Greetings, kind readers. We’re letting Mama take a break from her NaNoWriMo efforts in order to help her write this week’s column. We told her she should do NaNo because it’s been years since she’s written a long work of fiction, and she’s been wanting to write a story to honor our beloved sister Sinéad (may she frolic forever in the catnip fields). Sinéad says it’s about time Mama got back to writing novels! But for now, here’s our letter of the week.
Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I’ve got a female kitty named Trinity who has recently been licking all the fur off her lower abdomen, tail and legs. I’ve seen this behavior in other cats, and the vet tells me it is nothing serious, maybe just an allergic reaction to something. I have recently been feeding her Hills’ Science Diet, which seems to help some, since she no longer looks like (and forgive me for this) a mini poodle with a bad furcut.
Other than the naked belly, she is happy, affectionate and playful, emphasis on the last two, as she has taken to begging for attention when we (my boyfriend and I) stop paying attention to her. The only health issue I know she has is a mild form of either epilepsy or something, since she has tremors when she sleeps. There is one other cat in my houselhold named Tyga, but she has never exhibited this behavior. My father has a long-haired cat named Fuzzy who began doing this a couple years ago, but I know he has allergies, since his sinuses run constantly.
Have you come across anything like this before, and if so, have you any advice for Trin and myself?
Siouxsie: This compulsive fur-grooming is not at all uncommon in cats. In fact, my sister Sinéad went through a very similar thing — although she only licked the fur off her tummy.
Thomas: Sometimes allergies do play a part in this compulsive self-barbering. We cats generally show symptoms of allergies through changes in our bowel habits or through issues related to our skin.
Dahlia: Cats can develop allergies to certain foods. In fact, food allergies account for about 10 percent of the allergies seen in cats. The most common allergens are fish, beef and dairy products — which are also common ingredients in pet foods! Cats can also develop allergies to the grains that form the base of many cat foods; again, corn, being one of the most common grains, tends to be more likely to cause allergies.
Siouxsie: Apparently changing Trinity’s diet has helped to relieve some of her allergy symptoms, so you might take a look at the ingredient list for your Hill’s Science Diet food and compare it to the stuff you were feeding her before.
Thomas: Sometimes artificial colors can cause allergic reactions. If your other kibble had red or yellow pieces in it, then it had artificial colors. Naturally colored kibble is typically some shade of light to medium brown.
Dahlia: You might also have good luck feeding Trinity a premium natural cat food. Brands of kibble such as Eagle Pack, Wysong, Wellness, or Evo typically sell for about the same price as Hill’s Science Diet. These manufacturers also make “gooshy food,” so you can feed Trinity a combination of dry and canned food if you like.
Siouxsie: But if food allergies account for only 10 percent of all allergic reactions, what accounts for the other 90 percent? Well, like people, cats can be sensitive to things in their environment. If you wore clothing that contained something you were allergic to, you would likely begin to have itchy skin and maybe even develop a rash wherever that item of clothing touched you.
Thomas: It may not necessarily be the clothing that’s bothering you, though. It could be the detergent or fabric softener you used when you washed it. Or perhaps a fabric spray that you used on it. The same thing can happen to cats. We cats are very sensitive to chemicals in our environment, and if you use a lot of smelly things like artificially scented detergents and fabric softeners, or “odor removing” sprays for furniture, these can cause irritation on our skin.
Siouxsie: To that end, we’d recommend that you discontinue the use of any chemical air fresheners and switch to unscented laundry detergents and fabric softeners. If you’re using scented or “deodorant” kitty litter, definitely change over to an unscented product. You can deodorize your furniture and rugs with baking soda (sprinkle it on, let it sit 15 minutes, and vacuum it up).
Thomas: Allergies are not the only thing that can cause a cat to lick all her fur off. Sometimes this behavior is a result of stress. Cats vary in their ability to tolerate stressful events in their lives, and some things that don’t seem stressful to people can make cats very upset.
Dahlia: A common behavior for cats when they’re stressed is what’s called “displacement grooming.” You may have witnessed this if your cat made an ungraceful landing somewhere, noticed you were looking, and suddenly discovered an itch somewhere on their body that they just had to lick. It’s the “I meant to do that!” response.
Siouxsie: Generally the grooming stops after a minute or so. But if a cat feels intolerably stressed — by a move of house, a changing of schedule, addition of a new animal or baby, construction or other noise, or even a new cat moving in next door — she may resort to compulsive grooming to ease her stress.
Thomas: There are some ways you can help your kitty cope with stress. First, you could purchase a feline pheromone plug-in. These devices release a synthetic version of the pheromone relaxed and happy cats use to mark their environment. The positive feedback from these “happy cat” pheromones can help to eliminate stress-based behavior ranging from urine marking to fighting to, perhaps, compulsive grooming.
Dahlia: Mama has had good success with using “happy cat” pheromones to deal with the stress of adding a new cat to our household as well as with the stress of moving to a new home.
Siouxsie: If eliminating allergens and trying to reduce Trinity’s stress level through non-medical means doesn’t produce satisfactory results, your vet may recommend a short course of treatment with anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications (“kitty Prozac,” so to speak). These have been proven effective and safe for short-term use in treating stress-based behavior problems, because the medication seems to eliminate the anxiety that triggers the behavior issues.
Thomas: Typically, cats don’t have to stay on anti-anxiety meds for their entire lives. A short course of treatment generally “rewires” the cat’s nervous system effectively.
Dahlia: We hope this helps, Belinda. Please feel free to update us on how Trinity is doing with her fur-pulling problem.