Is your cat “going bald?” There are many reasons why a cat might lose fur, but in a lot of cases, it’s because the cat is overgrooming: chewing the hair and breaking it off, or pulling it out completely. Those 12 tiny incisor teeth between your cat’s canines are designed for grooming, and under normal circumstances, they’re used to “comb” through the hair to remove debris, mats, and parasites.
Hair loss from any cause is called “alopecia.” Sometimes you’ll actually catch your cat in the act of chewing, or notice that she’s scratching grooming more than usual, but more often you’ll glance down and suddenly notice a bare patch where the fur used to be. Areas where alopecia can develop without you noticing are the tummy and the front legs.
The first essential step is a trip to the veterinarian’s to diagnose the cause of the problem. Far and away the most common reason for cats to pull out their hair, especially around the base of the tail, is flea-bite allergy. It only takes a single flea bite to produce an intense reaction that can last for weeks. Your vet can prescribe an effective and safe flea preventive and help you get rid of fleas and eggs in and around the house, or you can use more natural methods (more on this in an upcoming article; but here’s a quick tip: never use a flea collar! They don’t work and they can be very irritating if not downright toxic.). Once the fleas are gone, the skin will heal up on its own.
Another parasite that may be far more common than many vets suspect is the mite. There are several species of mites that produce a condition called “mange.” Sarcoptes mites (scabies) cause unrelenting, severe itching. They are most often found on the belly, but can wander anywhere. Scabies mites prefer warm, moist areas. Cheyletiella (“walking dandruff mite”) and Demodex may or may not be itchy, but if the infestation grows out of control, they can cause scratching and hair loss. Demodex is a normal parasite of humans and animals (we have them in the hair follicles of our eyebrows–eew!), but if the immune system is weak, it can explode into a nasty infestation. Sometimes ear mites will get into the skin, particularly around the head and neck. All of these can cause cats to lick, scratch, and chew to try to relieve the itching.
Most mites have one thing in common—they are easily transmitted, and they are not picky about where they set up housekeeping. In a household with scabies, multiple animals and people are likely to be infected. Your vet will do a skin scraping and put it under the microscope to check for mites, which are very tiny and hardly visible to the eye. However, scabies mites are very hard to find. It’s been estimated that only 20-30% of cats with scabies are ever definitively diagnosed, even by multiple skin scrapings. If there are two or more itchy individuals (of any species!) in the household, treatment for mites may be indicated.
Ringworm (which is actually a fungus) is also frequently implicated in cases of hair loss, especially around the face, feet and ears. The hair disappears in small patches, and the skin turns dry, gray, and flaky. The time between initial contact and the appearance of lesions varies from one to three weeks. Ringworm is extremely contagious! While it doesn’t seem to bother the cats much, in people ringworm can be extremely itchy! Treating ringworm can be difficult and time-consuming.There are a number of effective topical creams that can be used if the lesions small and localized, but a cat with a major infection may need to be shaved and bathed in a special shampoo for a month or more. Alternatively, there are oral medications that must be given consistently, usually for several weeks. They have serious side effects, so be sure to discuss the options thoroughly with your vet. Homeopathic treatment can be very helpful for these kitties.
Along with parasites, the veterinarian will also consider other potential causes of hair loss. Certain patterns, such as symmetrical hair loss along the sides, may point to an endocrine disorder; i.e., a problem with one of the hormone-secreting glands, such as the adrenals.
Contact allergies, while extremely rare, are possible. A new carpet, cedar bed, or different detergent used to launder the cat’s bedding can cause a local allergic reaction that causes the cat to lick at the itchy area. Hair loss and rash will occur in the areas where the cat most frequently comes into contact with the material, such as feet and tummy.
Localized pain may also cause the cat to lick an area excessively. A brewing abscess is painful, and will inspire a lot of licking before it opens and drains. Hair loss over joints may indicate arthritis pain. I once examined a cat who had suddenly started licking at one particular spot on her right side. As I mulled over which organs were in that part of the abdomen, I became suspicious and did some tests. It turned out she had acute pancreatitis, which we successfully treated before it became a full-blown, life-threatening problem.
Once parasites and medical problems have been ruled out, there are still two major players to consider. The first is diet. Food intolerances or allergies may show up first in the skin, causing tiny red crusty sores that spread or coalesce as the cat rubs or scratches at them. Lesions around the face and ears are typically seen with food allergies. Allergies to inhaled substances, such as dust mites or pollen, produce identical signs. A diet trial, skin or blood test, or trial treatment with antihistamines or anti-inflammatory drugs may be used to assess the cat for allergies. (See our article on Food Allergies in Cats for more info.)
