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What to Do About Cat Excessive Grooming

Too Much Licking and Scratching Can Harm Your Cat

By Meredith Alling. January 24, 2014 | See Comments

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A Cat Grooming Herself

Cats tend to groom a lot throughout the course of the day. Is there such a thing as too much grooming, though? Here's a list of reasons why your cat may be excessively grooming these days, and what you can do about it.

Grooming is a normal part of every cat’s life, but some cats take the behavior to the extreme and cause hair loss or skin damage. Because cats groom away a large portion of their day -- anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of it -- it can sometimes be difficult for a pet parent to become aware of the problem until they notice a physical manifestation of it, such as a bald spot or skin lesions.

You can keep your cat from reaching this point by keeping an eye on their grooming habits and taking note of licking, chewing, or scratching that is happening too often or goes on for too long. Read on to learn what you need to know about cat excessive grooming.

Causes of Cat Excessive Grooming

The causes of excessive grooming in cats can either be medical or psychological, and the grooming may be spread out over the entire body or focused on one specific area. Cats who excessively groom one area of the body are often referred to as “fur mowers,” and the location they are grooming can provide clues into the cause of the compulsion.

  • Allergies: If a cat is allergic to their food, fleas, or something in the environment, the allergic response may be itchy, irritated skin, and your cat may obsessively lick or scratch to try to relieve the discomfort. With allergies, your cat may obsessively groom their entire body, or they may focus on only the back or abdomen.

  • Parasites: Parasites such as fleas, ticks, mites, and roundworms can all cause itching and irritation, which may lead to excessive grooming. With fleas, you may see a focus on the base of the neck. With mites, you may see a focus on the ears and head.

  • Pain: If a cat is in pain because of a condition such as anal sac impaction or disc disease, they may lick or chew on the painful area incessantly.

  • Dry Skin: Does your cat’s excessive grooming start up when winter rolls around or when the heater is turned on? If so, they may be licking or scratching because of dry skin. Other common causes of dry skin include poor nutrition and allergies.

  • Stress: Cats are creatures of habit, and if something happens to interrupt their normal daily routine, it can result in stress. Moving to a new home, welcoming a new baby into the family, the loss of a family pet, or a change in their daily schedule can all cause a cat to seek out comfort through the familiar act of grooming. This is what is referred to as “displacement behavior,” and it serves to calm the cat’s anxiety. If left untreated, however, it can become habitual.

  • Boredom: Indoor cats who spend a large portion of the day alone or do not have adequate stimulation may turn to excessive grooming as a way to pass the time.

Treatment for Cat Excessive Grooming

Treating your cat’s excessive grooming is incredibly important. If left untreated, it can result in hair loss that exposes your cat’s skin to environmental harm or skin infections if the skin is broken during grooming.

The treatment for the behavior will always depend on the cause:

  • Parasite-induced scratching is treated by attacking the parasites. A flea control (or other parasite control) product should be started.

  • If allergies are suspected, your cat may undergo allergy testing at the veterinarian to determine the cause of their allergic reaction. Food allergies are treated by eliminating the irritating food from the cat’s diet, and any inhalant or contact allergens should be removed from their environment.  

  • Some severe cases of excessive grooming are treated with medications such as antibiotics to fight infection, antihistamines to treat allergic reactions, and steroids to ease inflammation. If the cause of your cat’s compulsive grooming is psychological, an anti-anxiety medication such as clomipramine or amitriptyline may be prescribed.

  • However, psychologically motivated excessive grooming is often successfully treated without medication. You can ease your cat’s stress by keeping their life very predictable -- feeding should happen at the same time every day, food and water bowls should stay in the same place, and the litter box should be changed on a schedule.

  • You can also reduce your cat’s stress or relieve their boredom by providing them with stimulating toys, scratch posts, cat condos, and plenty of love and attention. Just be sure to introduce any new toys or activities into their routine slowly so as not to compound their anxiety.

  • Behavior modification may also be useful for cats whose stress is caused by something specific (for example, separation anxiety).

If you are ever in doubt about whether your cat’s grooming has gone too far, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and contact your veterinarian. They will let you know if your cat’s symptoms warrant an examination.

More on Cat Grooming

My Cat Is Not Grooming
The Cat Brush Buying Guide
Easiest Cats to Care For

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Excesssive Grooming at a glance

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  • 1Grooming is a normal behavior in cats, but some cats take it to the extreme and cause hair loss or skin damage
  • 2The causes can be medical or psychological, and include parasites, pain, allergies, dry skin, and stress
  • 3Treatment will depend on the cause, and may include medication, behavior modification, or parasiticides