Why Is My Cat Chewing His Fur Out?

Question: I am worried about my cat. He is biting his fur out and now has bald spots on his body. He’s 1 year old, and this has never happened before. I thought it could be fleas, but he’s an indoor cat and no other pets besides his brother (also an indoor cat) have come in the house. Do you have any idea why my cat is chewing himself bald?

Is your kitty biting his fur out? By: Tristan Bowersox

Your cat may have something called psychogenic alopecia. Understanding this condition will help you to treat it.

Unfortunately, psychogenic alopecia is a general condition caused by specific triggers — so before you can solve the problem, you have to figure out what it is.

Psychogenic alopecia in cats is a fancy way of saying “baldness caused by excessive grooming.” Although cats are programmed to keep themselves squeaky clean, they aren’t supposed to lick and chew themselves until their fur falls out.

Usually caused by stress or faulty mental wiring, psychogenic alopecia is most commonly a response to new behavioral triggers or changes in the cat’s environment.

Like humans with obsessive-compulsive disorder, cats with psychogenic alopecia wash themselves constantly, to the extent that the behavior damages them physically and emotionally.

Experts agree that over-grooming can be a form of self-comfort, a way for cats to deal with physical or emotional problems.

If you notice bald patches on your cat, especially on his undercarriage — belly, chest, leg- and armpits, and the underside of the tail — take him to the veterinarian right away for treatment, which should include a cream or medication to relieve any itching and, possibly, a wide-spectrum antibiotic if the condition has progressed far enough that your cat is at risk for infection.

Here’s a look at a psychogenic cat in action:

Once you’ve treated the symptoms, it’s time to deal with the underlying cause. Before you call in the kitty psychiatrist, make sure your cat isn’t suffering from a biological problem. Here are five possible scenarios.

1. Your Cat Might Be Sick

One of the main reasons veterinarians go to school for 10 years or more is that animals can’t talk, and people can’t usually read their minds, so your pet might have to resort to unusual behavior to let you know something is wrong.

Although most animals use inappropriate elimination — going potty outside their litterboxes, in the case of cats — they can also act out behaviorally, which is their way of telling you something is wrong.

Whenever you notice any behavioral change, schedule a veterinary appointment. In addition to a general physical, ask for blood and urine tests to rule out an undiagnosed illness, especially kidney disease, which is very common in older cats. Your vet can also check for mites and ringworm, which are common causes for hair loss in cats.

2. Your Cat Has Unwanted “Friends”

When fleas go unchecked on catsFleas and ticks just love to set up housekeeping in your cat’s fur. Even if your kitty lives indoors, he can still attract unwanted friends who might hitch a ride inside on you or your clothes.

The best way to check for fleas is to examine the fur on your cat’s lower back at the base of his tail. If you see black specks, you’re looking at flea poop, also called flea dander — tiny bits of ick that irritate your cat’s skin and cause him to lick or chew at it. If your cat is allergic to flea dander, a common condition known as flea dermatitis, he could wind up chewing off big chunks of fur in an attempt to alleviate the incessant itching.

Ticks are trickier to spot, but they’re also more unusual, especially if you live in an area where they aren’t a problem. If the ticks are still skittering around on your cat, looking for a place to settle down, there isn’t a great way to spot them. It’s when they’re engorged with blood that they’re easiest to find. Check your cat’s fur thoroughly, noting any strange black lumps.

3. You’re Feeding Your Cat Low-Quality Food

In recent years, there’s been a huge push for better pet nutrition. Although much of the information has focused on dog nutrition, a healthy diet is equally important for your cat as well. A poor diet can cause health problems, especially obesity, organ damage and allergic reactions. If your cat is chewing his fur, consider the quality of the food you’re feeding him.

If you’re currently feeding a premium-quality food, it’s possible that one or more of the ingredients isn’t agreeing with your cat. You might try switching to a grain-free formula or a food with a different protein, such as fish or game.

4. Your Cat Is Allergic to His Environment

Cats can, in fact, develop allergies in adulthood. By: Jonas

Environmental allergies are either very easy or extremely difficult to diagnose.

If you’ve made a change in your cat’s food, litter or bedding, it’s easy enough to switch back to whatever you were doing previously. Consider every factor — including the laundry detergent you use to wash your kitty’s bedding.

