By Julia Williams
I’ve gotten to know many pet bloggers in recent years, and even correspond with a few. In one email, a fellow pet lover shared a problem she was having with her cat, and asked for my advice. She was concerned that her cat was becoming increasingly bald on his belly from over-grooming. She worried that people would judge her for the baldness, thinking she was not a responsible pet owner. It made me laugh – not because her cat’s bald belly or her embarrassment were funny, but because little did she know, I’d been dealing with that very same issue with my cat for years!
|Look at my cute bald belly!|
What is Psychogenic Alopecia?
For various reasons, a cat will sometimes begin to excessively groom their hair and skin, which results in hair loss and baldness. Typically the over-grooming starts on the abdomen and may progress to the rear legs and tail. The degree of baldness may wax and wane over time. Additionally, some cats do their licking in private, so the absence of belly fur may be the first inkling an owner has that something is awry.
Diagnosis of the condition is usually made by noting the characteristic pattern of baldness. Skin, blood and/or urine tests are sometimes performed to make sure other illnesses are not the culprit.
What Causes Psychogenic Alopecia?
Psychogenic Alopecia is believed to have a psychological or emotional origin, and has been compared to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Stress, anxiety and boredom may intensify the behavior. Skin allergies caused by fleas, food, pollen or environmental allergens may also exacerbate the condition.
Like OCD, Psychogenic Alopecia is usually not curable, but there are things owners can do to lessen their cat’s over-grooming (see below). Moreover, the condition is generally not debilitating, i.e., it doesn’t lessen a cat’s quality of life or longevity.
Most cats with Psychogenic Alopecia will groom themselves bald without injuring their skin, but in severe cases the excessive licking can lead to inflammation, infection, rashes or scabs. Although rare, Psychogenic Alopecia can also result in complete baldness everywhere except the cat’s head, which increases their risk of sunburn and hypothermia if allowed outdoors.
Enrichment, increased playtime and stress avoidance may lessen the tendency to over-groom. However, every cat is an individual, which means that what works for one may not work for another.
If your cat has Psychogenic Alopecia, you can start by increasing the time you spend petting them, brushing their fur, playing with them and otherwise lovingly interacting with them. They’ll be a happier kitty, and as a bonus, you’ll be deepening your cat/owner bond!
Playtime with interactive toys such as feather wands may be especially beneficial. Hunting and catching the “prey” provides much-needed exercise as well as mental stimulation. Plus, it’s just plain fun! Another enrichment technique I use is to put some FELIDAE dry food in a treat-dispensing toy. As Mickey paws at the egg-shaped toy, pieces fall out at random. Jackpot! He plays with that thing until he gets every last crunchy out. LOL.
I saw custom-made “cat bodysuits” on Must Love Cats and wondered if they might help a cat with Psychogenic Alopecia. I’ve not tried them because I don’t think Mickey would tolerate it, and the added stress would defeat the purpose. Still, if your cat is the clothes wearing kind, I’d look into those.
Diligent flea control should be employed, because even one biting flea could trigger over-grooming. My vet also suggested trying Feliway, the pheromone known to have a calming effect on cats. It didn’t seem to lessen Mickey’s licking, but I think it’s worth a try, especially if stress is an issue. Speaking of which, removing sources of stress can also help with Psychogenic Alopecia. For multiple-cat households, this could mean giving them each their own space if they don’t get along.
In more severe cases, vets may suggest medication such as prednisone or antidepressants, topical products like hydrocortisone if there are lesions, or an Elizabethan collar (the “cone of shame”). Because drugs can have side effects and E-collars can add stress, I personally would use these only as a last resort.
Should You Be Worried?
Psychogenic Alopecia is usually a life-long condition, but in most cases the hair loss is more of a cosmetic issue than a true health problem. I’ve tried a lot of things for Mickey, but he still has a bald belly. However, it doesn’t seem to bother him, so I try not to let it bother me.
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