The skin and coat are also the first to suffer when the diet is inadequate in certain nutrients. Cats on all-dry, “light,” or “low-fat” diets may develop dry, flaky skin, and the coat may be dull or greasy feeling. The skin may be irritated and the coat may become thin because hair is falling out.
Supplementation with essential fatty acids and/or Vitamin E may provide a great deal of relief. Omega 3 fatty acids, in particular, found in fish oil (not cod liver oil) and ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil will help calm underlying inflammation, and condition the skin and fur. Omega 6 oils, such as evening primrose, borage, or hemp oils, as well as common cooking oils like safflower and sunflower oils, are also important. There are a number of good products for animals, such as Moxxor green-lipped mussel oil, or Celestial Pets’ EFA Oil, that can provide the essential fatty acids needed for healthy skin and fur.
Many cat lovers have also found that homemade and raw diets, which eliminate the colorings, preservatives and other additives found in commercial cat foods, has done the trick. Simply getting rid of the dry food in favor of any wet food, such as canned, is the ticket in many cases.
The last big category is lumped under the phrase “psychogenic alopecia” — the cat is pulling or chewing his fur because of psychological factors such as nervousness, anxiety, fear, or other emotional causes. Basically, this boils down to “stress” being the causative factor. Cats are very frazzled cat sensitive, and thrive best on steady routines. Virtually anything can be a stressor to a cat: a new couch, a person in the household working different hours, moving, repairs and remodeling, the addition (or subtraction) of a roommate, a new baby, another cat or pet, a party or guests in the house, or even a change in the weather.
For cats, grooming is a “comfort” behavior, and is often used to make themselves feel more relaxed or to relieve stress. Who hasn’t seen their cat do something foolish or klutzy, like fall into the tub, misjudge a leap, or roll off the sofa? We laugh, but the cat immediately grooms. While whether or not the cat actually feels embarrassed is debatable, every cat person will recognize this typical reflexive behavior in the face of uncertainty or surprise.
It follows that if a cat is chronically stressed, she may turn to excessive grooming as a means of dispelling her anxiety. Some veterinary behaviorists are now starting to talk about “obsessive-compulsive disorders” in cats, something that was previously limited to neurotic people. And some of the conventional treatments are the same — antidepressants like Elavil, and other drugs that modify brain chemistry, such as Buspar or Prozac.
However, if you’d rather avoid drugs for your kitty, you’ll be glad to know that psychogenic alopecia is one disorder that responds particularly well to a variety of alternative therapies.
Some herbs have mild sedating or calming effects. There are combinations made especially for animals. “Easy Does It” by Tasha’s Herbs, “Nu-Pet Happy Traveler” by Ark Naturals, and “Tranquility Blend” Animal’s Apawthecary, all contain cat-safe herbs. These would be appropriate to use if you know what the stressor is, and can dose the cat appropriately whenever the stress will occur. For instance, if your cat gets upset when he’s left alone, you would give him the herbs right before you leave for work or school.
Homeopathy can also be very beneficial in treating psychogenic alopecia. Dr. Goodpet’s homeopathic combination remedy “Calm Stress” is an excellent choice. (Dr. Goodpet also produces “Scratch Free” and “Flea Relief” for treatment and relief of itching and irritation due to fleas, allergies, mites, etc., and can be used while these other conditions are being treated with other means.)
One of the best and simplest modalities for treating stressed-out cats is flower essence therapy. Flower essences, also called flower remedies, are prepared from the flowering parts of certain plants. They are similar to aromatherapy or homeopathy in that they work on the “energetic” field of the emotions rather than physically. They are completely safe and will not interfere with any other treatment, whether conventional or alternative. Spirit Essences makes several formulas that for cats with skin and coat problems:
- Skin Soother is designed for itchy cats, including those with parasite challenges and allergies.
- Obsession Remedy is especially good for cats with stress-related or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
- Ultimate Skin Soother is a 3-remedy set that includes Skin Soother, Obsession Remedy, and Stress Stopper (Spirit Essences’ “extreme” version of Rescue/5-Flower Remedy).
Alopecia is a sign that something’s wrong, and it’s often uncomfortable for the cat. While it’s not always easy to find out why your cat is pulling out her hair, it’s very important to get to the bottom of it, and to treat it appropriately.