By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
Cats spend up to one-quarter of their waking lives grooming, and some biting or aggressive licking is normal. However, fur pullers take this further, using their teeth to remove chunks of fur, usually leaving bald patches or areas with short, stubby fur. In some cases, the exposed skin becomes red and irritated as well.
The most common causes of fur pulling are flea infestation, allergies, and infections. If you have taken your cat for a veterinary check-up to rule out other causes, you are probably dealing with Psychogenic Alopecia (anxiety-related fur pulling). Anxiety-induced fur pulling sometimes accompanies other stress-related behaviours, such as aggression toward other pets and people.
Many cats become anxious as a result of major life changes, such as moving house or the arrival of a new baby or another pet. Some cats are anxious due to deprivation or abuse in their past. And like people, some cats are just genetically predisposed to be anxious.
Psychogenic Alopecia can usually be treated by making changes to your cat’s environment. However, in severe, resistant cases, pharmacological intervention may be required. The following are the most common treatments for Psychogenic Alopecia:
- Stress reduction: Identify stressors in your cat’s life and eliminate as many as possible.
- Give more attention: Spend more time playing with and petting your cat.
- Places to hide: If stress is caused by other household pets, provide plenty of perches, hiding tents, or cubbies so that the cat has safe spaces where she can get away from other animals.
- Sprays and gels: A veterinarian can prescribe bad-tasting gels or sprays that can be applied to the cat’s fur until the habit is broken.
- Elizabethan collars: In cases of serious fur pulling, your veterinarian may recommend using a cone-shaped medical collar for a while to break the habit.
- Antihistamines: Veterinarian-prescribed antihistamines help some cats even when the origin of the behaviour appears to be psychological.
- Medication: In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication. However, this should be used only as a last resort because these medications can have side effects and cats may become physically dependent on benzodiazepines.
If your cat is pulling out her fur, be careful not to reward the behaviour. Providing attention in response to aggressive grooming may act as reinforcement, ensuring that your cat continues to pull out her fur. Punishing the behaviour is also a bad idea, as punishment increases anxiety in cats, which will increase rather than decrease the behaviour.
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- Merck & Co., Inc., Eds. Cynthia M. Kahn, BA, MA & Scott Line, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVB. (2007). The Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health, Home Edition.
- Richards, M., DVM. (2007). “Behavior in Cats – Hair Damaging, Self Damaging.” VetInfo4Cats.com.
- Schelling, C., Dr. (2005). “Psychogenic Alopecia.” CatHealth.com.
- Whiteley, E., Dr. (2008). “How to Solve Cat Behaviour Problems.” HowStuffWorks.com.