Why Cats Pull Out Their Fur: Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

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.

The most common causes of fur pulling are flea infestation, allergies, infections, and obsessive-compulsive disorder triggered by anxiety (otherwise known as psychogenic alopecia, or hair loss due to psychological issues). If you have taken your cat for a veterinary check-up to rule out other causes, the fur pulling is probably attributable to psychogenic alopecia, particularly if the cat shows other symptoms of stress such as behaving irritably or having accidents outside the litter box (though some cats pull out their fur with no other anxiety indicators).

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, or due to deprivation or abuse in their past (which can cause lifelong anxiety), though some are just genetically predisposed to be anxious.

Anxious cats often engage in repetitive actions such as fur pulling or excessive grooming to comfort themselves because these behaviours increase production of the body’s natural opiates, which decrease stress.

Like fur pulling, excessive grooming or licking may be caused by parasites, allergies, infections, or stress. Some cats that pull out their fur also overgroom, licking a spot obsessively if it’s itchy or painful or as a self-soothing behaviour in the case of anxiety.

Cats on low-fat diets may develop flaky, dry skin, and the subsequent irritation can lead to excessive grooming or fur pulling. In this case, changing to a higher-fat diet should fix the problem.

Treatments for psychogenic alopecia

A cat that is pulling out his fur or grooming obsessively should have a veterinary checkup to rule out illnesses, infections, allergies, dietary insufficiencies, and parasite infestation before treating the behaviour as a sign of psychological distress.

Psychogenic alopecia can usually be treated by making changes to your cat’s environment:

    • Decrease stress: Identify stressors in your cat’s life and eliminate as many as possible.
    • Provide more attention: Spend more time playing with and petting your cat to reduce her anxiety.
    • Provide places to hide: If stress is caused by other household pets, provide plenty of perches, hiding tents, cardboard boxes, or cubbies so the cat has safe spaces where she can get away from other animals.
    • Elizabethan collars: In cases of fur pulling or overgrooming to the point where sores develop on the targeted spots, your veterinarian may recommend using a cone-shaped medical collar for awhile to break the habit.
    • Medication: In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication. However, this should be considered 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, don’t reward the behaviour. Providing attention in response to aggressive grooming may act as a reinforcement, ensuring that she continues to pull out her fur. Punishing the behaviour is also a bad idea, as punishment usually causes anxiety and an increase in problem behaviours rather than discouraging them.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • 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.

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