallow them in the course of our hygiene rituals. You will, however, see evidence like “flea dirt.” Flea dirt is little black granules that look like dust, which you’ll see at the base of the fur. If you take a fine-tooth comb and pull it through the fur, you may pick up some of this black grit. Put the grit on a slightly dampened paper towel, and if you see a rust-colored stain, then your kitty has fleas.

Siouxsie: The most effective way to get rid of fleas and prevent future problems is to administer a monthly spot-on flea treatment such as Frontline or Advantage. Your vet sells these products, as do pet stores and a number of reputable websites. They are expensive (around US $75 for six doses), but they are definitely worth the price. We recommend that you avoid any “super discounts” when buying these products, because they tend to be outdated or counterfeit.

Thomas: If your cats have fleas, you’ll also have to launder all bedding and furniture covers and vacuum very well, throwing the vacuum bags in an outside garbage can or dumpster as soon as you’re finished.

Dahlia: Allergies to environmental pollutants can also cause excessive grooming. However, it’s been our experience that environmental allergies tend to cause itching on parts of the body that come into contact with the irritant — such as the belly or the legs and feet. It’s unlikely that a cat suffering from allergies would only chew on the end of his tail.

Siouxsie: If you think your cat may be suffering from an environmental allergy, the first thing to do is remove any potential irritants. Switch to unscented cat litter (if you aren’t already using unscented litter). Wash bedding and laundry with an unscented detergent and avoid the use of smelly fabric softeners or dryer sheets. Avoid using artificially scented air fresheners such as sprays, plug-in diffusers or heavily scented candles. And, of course, if anyone in your household smokes, we’d recommend either quitting or limiting smoking to outdoors.

Thomas: The other major cause of excessive grooming is stress. Cats that are stressed use grooming as a displacement tool for channeling their fears and anxieties. You’ve probably seen this in a less outrageous form if one of your cats has ever tried to jump onto an object and didn’t quite make it, or if the cats scare each other by mistake: What generally happens after an unpleasant surprise is that the cat immediately starts grooming, as if to say “I meant to do that.”

Dahlia: A cat that gets a big scare or gets severely stressed can begin resorting to excessive grooming in order to allay the lingering fears and anxieties. The feelings of discomfort keep cropping up as a result of some trigger that you humans may not necessarily know about, and the cat resorts to grooming to calm himself down.

Siouxsie: Since EekEek is the more adventurous of the two brothers, he may have found himself in a situation that scared or bothered him. Perhaps there’s a new cat in the neighborhood who keeps walking through “his” back yard. Or maybe there’s a new sound in your neighborhood (such as construction or road work) that makes him anxious. Maybe your new neighbor blares rap-metal music all day while you’re at work and the constant thump-thump-scream-scream is making EekEek’s hair stand on end. Perhaps there’s a new person in your life who’s coming around a lot to visit, which has changed EekEek’s world in a way he doesn’t like.

Thomas: Even seemingly minor changes like purchasing new furniture or carpets can cause stress on shy or timid cats. But since EekEek isn’t shy, we do suspect he got a scare while adventuring somewhere.

Dahlia: Can you pinpoint a time when you first noticed EekEek’s compulsive grooming behavior? If so, do you recall any changes in your life or your neighborhood?

Siouxsie: If these outside irritants (construction, neighbors, etc.) are something you can’t change, there are a few things you can do to help reduce EekEek’s anxiety or redirect his behavior.

Thomas: When you’re home, you can engage in redirection — which is basically a fancy way of saying “distract him.” When you see EekEek starting to groom his tail, or you see signs that he’s about to start grooming his tail, start playing with him using a “thing on a string” or other toy that he enjoys. What this will do is not only entertain EekEek and give him some exercise, it will relieve his boredom or channel his strong emotions into a hunting game.

Dahlia: If you consistently redirect EekEek when he’s about to start barbering his tail, you’ll probably find that not only does your relationship with him get better, but his grooming will decrease too.

Siouxsie: Don’t neglect Emo, though. He too will probably want to play if you start playing with EekEek. That’s fine. They can play together. You can even get two separate “things on a string” and use one for each cat.

Thomas: We’ve found that Bach Rescue Remedy, a flower essence, is great for helping us to deal with trauma and stress. Mama gives it to us when we’re in high-stress situations like moving house, going to the vet, or getting scared or hurt while outdoors.

Dahlia: You can find Rescue Remedy in health food stores in the US, and in the UK it is sold at many drugstores. Simply put one drop of Rescue Remedy on your finger and stroke it into the fur on the top of your traumatized cat’s head. Do this morning and evening for a few days and see if it helps to reduce EekEek’s anxiety.

Siouxsie: Feline pheromone diffusers like Feliway Comfort Zone can help anxious cats to calm down, too. Feliway mimics our “happy cat” pheromones and reduces our stress level. Our vet uses Feliway diffusers in the cat exam rooms, and Mama used this product when she introduced Thomas into our family because there were a few behavior problems that resulted from adding another cat to our family.

Thomas: It should go without saying that we’d recommend you talk to your vet about this problem. Your vet might have some other insights about what could be causing EekEek’s grooming problem and could give you some other tools for resolving the issue.

Dahlia: Cats that don’t respond to non-medical intervention in cases of extreme stress can be given a short course of an anti-anxiety drug like buspirone (BuSpar) or fluoxetine (Prozac) to help them rewire their brains, so to speak, and get rid of the “maladaptive coping mechanism,” as human psychologists refer to such self-destructive behavior.

Siouxsie: These drugs are used “off label” — which is to say that they’re approved for use in humans and have been used successfully by veterinarians to treat anxiety in cats, but the Food & Drug Administration does not officially approve them for use in animals.

Thomas: We’d say that if EekEek is stressed, you’ll probably be able to resolve the problem without resorting to drugs. But definitely talk to your vet and see what he or she advises.

Dahlia: Good luck, Furless. Please let us know how things turn out!