Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

What is Psychogenic Alopecia?

This is a condition where the cat engages in excessive grooming that becomes an obsessive behavior. This goes beyond the normal fastidious grooming that a cat would  exhibit.iStock 000018416093XSmall Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

Initially, psychogenic alopecia begins as a displacement behavior that the cat engages in to relieve stress. Cats don’t generally like change so any number of things can trigger a need to self-soothe through a displacement behavior such as ongoing grooming. With some cats, the excessive licking can eventually turn into actually pulling out clumps of hair or even chewing on the skin.

Any number of things could trigger the need for a displacement behavior but here’s a list of just a few possibilities:

The addition of another cat

Move to a new home

Renovation in the home

Addition of a new family member

Death or divorce

Living in a chaotic environment

Lack of environmental enrichment

Boredom

Depression

Confinement (such as hospitalization or boarding)

Litter box problems

Change in litter box location, type of litter or box type

When it comes to the stressors that could potentially lead to a need for a behavior such as psychogenic alopecia, keep in mind that it’s different for each cat. One cat may handle a major change in the environment while another cat may feel the need for a displacement behavior if you rearrange the furniture. Things that you don’t view as stressful could actually cause your cat a large amount of stress.Fotolia 44146460 XS Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

Understanding Displacement Behavior

A certain amount of displacement behavior is normal in a cat’s world. It helps reduce the anxiety that a cat is feeling in a particular situation. The problem occurs when there is no relief from that anxiety so the cat must continue the displacement behavior in order to self-soothe. Ongoing situations that produce anxiety without relief may lead the cat to require the displacement behavior to a point where it becomes obsessive.

Other Causes of Excessive Grooming

Before labeling the condition as psychogenic alopecia, it’s important to rule out other potential causes for excessive grooming such as:

Skin conditions

Pain

External parasites

Allergies

Hyperthyroidism

Cystitis or other urinary tract problem

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Your cat must be seen by the veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical condition causing the behavior. In addition to diagnostic testing, clues to the cause of the behavior may be revealed based on where on the body the cat is licking.

Treatment for Psychogenic Alopecia

There are two major components to helping a cat with psychogenic alopecia:

Reduce stress

Increase environmental enrichment

Carefully evaluate your cat’s living conditions so you can discover the possible cause(s) of his anxiety. Keep in mind that cats don’t like change so if you’ve been inconsistent with the cat’s feeding schedule or even been less than diligent about litter box maintenance, that could be a source of anxiety. If your work schedule has changed or you’ve entered into a new relationship that now causes your cat to be along for longer periods, that sudden change and increase solitary time could be the root of the problem. When it comes to stress reduction you really need to be a detective and look at the situation from your cat’s point of view. What you, as a human, view as cozy and comfortable may actually be lonely and lacking stimulation from a feline perspective.

Multipet environments can wonderful and can provide tremendous companionship for cats but they can also be an ongoing source of stress and fear. If your cat shares his home with other pets, it’s time to look at the relationships and see whether there is any tension or hostility. Perhaps the cat feels afraid to cross another cat’s preferred area in order to gain access to resources such as food or the litter box.iStock 000007213382XSmall1 Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

If you feel as if you have no clue as to what could be the source of stress, consider setting up a nanny cam so you can catch potential triggers as they happen during the day or night when you aren’t around.

Environment enrichmentis another important aspect of feline life. Cats are predators and they were born to explore, hunt and experience stimulation. Psychogenic alopecia may be the result of your cat simply having absolutely nothing to do. Set up puzzle feeders to keep your cat engaged during the day. Make sure there are adequate climbing opportunities in the form of a cat tree, cat shelving or window perches. Rotate toys to prevent boredom and when you place them out, hide them around the house so kitty can go on a treasure hunt.

Engage in interactive playtime on a regular basis (at least once a day) to help provide exercise, fun and bonding time with you. This type of playtime allows your cat to totally enjoy being a hunter as you move the toy like prey.

Medication

If your cat doesn’t respond enough to the behavior modification, your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may recommend adding medication temporarily. Medication should be used in conjunction with behavior modification though, so if it is prescribed, don’t drop the ball when it comes to the hands-on work that the human family members need to do to help the cat recover.Fotolia 44225201 XS Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

Need More Information?

If your cat is exhibiting an excessive grooming behavior or if you notice bald patches, consult with your veterinarian. Sometimes the cat parent doesn’t actually see the grooming behavior because the cat engages in it when alone. You may only notice the bald spots or you may notice behavioral changes such as hiding or lack of interaction with the family. ANY change should be viewed as a potential red flag, so speak with your veterinarian.

For more information on stress reduction, interactive playtime and environmental enrichment, refer to the book, Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett.

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About Pam Johnson-Bennett

Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of the international hit TV series "PSYCHO KITTY" airing in the UK on Animal Planet and in Canada on Nat Geo Wild. She is award-winning author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.