Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My cat has been grooming excessively for several months now. The vet has tried steroids and a special calming cat food but nothing works completely. The steroids did for a while but now the raw patch on her side is about 2 inches across and getting gradually bigger. Has anyone else seen a similar condition, and do you have some advice for me?
Siouxsie: Cats groom excessively for physical or psychological reasons. Physically, overgrooming is caused by itching or other discomfort. For example, some cats have an extreme reaction to flea bites — and even one bite can create such extreme itching that the cat will continuously groom the site even if the bite is long gone.
Thomas: Another reason why cats may develop skin irritation is exposure to allergens. Some cats have limited tolerance for chemicals such as those found in laundry detergents, household cleaners, and even air freshening sprays. Exposure to these products may create discomfort, which the cat tries to relieve by grooming the spot until the itching stops.
Kissy: You might be surprised to know that cats sometimes begin to groom excessively in response to stress. When a cat is extremely anxious, she can get into the habit of using grooming as a self-comforting behavior.
Siouxsie: It seems kind of silly to think that a cat grooming herself to the point of pain would be comforting, but in this case the behavior causes the release of calming brain chemicals which help to reduce anxiety.
Thomas: The fact that the steroids worked well for a while suggests that there may initially have been some physical discomfort that was at the root of the overgrooming behavior. But the fact that she’s continuing to do so now suggests that your cat’s licking has now become a psychological issue.
Kissy: We suggest that you start by removing any potential physical irritants. As we said, cats are very sensitive to chemicals. We’d recommend that you start by using unscented or low-chemical cleaning products. For example, use unscented laundry detergent.
Siouxsie: If you use dryer sheets, find a more ecologically friendly alternative to make your clothes soft and fluffy. The Mindful Mommas blog has some great alternatives to dryer sheets.
Thomas: To keep the air in your house smelling clean, try some natural alternatives to synthetic air fresheners. Mama also likes burning incense, but if you do that, you need to make sure you get high-quality incense. Shoyeido is one of Mama’s favorites because all their products have a light scent and they’re very low in smoke.
Kissy: Use baking soda to clean and deodorize your carpets, and clean up stains with unscented enzyme cleaners.
Siouxsie: And of course, if you smoke cigarettes and you’re not ready to quit, please try to limit your smoking to outdoors.
Thomas: Now, as far as the psychological issue goes — here are some tips to reduce your cat’s stress level.
Kissy: First, use a diffuser like Feliway, which releases a very subtle scent that mimics “happy cat” pheromones. Mama’s been using this to help everybody calm down during the move and to keep us from fighting too much while introducing me into the family.
Siouxsie: Well, it doesn’t stop you from making a big hissing scene every day now, does it?
Kissy: I can’t help it! If Thomas didn’t chase me into my room every day and cussing at me and trying to beat me up …
Thomas: If you didn’t come wandering out here like you own the place, I wouldn’t have to do that!
Kissy: Mama says it’s my house too!
Thomas: It may be your house too, but you need to learn your place! That sofa is mine! And so is the bed, and so is the kitchen, and so is the living room, and so is the bedroom!
Kissy: *hiss* Stay out of my room!
Thomas: *hiss, scream* Oh yeah? Well, “your” room is mine, too!
Siouxsie: Stop that! Both of you!
Siouxsie: Anyway, Heather. There are other products that can help, including calming collars that release the same happy-cat pheromones wherever your kitty goes.
Thomas: As much as possible, keep an eye on your cat and notice her behavior before she starts grooming that raw patch. You’ll probably see that she does certain things before she starts licking herself, and if you can catch her and distract her with a more constructive and fun way to release her stress — like playing with a toy — you may be able to stop the “feedback loop” that causes her to groom.
Kissy: We’d recommend regular interactive play anyway. It’s a good way to keep your cat healthy and happy. At least one 15-minute play period a day will help your cat to be more relaxed and keep her in shape.
Siouxsie: Another possibility, and one that we don’t discuss lightly, is that a short course of anti-anxiety drugs could help your cat to stop her excessive grooming.
Thomas: Please talk to your vet and tell him or her what’s going on. Your vet may have some recommendations beyond what we’ve shared here. And if your vet does think medication is the best course of action, he or she will prescribe it in an appropriate dose and tell you how to administer it.
Kissy: Of course, we have to say this: If you take meds yourself, do not give your meds to your cat. The dosage would most likely be wrong and you could seriously harm or even kill your cat. Never give any medications to your cat without guidance from your vet!
Siouxsie: Good luck, Heather. Please let us know how things turn out.