Question: I am very 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?
Congratulations, your cat probably has psychogenic alopecia. Well, perhaps this isn’t a celebratory moment, but understanding your cat’s condition will help you 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.
- Don’t Miss: 19 Cat Health Warning Signs
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”
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.
- Don’t Miss: How Using the Wrong Flea Meds Can Harm Your Cat
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.
- Don’t Miss: 5 Tips for How to Remove Ticks From Dogs Safely (also applies to cats)
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
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:
Tell me your thoughts in the comments section below. You might also want to check out our post on common mistakes of new cat owners. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Pets Adviser’s popular email newsletter. It’s free to sign up, and you’ll also be among the first to get alerts about major cat food recalls: Learn more here.