Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

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!

About six years ago, I noticed that the fur on Mickey’s belly was thinning. It would thin to the point of near baldness and then grow back, with the cycle repeating every few weeks. I didn’t see Mickey licking excessively and he was a very healthy cat, so the sparseness of belly fur didn’t really worry me. Nonetheless, I did discuss it with my vet at his next regular checkup. Turns out, the condition is quite common in cats.

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.

Complications

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.

Treatment 

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.

Read more articles by Julia Williams

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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Comments

16 thoughts on “Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

  1. My beautiful maine coon started doing this recently. I can't help but be so sad about it because his belly has always been my favorite place to rub him and now its bald. :(

    I don't know what to do to help him and it makes me so sad on a daily basis. The vet brushed it off, and told me to used the cone of shame, but I can't do that to him. :(

  2. I have an in box full of post to read and this is almost a year old. And I KNEW IT! My cat was licking her belly and when I took her to the vet and he determined nothing was wrong with her. I changed her food to see if that might be it (I did a lot of food testing). The vet even took skin graphs. He never mentioned this. Maybe it is needless to say we aren't going to that vet any longer. She stopped licking compulsively for a long time. Then sometime this year I noticed a bit of baldness, but it never got bald not large (the patch) and she stopped. I really thought it was chicken. Thanks for this article. Sorry I am so slow at reading them!

  3. I had pretty much ruled out psychogenic alopecia with my black girl Lily, as NOTHING has changed to cause stress and have only once seen her doing what I would consider overgrooming. But having ruled out physical causes and read up more on the condition – noting that it is particularly prevalent in Orientals (Lily is a black Siamese), and that cats often hide this behaviour from their owners. I’m off to the vet tomorrow to see if she’ll prescribe something like Prozac, in addition to the quarterly Depo Provera injections that we’ve also been doing.

    I agree that that the condition is not going to hurt her per se, but I do want to try one last thing before I give up trying to help her.

  4. Interesting! My angel Graphite had this when he was in the shelter. He had almost no hair on the insides of his back legs. It was probably the stress of being at the shelter. It grew back after he felt comfortable in his forever home (with me).

  5. And I have to laugh finding you’ve written about this now…I have a foster cat who’s half-bald! Her diagnosis, however, is that it’s due to food allergies. She’s now on a strict limited-ingredient-diet (Natural Balance green pea and duck) along with shots to stop the itchiness. Hopefully it will only mean keeping her on this diet to resolve her over-grooming. Poor girl was itchy!
    With psychogenic alopecia, though, it’s much trickier in what to do to help them. You’re right, it’s certainly nothing horrible – I think of it along the same lines as when people bite their nails or twist their hair.
    Hope you find some good solutions!

  6. Great post – I had a dog with this condition and I wish I had been more informed at the time. We went through endless types of treatments, but I now see that some of it was psychological and that perhaps increasing physical stimulation would have helped.

  7. We hadded no idea about this! I am a neat and clean boy, but I do not lick more than the ordinary amount. And even though I am furminated pretty regularly, I do sometimes hork up a good furball, which I don’t mind but I would not want to be doing that all the time!

  8. What our cats do, people also do under stress as well.
    Also just like people, psychological drugs should not be stopped cold turkey but gradually under doc or vets supervision.

    But interesting article btw. :)

  9. Great information! I’ve heard of this…fortunately, Wally, Ernie and Zoey don’t suffer from this, though Ernie does have allergies and will scratch a lot.

    Sue (aka the Island Cats’ mom)

  10. This is really good, Rumblemummy was a bit worries that Hammy might have this as he had a bald patch many months ago. Turned out he had allergies and things cleared up once we removed some things from his diet. It’s great to have posts like this that we can refer to when Rumblemum gets worried about us.

  11. I am so glad you wrote this. I noticed about three weeks ago that the kitty here Orange Boyz had some bald spots which he had licked. So I have been very diligent about the flea treatments and started him on some calming treats and I thought he was better. But this morning I noticed he has a huge place on his shoulder that he has licked. It isn’t raw yet but he has most of the hair off. He is a somewhat nervous cat. He lives outside because being inside he is too nervous around the other cats and that may be his problem outside too. I had another cat doing this, Mew Mew and I took her to the vet and they gave her a depo shot and she has been fine since then. She is on the calming treats too.

  12. Great article on this. I have a friend with a cat who has had this for a few years now. She’s a bit better these days, now that her human is divorced and free of that stressful situation, but she (Mieko the cat, not the girlfriend–lol) still does over-groom.

    BTW, when this started, the vet did have her try an antidepressant, but its side effects were so back my friend stopped them. Definitely a last resort only. I find it dismaying how quick some vets (including mine, unfortunately) are to recommend the pharmaceutical approach.

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