Question: My older female cat, Cinder, has suddenly lost all the hair on her tummy and the insides of her hind legs. We also have two male cats that are now about two years old and have been living with us since they were about six weeks old. Last fall they started challenging Cinder and chasing her around the house, which she does not like. She ends up trying to hide from them and growls if they come near her. This has been very upsetting for my husband and I because at times it sounds like a serious cat fight although it is all vocal. Could this stress be responsible for Cinderâ€™s hair loss?
Answer: Absolutely. Some cats will lick themselves excessively as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in much the same way that people bite their fingernails or mutilate themselves when stressed or troubled. In veterinary medicine the term psychogenic alopecia is used to describe this condition. It is usually due to some form of stress, whether anxiety, boredom, or some radical change in surroundings. In all probability, in the case of Cinder, the likely cause is stress caused by the conflict between her and the two males cats.
Cats can react to stress in several ways, such as by adapting to the stress, marking their territory with urine, or grooming themselves excessively, The excessive grooming can lead to hair loss and skin damage, primarily because a catâ€™s tongue is very rough and too much licking can quickly lead to self-excoriation. The tummy and insides of the hind legs are the most commonly targeted sites for excessive grooming although all four legs can be involved, as can any part of the body.
There are many other medical reasons for overgrooming, including fungal and bacterial infections, skin parasites, and even systemic illness. An especially common cause is allergies, especially food allergies, which can lead to a condition called eosinophilic granuloma complex. This condition can manifest itself precisely in the way that you have described. For this reason, it is a good idea to have your veterinarian examine Cinder to see what the cause is.
If, as you and I suspect, your veterinarian determines that the problem is indeed psychogenic, he or she will work with you to correct the underlying problem, or will prescribe medication (e.g. amitriptyline) to correct the behaviour. There is also a commercially available product called Feliway that has been shown to be effective in reducing the incidence of OCD due to stress in some cats. It is available as a spray or as a wall â€œplug-inâ€�. It works by releasing a pheromone that reduces anxiety and stress.
Dr. Bernhard Pukay is an Ottawa veterinarian. Address letters to Pet Care, Ottawa Citizen, P.O. Box 5020, Ottawa K2C 3M4. Email: pets@ ottawacitizen.com. Due to the volume of mail, not all letters can be answered.