Excessive grooming in cats is also called psychogenic alopecia. Alopecia is the partial or complete absence of hair from areas of the body, psychogenic means having a psychological rather than a physical cause or origin.

Excessive grooming is one of the most common obsessive compulsive disorders in cats. What cat guardians typically notice is bald patches on a cat’s belly or the inside of her legs, but the areas can also extend to the flanks, tail and other parts of the cat’s body.

Symptoms of excessive grooming

The obvious signs of excessive grooming are compulsive licking and chewing, but frequently, cat guardians won’t even see their cats exhibit the behavior while they’re watching. Cat guardians may notice bald patches or areas where the hair is chewed down to a stubble. In extreme cases, cats will self-mutilate and create open sores that will be prone to infection.

Causes of overgrooming

Cats spend 30-50% of their day grooming, and, of course, grooming in itself is normal behavior, so cat guardians frequently won’t notice that anything is wrong until a cat has already chewed herself bald or created sores.

Excessive licking can have a number of causes. Cats will lick an area if it is itchy or painful. If the licking is caused by pain, the affected area will typically be small, while itching will cause a cat to lick or overgroom a wider area. The location of the bald areas may provide some clues as to the cause, but unfortunately, this is not always reliable. Typically, baldness around the tail head may be caused by fleas, while cats with pollen or food allergies may lick their flanks or abdomen. Excessive grooming can also be caused by cystitis, hyperthyroidism, and anal sac problems.

Overgrooming can be the result of stress.

When stress is the culprit

If medical problems have been ruled out, the most likely cause for overgrooming is stress. Grooming is a self-soothing behavior that calms and comforts the cat. If the cat is under constant stress, this behavior becomes compulsive.

Cats are creatures of habit who don’t like their routine disrupted, so anything from the loss of a family member to a piece of furniture being moved can cause stress for cats. Some cats are more prone to stress-related behaviors than others.

How to help cats who groom excessively

Once medical issues have been ruled our or addressed, treatment needs to focus on helping the cat deal with stress.

  • If you are able to identify the trigger, eliminate it if possible.
  • Keep your cat’s routine as consistent as possible.
  • Make sure your cat gets plenty of playtime to help her burn off excess energy that may otherwise be directed toward the compulsive behavior.
  • Enrich your cat’s environment by providing plenty of cat trees, scratching posts, and window perches.
  • Holistic therapies such as acupuncture, homeopathy and Reiki can help temper the behavior.
  • Obsession Remedy from Spirit Essences helps relieve the obssessive behavior associated with excessive grooming
  • In extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication may be needed to break the cycle of compulsion.

Excessive grooming can take quite some time to resolve, and will require patience and understanding from the cat’s guardians.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

36 Comments on Excessive Grooming in Cats

  1. About 2 weeks ago my kitty Mittens started licking herself on her legs, paws, and tummy all the time. She is also drinking a lot more water then usual. She is laying in spots she has never laid in before. I am watching her right now and not only is she licking she has started biting herself! Can someone please help???

    • I’m assuming you’ve taken her to the vet? If not, please do so as soon as possible. If she’s breaking skin with her overgrooming, she’s at risk for developing an infection.

  2. We have a 10 yo female that began licking excessively between her legs about 2 years ago. Her companion cat had died about 3 years ago, so we didn’t know if this was the source of anxiety causing the licking. She gets a lot of attention daily from both of us and we tried to catch her at the times she was being compulsive, but mostly failed (probably when we were at work or asleep).
    The oddest thing was that we went on a vacation for a month and our tenant watched our cat while we were gone. Upon returning I noticed that the hair between her legs had begun to grow back. I think there was something we were doing that may have contributed to her excessive grooming, because we would have assumed more stress while we were gone.
    The one thing that we’ve stopped doing is patting her on her back at the base of her tail even though she seemed to enjoy that stimulus (she’s spayed). It’s been 3 months since our return and the hair is mostly grown back now. I believe sometimes humans are the source of stress.

    • Hi Dave!

      We have a cat that would spend most of her days outside. Even occasionally at night. She seemed to start over grooming in the winter once it was too cold or the snow would stick around. It started when she was 2 or 3 years old.
      We have a somewhat large house but we also have 2 other cats, 3 dogs, and 3 kids. Everyone gets along with everyone but I get that I could be overwhelming. After a couple of winters, she found a way to sneak to the basement. It’s kind of dark and damp, no good for storage, just used for the furnace and water heater but she was happy there. She stopped over grooming immediately and grew all of her hair back.
      She is always kind to us and even lays around with the kids, dogs, and other cats at times. Shes just not as social as the rest of us and that’s alright 🙂

  3. My cat is about 3 years old. For the first year of her life she WOULD NOT use the litter box… after lots of reading and research we finally learned that a hidden litter box in a quite corner with NON scented litter was the way to go. THEN at about age 2 she started licking herself all the time pulling fur out by the mouth full!! She has NEVER been outside there has never been a flea on this cat. She’s wormed and flea’d on a regular basis. We then switched to a grain free cat food. Things cleared up for about 4 to 5 months. Then we tried another kind of grain free cat food. She went back to pulling fur, non stop itching, barfing hair balls. Also stopped pooping in her litter box.. ( we never changed from the non scented litter either) We went back to the first grain free and have stuck with that for the past 6 months…. STILL NO IMPROVEMENT!! I’m trying so hard to figure it out WITHOUT the costly vet visit…. ANY INFO APPRECIATED!! Please.

