Compulsive Grooming in Cats

This problem, known as neurodermatitis or psychogenic alopecia, is an energy-displacement phenomenon that occurs in cats who are inordinately stressed. Siamese, Burmese, Himalayans, and Abyssinians may have a predisposition. It occurs in cats who are hospitalized, boarded, stressed, deprived of their freedom, or subjected to long periods of boredom.

Before considering this to be a behavior problem, medical issues need to be ruled out. Cats will lick an area that is painful and may lick in response to skin conditions and external parasites. It is interesting to note that a large portion of cats presented to veterinary behavior clinics for compulsive grooming turn out to have allergies and other skin conditions.

A prominent sign of compulsive grooming is thinning of the hair in a stripe down the back or a bare abdomen. The skin does not appear inflamed in most cases, but compulsive self-licking and chewing may progress to involve the abdomen, flanks, and legs. Unless you see this behavior, it may not be obvious that the cat is doing it.

Diagnosis is made by excluding other causes of hair loss and areas that may be painful. Modifying the cat's routine to include a more active and varied lifestyle, along with a reduction in stress, is the best approach to treatment. There are medications that can be used to decrease this behavior, but they should only be used in conjunction with behavior and environmental modifications.

This article is excerpted from “Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.