Overgrooming is the most common behavioural issue in cats, and involves excessive licking and preening behaviour, often to the point of causing baldness and skin damage.
Cats normally groom and lick themselves to help stay clean and stimulate hair shedding. However, if stressed or anxious a cat will often increase their level of grooming to a point where it becomes excessive and problematic. This increased grooming initially has a self-soothing function, which can help to calm the cat up to a point, but over time the behaviour tends to become compulsive and damaging.
Cats who overgroom usually have equal patterns of hair loss on both sides of the body, most commonly in easily licked areas such as the forearms, belly or sides. The skin may be completely bald, or there may be short stubbly hair growth or grazes and scratches.
Interestingly enough, overgrooming is also an issue for the larger cats in captivity, such as zoo lions and tigers, and has very similar causes related to anxiety and stress.
Overgrooming is often the result of anxiety and stress in a cat’s life. Cats are very much creatures of habit, and even simple changes in routine or lifestyle can result in a cat acting out with unusual behaviours.
Common causes include new pets or people in the house, a change in diet, a change in cat litter, changes in household furniture or owners going away for a vacation. Cats are also good at hiding their emotions, and apart from the overgrooming or protest elimination behaviour a cat may seem quite normal, even if they are stressed and agitated on the inside.
The good news is there are a number of ways we can really help anxious cats. Please read Solving Anxiety Issues in Cats for further information.