    • Do you have 2 litterboxes? Many of my cats like one box for urination and the other box for #2. Also, is your cat an only cat? If so, like my little spayed female she may appreciate another compatible kitty to spend time with and focus her attention on, instead of overgrooming and scratching herself for no apparent reason. Doing these things has helped my kitty with similar symptoms, and she’s still doing well five years later. Of course, you should also take her to the vet just to rule out physical causes.

  4. I recently moved back home from an abusive household and I noticed my cat grooming a lot more. She will wake from a dead sleep and start licking her sides or stomach. I’m worried

  5. I am worried about my cat as she’s started this excessive grooming. It’s in both inside front legs and other places. She is a stray I’m feeding and was skin and bone when she first appeared. I am doing everything I can but I hate to see another spot of thin or balding patches. I think it is the new home. This cat is so spoilt I think she needs a bit of adjusting time☺☺☺☺ I wonder if this is like biting our nails nervously???? Love to all our fluffy friends and I do think that you can tell if they look happy xxxx

  6. I have written previously in 2013 of my female Traditional Persian cat vomiting “Hair-Balls” frequently.She is now 9 years old in 2016 and has the habit of continuously licking her fur in the house.At times it seems that she has just had a bathe with the saliva making her coat seem wet and ugly.Otherwise she is normal and eats normal food.Its now peak Summer in Mumbai with temps of 34*c max and the heat could also be a reason. But strangely my other 7 year old male cat “Matata” who is her kitten doesn’t have this fur licking habit and his coat is beautiful and shining in the hot Mumbai Summer.

  7. My Odie — a 10-year-old neutered Siamese, is having a grooming problem — he licks himself till he’s WET — not just a little damp, but WET . . drippy WET. It’s not just in one spot, it’s all over. He is being treated for stomatitis-gingivitis and has had some teeth extracted. We’ve had him on antibiotics and steroids and while the monthly injections help for a while, it starts again at about 3-4 after the injection weeks. He is an inside/outside cat since we live in a very rural area in middle Tennessee and he has a lot of space to roam with our other cats (there are 5 others outdoors–they get along great) and our weather is neither too warm or too cool. He likes the outdoors but as soon as he comes in, he starts the obsessive licking. Any and all suggestions would be very greatly appreciated.

    • I’m having the same problem. I took him abath with oatmeal . not working I’m gonna have to take him vet . i have to little money n takecare of 8 more cat’s

  8. I took in a 13 year old cat two and a half years ago. She frequently vomitted hair balls for a while but this stopped completely after a short time with me as I brush her thoroughly EVERY day.

  9. My 4 yr old Maincoon does excessive licking on her legs whenI pet her or brush her especially her back. Can you tell me why?

  10. Does anyone know roughly how long it takes for cat hair to grow back in a bald spot that isn’t being over-groomed anymore? One of my girls has some thin hair spots that I noticed a couple of months ago, when things were a little nutty in my life. Then I moved, which I’m sure didn’t help her stress level. I’ve been in a new place with her and my others for a couple of weeks now, so I’m hoping she’ll stop if it IS over-grooming. I figured I’d give it another month and take her to the vet if her bald spots aren’t filling in. I don’t know if a month is too long to wait, though…?

    Also, she could be stressed because I have 6 others and she doesn’t like being around so many. I’m not sure what to do if that’s the situation. When I moved a couple of weeks ago, it was to a much larger place, so I’m hoping that more space to get away from the others will reduce her stress level, if it does bother her. I have 4 cat trees and 3 cubby-hole things… I’m just not sure what to do for her right now. Any ideas?

      • Are there any replicated research studies showing that those holistic remedies work? Sorry, but I’m a scientist, so I can’t help but ask. I also don’t have a lot of money, so don’t want to spend what I have on something with little evidence that it works. I’d love to read about studies with those, if you have links!

  11. Wow – interesting. My Chelsea who is a 7 year old all black cat started licking herself bald on the tummy,the inside of her legs and wherever she could reach. We examined her for skin conditions but found nothing wrong. This went on for many weeks and then it stopped. When I looked back on the time frame I realized this was Chelsea’s reaction to an outdoor cat I brought in overnight in the winter. When that cat disappeared, Chelsea calmed down. At the time I didn’t notice because there was no open hostility but I guess she showed her displeasure in her own way, poor thing.