The problem becomes extremely difficult to diagnose if you haven’t made any changes in your pet’s environment. Although it’s rare for a cat to develop allergies in adulthood, it can happen. Unfortunately, dealing with it can be expensive and frustrating.

You can ask your vet to give your kitty allergy tests, which may or may not tell you the source of the problem. However, it’s much easier — and far less expensive — to treat the problem on your own, even without a diagnosis.

Knowing your cat is allergic to dust won’t change the fact that even with the most rigorous cleaning schedule, your house will become dusty.

Keep things clean, wash your kitty’s bedding frequently, keep him indoors and feed him healthy food. If he continues to groom himself excessively, talk with your vet about giving your cat an antihistamine or other prescription medication formulated to control itching.

5. Your Cat Is Anxious, Stressed or Bored

If you’ve ruled out all of the above scenarios, it’s likely your cat is unhappy and soothing himself by over-grooming. Yep, he has psychogenic alopecia — he’s dealing with stress by cleaning himself until his hair falls out.

If your cat has recently started chewing himself bald and one or more of the following conditions apply, his excessive grooming is probably caused by environmental stressors:

  • You adopted a new pet.
  • You moved.
  • You moved your cat’s bed to a different place.
  • You have a new job that requires you to work long hours or are otherwise spending less time with your cat.
  • You had a baby or got married, divorced or made another change to the human population of your home.
  • You changed your cat’s food or litter to something he doesn’t like.

Although it’s easy enough to move your cat’s bed back where it was before, it’s not quite as simple to quit your job or kick out your new roommate. If you can correct the situation, great. Otherwise, all you can do is manage the behavior or put your cat on drugs.

First try changing your cat’s behavior. Pay more attention to your kitty, petting, playing with or grooming him. Try getting him a few new toys or treats, or creating a new sleeping spot for him, preferably in a sunny window. If you can alleviate whatever is stressing your cat, the psychogenic alopecia might clear up on its own.

If your best efforts fail, it’s time to ask the veterinarian about medication to regulate the stress. Although people make jokes about “kitty Prozac,” antidepressants and mild sedatives can sometimes resolve problems that environmental management and behavioral modification just can’t solve.

For more information about bald cats, check out this video by noted veterinary dermatologist Janet Littlewood:

book-cover-smallest1Does your cat over-groom? Tell us about it in the comments below. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Pets Adviser’s email newsletter. It’s free to sign up, and you’ll be among the first to get alerts about major pet food recalls. New subscribers also get instant access to our 40-page ebook — which has “secrets every cat and dog lover should know.” Learn more here.

FROM THE PETS ADVISER SHOP

  • Peter Write

    That’s all we need is a cat hooked on Valium, and it’s a costly solution. You might look for other alternatives.

  • Cat Guy

    I had a cat that did that, leaving piles of fur in random parts of the house. I tried everything to get him to stop. Finally the vet suggested that it may be skin allergies. Her recommendation: Take him off any food that contained cornmeal. That worked! I haven’t bought grocery store cat food since.

    • http://www.petsadviser.com/ Pets Adviser

      Similarly, my cat’s allergies improved once I switched to a pet food with no gluten. She used to have exposed patches of skin where she had licked away the fur.

      Here’s a post about dog food — but a lot of it also applies to cats. It’s an in-depth look at ingredients: Top 10 Best Pet Foods.

      -Dave

  • Harley Earl

    That video looks just like our cat. He has no fleas or medical problems.We have tried the drugs and lavender collars and plug ins. We feed him Blue Buffalo, but haven’t tried the grain-free product. This is our last hope.

  • Wzy

    My cat has been doing this for past 4 years and myself and our vet have not been able to find any solution. Her environment is pretty controlled. She is eating higher end pure, wheat and soy free food and is generally a contented being. A homeopathic solution for compulsive behaviour helped somewhat, but still didn’t entirely resolve the issue.

  • Llynn

    Hey thanks for this article! It is well written and covers quite a broad scale of reasons why this might be happening. What I really liked was the video tip at the end, it was quite reassuring that it isn’t so easy for my cat to have a psychological problem as some other websites make it seem. I will be visiting the vet more often now obviously until we get this sorted out, but it has given me more hope that I might not just be “a bad cat owner with a bored cat”.

  • CommonSense

    What if the cat is doing it to another cat? He doesn’t over-groom himself. One of mine seems to “bite” off the fur from one of my other cats…Never seen a bald spot on any of them, though. And he’s also the only one who vomits sometimes (food and fur).