Beyond 9 Lives: Excessive Grooming May be Sign of Medical Issue

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This is a sponsored post by Elizabeth Arguelles, veterinarian and owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne. 

Cats are famous for their fastidious grooming rituals, and no cat owner would be surprised to learn that felines spend between 30 and 50 percent of their day cleaning their fur and paws.

In the vast majority of cases, grooming is a sign of a healthy cat and a completely normal activity.  However, kitties do sometimes overdo it, leading to bald patches or a lesion on the skin under the fur. This behavior is not normal and can be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

What causes over-grooming?

Over-grooming is usually caused by medical or psychological issues.

What are the medical issues that cause over-grooming?

Because they have long, sharp “fingernails” and short, stubby “fingers,” cats deal with itching and subdermal pain differently than humans do. Their claws are good for dealing with everyday itches, but they will eventually scratch up the skin if used too frequently or with too much force. So a cat’s tongue is often used to treat more chronic itching, and that can lead to over-grooming. Some common causes of chronic itchiness include:

Parasites: Fleas (the most common skin parasite) are known for causing itching and discomfort in cats. If you suspect that your kitty might have fleas, make sure to check your cat’s tail and back legs as your feline will tend to over-groom those spots when trying to get rid of the tiny insects. Other parasites such as ticks and ringworm can also cause itchiness and lead to over-grooming.

Allergies: Just like humans, cats can be allergic to certain foods or environmental elements. Many of these can cause skin irritation and itchiness.

Dry winter skin: The lack of humidity in the colder months of the year can dry your kitty’s skin out and lead to chronic itching.

 Inadequate nutrition: This can also cause skin to become dry and flaky.

Humans often attempt to soothe subdermal pain by rubbing the skin over the affected area. Though the exact biophysical reasons why we do this are the subject of some debate, it is not unreasonable to think that other mammals (such as cats) try to alleviate pain via similar mechanisms (such as licking). If the pain does not subside relatively quickly, a kitty will tend to over-groom, eventually licking off the fur covering the affected area.

What are the psychological issues that cause over-grooming?

If you believe that your cat is over-grooming, the first step is to take it to your vet to check for any of the aforementioned medical causes. If you and your vet rule out medical causes and the behavior continues, then the cause might be psychological in nature. For example, your cat may be engaging in a stress-related compulsive behavior. Cats sometimes respond to changes in their living environment, such as a new pet, a baby or a move to a new house, by engaging in repetitive actions that decrease their stress levels.

Excessive grooming can also linger in response to a medical problem and can continue after the health issue resolves.

What should you do if your cat is over-grooming?

Regardless of whether the over-grooming is caused by medical or psychological issues, it’s important to discuss the symptoms with your veterinarian to figure out the best treatment plan for your cat.

The views in this column do not represent the opinion of Reston Now.

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