Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats: A compulsive behavioral problem

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Dr Ashimi Das
Your cat doesn’t deal with office politics and gets to sleep 16 hours a day. But stress and cat behaviour problems go hand in paw. Many cats turn into nervous wrecks with too much stress. Upset feelings can leave cats biting their nails and pulling their hair.
 
Feline over-grooming behaviours are called psychogenic alopecia or psychological baldness. It is a
compulsive behaviour. It involves excessive grooming that is psychological or emotional in origin. This alopecia generally occurs on the forelimbs, abdomen, along the spine, and tail. The bald patches do not follow any symmetry and can occur randomly
 
Sign and symptoms
Baldness: Loss of hair results in baldness. Baldness is first noticed on the abdomen. As it progresses, the bald patches spread to the back of rear legs, tail, and the skin along the spine. The skin in the areas of baldness appears normal and healthy.
Excessive grooming: Affected cats may be noted to groom themselves excessively.  However, many cats engage in the behaviour only in the pet parent’s absence. Some cats may hide their excessive grooming behaviour from you and are known as “closet lickers”.Cats engaging in over-grooming may spit out hair in piles as they engage in the activity.
 
Causes
Stress in your cat’s life can provoke excessive grooming. This usually involves a change in
your cat’s environment such as –

  • New home
  • Change in the family’s schedule
  • Addition or subtraction of a family member or new pet
  • Aggression among cats (multiple cat households)
  • Furniture that’s been moved around
  • Noise or upheaval in the home(construction noises)
  • Seeing a new animal outside
  • Boredom or frustration

 
You may be unaware of other stressors in your cat’s life. Self-grooming behaviour relaxes cats, so when they become anxious, they may over-groom. Over time, the behaviour becomes a habit-forming selfperpetuating selfperpetuating cycle, and can then be unrelated to the environmental or internal stressors. It evolves as a type of compulsive behaviour and may progress to extreme self-mutilation
and self-aggression. It is a self-reinforcing behaviour, involving the release of endorphins (happy hormones).
 
Diagnosis
Skin diseases from flea bites, inhaled allergies (atopy), ringworm or other conditions must be ruled out before determining that the cat suffers from psychogenic alopecia.
Treatment
Psychogenic alopecia is treated by decreasing stress in your cat’s life. Do not punish your kitty’s behaviour. This might increase his anxiety and thus, increase the over-grooming behaviour.
Protective collars (Elizabethan Collars), or bad-tasting sprays or gels may be used to prevent over-grooming for brief period of time.
 
Some useful tips
If the problem is due to social stressors, it might help to offer the kitty escape routes such as perches, cubbies, and hiding tents so that she can escape torment by other cats in the household. Separating him

  • from the offending cats may be very helpful.
  • Ask the absent person to leave behind unwashed socks in a sealed baggy — to give the upset kitty a scented pick-me-up. It will have a soothing effect on your cat.
  • Introduce cats slowly to reduce stress levels. Even confident cats can suffer hidden stress that comes out as nervous licking.
  • Play therapy is also a great stress-reliever. It can help build up a pet’s self-confidence and associate the positive experience with the new house or pet. Interactive games are best, such as chase-the-fishing-pole lure or a laser light tag for cats.
  • The spray or plug-in pheromone product Feliway can be helpful to relieve stress. Feliway is an analog of the check-scent cats naturally produce and rub ontoobjects and has a calming effect.

 
In most cases, excessive licking behaviours require anti-anxiety drug therapy. Some herbal remedy like Kava may provide mild relief for anxiety. Some studies indicate acupuncture treatments are helpful for
behavioural problems such as anxiety, and compulsive over-grooming in cats. Psychogenic alopecia is a life-long problem.You need to be patient, as excessive grooming problems usually take quite some time
to resolve. But with consistent attention,affection, and routine, most kitties do get their psychogenic alopecia under control. They re-grow their hair, and their quality of life improves.
(Dr Ashimi Das, BVSc &AH, MVSc surgery & radiology, is based in Kolkata)

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