What is Psychogenic Alopecia?
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
Confinement (such as hospitalization or boarding)
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.
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:
Cystitis or other urinary tract problem
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.