Cat grooming itself

Cats can spend up to half their waking hours grooming their coats. On occasion, though, you may notice your cat spending far more time than normal taking care of themselves. If your cat is over-grooming, there's a good chance they're reacting negatively in some way to their living environment. This guide takes a look at how that behaviour can be potentially dangerous and what you can do to stop cats from over-grooming. 

What Are the Signs of Cat Over-Grooming?

When your cat's grooming habits are causing hair loss, skin inflammation or sores, it's time to consider intervening to stop the cat from over-grooming. Sometimes, a cat that's over-grooming may even start biting hard enough to break the skin. The clearest physical signs of over-grooming are patchy fur and light injuries to the skin. A cat that's over-grooming might also end up leaving some evidence around your home, such as piles of hair under a bed or in a corner.

Why is My Cat Over-Grooming?

There are two primary reasons a cat might start over-grooming. Sometimes they do it for psychological reasons — cats that are highly stressed out are likely to calm themselves by excessively or obsessively licking themselves. Alternatively, the cat might be doing it for medical reasons; they could be trying to find relief from an uncomfortable skin condition caused by allergies or parasites.

Cat Over-Grooming and Stress Reactions

Humans are generally very social creatures, but cats tend to be very solitary, which can cause them to react badly to other felines in their general living area. This kind of stress isn't limited to cats they share a home with. Just being able to see other neighbourhood cats through a window or hear other cats yowling at night can cause a stress reaction. Even if you live with multiple cats that appear to get along just fine, one or more of them might have emotional difficulties that they attempt to self-regulate with over-grooming.

Lifestyle changes can also harm a cat's emotional state. Moving to an entirely new home is the biggest one possible, but smaller changes such as welcoming a new partner, roommate or family member can also throw off a cat's sense of security. Keep an eye on your feline friend after any significant changes to your household to gauge their comfort levels.

How to Decrease Stress-Related Over-Grooming

• Cats appreciate consistency. Try to always feed your cat at the same times during the day and do so in the same location and the same bowl or dish. Having a reliable feeding schedule can go a long way toward keeping your cat comfortable in their environment. 

• Ensure your cat has a quiet hiding spot they can retreat to and feel safe in. Most cats will find their own such spaces, such as under beds or couches, but in a multi-animal household, you might have to be a little more proactive in making sure other pets don't also have access to those same areas.

• Set aside a little time to play with your cat every day. Whether you're petting them, trying to get them to catch a laser pointer's dot or tossing soft toys in their general direction, owner interaction can help calm your cat's nerves.

• If your cat enjoys going outside and can do so safely, install a cat door to make sure they can get in and out as they please. Hunting small animals in your yard can also help cats blow off some stress.

• If nothing else seems to be working, anti-anxiety medication might be the way to go. Options range from tablets and liquids to sprays and diffusers. Your vet can tell you more about medications that can help reduce stress levels in cats and whether going down this path makes sense for your cat's situation.  

Medical Reasons for Cat Over-Grooming

Small creatures living on or in your cat's skin are the other likely culprits when it comes to over-grooming. If your kitty is dealing with lice, ticks, fleas or other parasites, you can expect them to obsessively focus on trying to relieve their discomfort. 

The best way to avoid these issues is to prevent them before they occur. While cats can pick up some parasites from being outdoors, the overwhelming majority of cats contract fleas from their indoor environment. In the event your cat already has lice, ticks or the like, speak to your vet about the most effective treatments that can reduce related over-grooming. 

Over-Grooming Among Different Breeds

The jury's still out on whether certain breeds are more likely to groom themselves too often. In particular, Siamese and Abyssinian cats are well-known as being heavy groomers. However, it's best not to assume that grooming behaviour is safe or unsafe based on breed alone. Under the right circumstances, any breed can become susceptible to potentially dangerous over-grooming.  

Differentiating Between Over-Grooming and Hair Loss

If you notice patchy or bald spots emerging on your cat's coat, it doesn't necessarily mean your cat is over-grooming. Alopecia, a skin condition that affects a variety of domestic animals, can result in hair loss. Patchy fur can also be caused by poor diet or hormonal imbalance. Speaking to your vet can help you confirm whether your cat's hair loss is due to over-grooming or another issue entirely.

Isolating the root causes of over-grooming can be a time-consuming process, but it's all worth it when you can tell your feline friend is calm, relaxed, and happy. If you're still concerned about your cat's emotional state even after the over-grooming issue appears to be resolved, you might want to look more deeply into the causes of pet anxiety and what you can do to help reduce it.

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