How To Tell If Your Cat Is Overgrooming?

In times of stress, humans exhibit a number of strange behaviors. Just take a peek at college students studying for an important exam and a variety of these nervous tics emerge: twirling longer hair around a finger repeatedly, chewing on a bottom lip while concentrating, and even biting nails and cuticles to the point of injury. These are all self-soothing behaviors, and they’re so ingrained that the person in question may not even notice themselves acting on them. 

Cats are not so different in this aspect, though they lack dexterity to twirl hair and are less likely to bite their nails. For felines, coping mechanisms tend to involve grooming themselves to the point of thinning fur or even bald spots, in extreme cases. Why do cats overgroom themselves when it has such a detrimental effect on their appearance? For the same reason humans bite their nails: all that stress needs to go somewhere. Understanding the real reason behind this behavior takes a little bit of research into the grooming process as a whole. This article will address the wide range of reasons why cats may overgroom, as well as how to treat and prevent this sometimes troubling feline behavior. 

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

  • To remove dead fur: Cats regularly lick themselves everywhere they’re able to reach as part of their grooming and hygiene routines. When observed under a microscope, the surface of a cat’s tongue is covered in very small backwards-facing barbs called papillae; these act like a brush or a comb when applied to his fur. As he licks his flanks, back, chest, and stomach, the papillae pull loose or dead fur strands away from his coat. Because of the way the tongue barbs face (towards the throat), much of this fur ends up being ingested. This may cause cat hairballs as it tangles in the stomach, but with light grooming a feline will pass the fur naturally through his digestive system.
  • To remove scents: Cats groom constantly even if they’re not “dirty,” but will also reflexively groom themselves if their fur becomes soiled. A well-meaning human may pet a cat to show affection, only to have him – seemingly haughtily – groom himself frantically where he’s been touched. Human hands have a lot of oils, scents, and residues from things like soap and hand lotions. In the wild, unwelcome scents and residues can mean the difference between effectively sneaking up on prey (or having them pick up a scent of a predator downwind. Even if a housecat has never had to hunt for his dinner outside of pestering his owner for a can of food, this evolutionary drive remains intact and urges him to remove unfamiliar scents as quickly as possible.
  • To remove irritants and parasites: With fur comes nasty creepy-crawly parasites, particularly if a cat is indoor/outdoor. The compulsion to lick can be triggered by the presence of fleas, ticks, mites, and other “hitchhikers” that lurk at the base of hair follicles. The papillae will remove some of these pesky bugs and fleas in cats, but can also cause other health problems in the process. Fleas, for example, become infected with worm eggs: when a cat grooms and ingests the fleas from their fur, he also swallows those egg-laden fleas, causing tapeworm infestations in his digestive system. This is why it’s so important for cats to be on a regular schedule of flea and tick medication: when the preventative is already in their system, a cat is less likely to become infected.
  • To keep his coat shiny and sleek: A sleek, healthy coat is an excellent sign of overall well-being in a cat, as it shows he’s regularly grooming himself. As he grooms himself, he moves oil from sebaceous glands in his skin up and along his fur strands. That well-groomed, beautiful coat signals to other members of his pride that he is healthy and well, and available for breeding. Even if he’s had “the snip,” old genetic habits die hard!

Regular grooming can also help regulate a cat’s temperature, as his only other real method of cooling himself down comes from sweating through paw pads. Cats will turn to grooming the way a human might absentmindedly nibble on their nail or run a hand through their hair – it’s a natural, default reaction to stress or uncertainty in their environment. When a cat grooms himself, he is covering himself in his own scent, and that has a natural calming effect on his mind.

What Causes Over Grooming in Cats?

While regular, frequent grooming is common and safe for a cat, if he is excessively licking or grooming himself to the point of baldness, there’s an issue. There are a variety of reasons a cat may be overgrooming, and determining which problem is at fault will take a little process of elimination:

  • Has anything in his environment changed? Switching laundry detergents can be just as irritating to feline skin as human skin. If his bedding or pillows has been recently washed in a new detergent – particularly a strong-smelling one – he may be trying to groom this smell away unsuccessfully. The same concept applies if he’s moved from a non-smoking environment to a smoking one: any heavily fragranced or perfumed products can settle on his coat and throw off his sense of smell. 

Helpful Hint: If new scents may be the culprit, check with guests, cleaning professionals, and others that may have introduced new products to the home.

  • Has he recently been outdoors? While a cat’s fur generally protects them from common human irritants like the urushiol oil on the leaves of poison ivy, it’s not foolproof. Everything from poison ivy to pollen, nettles, and burrs can irritate his sensitive skin and cause him to try to groom the sensation(s) away. 

Helpful Hint: If he’s amenable, part his fur and examine the skin beneath for redness or a rash – this points to an environmental irritant.

  • Has he been bitten by parasites or bugs? Some biting bugs like mosquitos will leave an itchy bump behind, but others like fleas and ticks stay behind under the fur. The issue is compounded if a cat is allergic to the venom or saliva of parasites, giving them an uncomfortable double dose of itch and pain. 

Helpful Hint: If he is alternating scratching and grooming, particularly at “problem areas” like his neck, this is likely the cause. 

  • Has he been around new or unfamiliar animals? While they might get along famously, new feline or canine friends could bring unwanted gifts of parasites or contagious skin conditions. When in doubt, don’t allow an unfamiliar animal access to existing pets without a Vet’s seal of approval. 

Helpful Hint: This is a common issue when strays are introduced to an existing animal family, so keep new animals “quarantined” in a closed-off area until parasite and disease testing can be performed.

What If I Suspect My Cat Is Overgrooming?

If a cat has been overgrooming, it will be visibly obvious: a line or patch of stubble-like fur will be surrounded by normal-length fur. Bald patches are essentially a cat informing his owner that something is wrong: he’s either sick, feeling stressed, or has a feline skin irritation problem that needs to be addressed by a vet as soon as possible. While there is little a concerned pet parent can do for the actual overgrooming in the moment, there are important steps to take to curb the behavior:

  • If the overgrooming is likely because of parasites: It’s very important to treat him as quickly as possible to prevent further discomfort and fur loss. That said, if the skin has become broken or irritated from the overgrooming, do not use topical flea or tick medications, as this can cause serious health complications. Instead, contact a vet to ask about oral medications to rid him of fleas and mites while his broken skin heals up.
  • If an environmental allergy is suspected: While cats can’t exactly get the “scratch test” performed on their human counterparts at a doctor’s office, a good vet can help narrow down potential triggers. Depending on severity, a vet may recommend a visit to a cat-specialist groomer, or special allergy medication to help combat the itchy rashes and grooming compulsions. 
  • If allergies and/or parasites are unlikely