Cats are fastidious groomers. This is good, because if you’ve ever tried to give a cat a bath, you know that even with two extra arms, it would still be a difficult (and potentially dangerous) endeavor. It’s best for them to just take care of their baths on their own. But some cats go a little overboard in the grooming department. Excessive grooming, also sometimes called barbering, can leave your kitty suffering from bald spots--but more importantly, it could indicate an underlying medical problem.
Common places for barbering are along the back, on either or both sides of the spine, on the front limbs, and along the belly. Of course, if hair loss is occurring in places that your kitty can’t reach, barbering is not likely to be the cause.
Usually, there is a physical reason for excessive grooming. Most commonly, this physical reason is fleas. The diagnosis of fleas can get a little bit tricky. Obviously, if fleas or flea dirt are seen on your pet, the diagnosis isn’t that hard. But often, we just don’t see fleas. And often, owners are adamant that fleas are not present. In cases like this, we still have to rule out fleas, and we do this by treating all pets in the house. Topical Revolution every two weeks or oral Capstar every day for thirty days tends to do the trick. And you’d be surprised how often those owners who swore up and down that they didn’t have fleas in the house come back after 30 days and say their cats don’t barber anymore. Like I said, fleas can be tricky.
Mites are sometimes to blame for excessive grooming. We’ve talked about demodectic mange in dogs, but haven’t really addressed it in cats because usually it’s not a problem. But the mite Demodex gatoi can affect cats and cause itchiness that manifests in excessive grooming. These mites aren’t easily found on skin scrapes, so just because a skin scrape is negative doesn’t mean that your cat is out of the woods. Often, we treat even though we can’t get a definitive diagnosis. Unfortunately, the common treatment is to have your cat dipped with a lime sulfur dip once a week for two months. This is a stinky, but necessary, treatment. Alternatively, some topical spot-on treatments, like Advantage Multi, given every two weeks have been shown to be effective (and much less stinky).
If your cat’s excessive grooming responds to a round of steroids, it’s a really good bet that she’s itchy. If she’s itchy and we’ve already ruled out parasites like fleas and mites, food allergies and atopy are next on the list of conditions to consider. We test for food and inhaled allergies in cats the same way that we do for dogs. Limited ingredient food trials and/or allergy testing can identify the offending antigens; once the source of the itch is determined, we can recommend a plan for avoiding it. When we get the allergy under control, the bald spots should clear up.
Occasionally, behavior problems can cause excessive grooming. Psychogenic alopecia can occur from chronic stress or stressful changes in the environment, and manifests itself as repetitive, excessive licking or hair pulling, which can result in hair loss and skin ulcerations or wounds. It is important to note that stress can also bring out the mites we discussed above, so starting your cat on anti-anxiety drugs right away in response to a stressful environment is not always the appropriate treatment.
Other medical problems can cause barbering, too. Cystitis, anal sac inflammation, and hyperthyroidism could all be causing your cat to over-groom. Sometimes, blood work and urinalysis are done as part of the initial workup for barbering, but if all other treatments have been tried and the barbering persists, a more complete workup with blood work should be performed. Having cat insurance from Petplan pet insurance can be greatly beneficial in helping care for the pet health costs of figuring out your feline's problem.
Many owners accept barbering in their cat as a merely a character glitch, but it should always be mentioned in the veterinary office. What your cat can’t tell you with words he may be expressing in another way that shouldn’t be ignored.