  12. My cat Charlie was always doing this. Lots of bald spots. We were in the process of trying to figure out what was going on and then he got really sick. And after he recovered he has been better at the over grooming. He doesn’t really do it anymore. Not sure why he was doing it in the first place. Thank you for the post. Very helpful if it starts again.

  13. I have just been adopted by a stray boy who started visiting my yard a couple of months ago. His coat was filthy when he first turned up, and he was very scrawny. As I began to take care of him outside (he has a bed, and food and water in an outbuilding), his coat improved and he began to take pride and care of himself again. He has now been neutered and chipped, and my plan was to encourage him to stay outdoors for the time being because I am having building works undertaken in my home. He, of course, had no intention of remaining outside and has cheerfully taken to being a house-cat in record time!

    The culmination of a new home, and a disrupted one at that, would clearly explain why he is grooming himself so much. I had noticed a tiny bald patch on his back, and another on his leg and wondered if it was from all the licking…

    It’ll be a few more weeks yet until the building works are complete and I hope he will be able to continue to take things in his stride. He was also very free with his teeth to begin with and this has now started to calm down – it could also be that his testosterone is reducing and making him less aggressive – he certainly isn’t beating up next door’s cats as much!! I am hopeful he will be less obsessive with his grooming, too. He is a delightful little boy, and I am thrilled he chose to move in with me!! :o)

    Great article – thanks v much for the info!

  14. Thank you for the info! Excessive Grooming can have so many causes!
    We had a 13 year old cat named Pingo, who suddenly started to exhibit excessive grooming behaviour.
    Our vet’s inital diagnosis was stress, which we found hard to believe as nothing had really changed in her environment and there were no stress-factors. She was put on some pretty strong medicine which was supposed to help her calm down, but that never really helped. We noticed that her character changed due to the medicine and had her checked twice by the vet (for allergies etc.) but he was sure of his diagnosis that is was “all in her head”. I had also noticed that her mouth seemed to be sore, but the vet said that was normal due to the licking and just gave her anti-inflammatory injections.
    We did not want to continue the medication and injections as we were convinced that it was not tackling the cause of the problem but only the symptoms (of course a cat who is “calm” as in groggy due to medicine will groom less) so we eventually turned to another vet for a second opinion.
    The new vet finally took us seriously and took blood/urine samples and checked her mouth. Initially nothing was found but as i insisted that something had to be wrong with her tongue the new vet found a tumor at the very back of her tongue 🙁 So after 6 moths of vet visits and medications it turned out that our poor Pingo suffered from a cancerous tumor which made it hard for her to eat and thus caused the stress 🙁 As the tumor could not be removed (they would have had to remove the whole tongue) we soon after had to take the sad decision to let her go and relieve her of her pain, as her health deteriorated quickly and even feeding her with fluid-food out of a bottle or injection was painful.
    We still feel guilty for her having suffered such a long time, and us seeing the signals but believing that someone else (vet) will now better than us. Needles to say, we changed vet.
    One thing we’ve learned is that vets are people too, they see so many animals every day and sometimes they can get stuck with a wrong diagnosis -that’s human. We’re not angry with the vet but we realise that we know our cats best and if ever we feel like we are not being listened to, we will immediately seek a second opinion!

    • I’m sorry about what you went through with Pingo, Alexi. Thank you for sharing your journey – this is so important on so many levels. First, it highlights how difficult it is to identify the cause of excessive grooming. But more than that, it illustrates that the cat guardian must be the cat’s advocate when it comes to health care.

  15. I have two cats that do this excessive grooming and I de flea both of them very regularly. They are both on the nervous side and live outside since they are too nervous to come inside. They do not particularly like other cats. I don’t think I could spray either one with anything. I just feel so sorry for them both.
    But thanks for all the info.

  16. Thank you for the info, my Lillia pulls parts of her fur out at times-it’s a stress related issue-she’s handicapped and gets upset at times and has quite a few compulsive behaviors including spinning in circles. She has a clean bill of health from the vet and is happy and ‘normal’ 90% of the time. I am going to look into the holistic approaches you mentioned.

  17. I have written about this problem before, excessive grooming bu my 6 year old Traditional Persian cat “Matahari”.The trouble is that she then “VOMITS:” fur balls after a fortnight of excessive grooming. This has been her regular habit since kittenhood and i have found no remedy for the same.Luckily she always vomits her “Fur Balls” ingested due to grooming and hence till date have had no medical problems because of this dis-order. Strangely, her kitten, now a 4 1/2 year old tomcat named Matata has not inherited this habit from his dam and has never ever vomitted “Fur Balls” since kittenhood. Bizarre comparisons of two genetically similar cats living in the same house-hold and eating the same food.

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