Nervous cat advice: Over-grooming
November 1, 2013 6:20 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my lady cat calm down and stop over-grooming during a difficult time?

My little lady cat is adjusting to some serious life changes. She just moved with me from a two bedroom house that was once occupied by two people and two other cats to a tiny studio with just me...and I am barely home (two jobs and an active social life). I noticed that she is grooming herself in a way that makes her seem neurotic and nervous, and she has even licked her poor belly clean of the fuzz that is typically there. She is also very vocally demanding of me and more vocally expressive in general, which makes me think she is upset. The month has been very rough on her (and me) as I allowed my landlord to sell the house we were living in while I looked for a new place, and this meant strangers were in our home randomly throughout the week, which I am sure was nerve-wracking for her. I hate to think I am making life unpredictable and terrifying for her. I also know life will calm down soon and perhaps she will adjust back to the chill cat she once was. If I need to take her to a vet I will (she was just there) but I think that would also be super stressful for her. The vet also vocalized concern regarding her being alone during her last visit which has made me worry more.

In the meantime, what can I do to calm her nerves while she adjusts? I know of Feliway and I am going to acquire some ASAP, but I am really worried about her mental health as she is alone more often than not and possibly bored. She has a good diet (grain-free, organic wet food) and I try to give her as much attention and love and play-time as possible, but that has been difficult lately as we have been transitioning to a new life for over a month. She has a cat tree that faces a window in the new place and I am looking into more vertical spaces for her. Another cat is out of the question as my lease doesn't allow it and she completely despises other cats anyway.

Any advice is much appreciated!
posted by Young Kullervo to Pets & Animals (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you can't get another kitty then I think you're just going to have to wait it out, frankly. Give her as much attention and lovin' that you can when you're home, and just try to get through this transitional period.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:36 AM on November 1, 2013

Is the house quiet while you are gone? She might like something that won't annoy your neighbors (probably) like classical music, or if your neighbors aren't a concern or whatever, maybe a nature channel? Some cats really love birds and or big cats (which is so weird) on the television. Our cats seem like NPR because of the combination of music that isn't offensive and human voices.

Our cats could not give two poops about toys but they love their scratch lounges. We got one as a housewarming gift for a friend with a newly-alone cat (the other cat had passed) and he loves it, seems to want to spend a lot of time there. If your cat likes toys, toys are good.

Also, don't know how clean you are or are not, but ours love to nest in dirty laundry when we're gone a lot, which isn't surprising but some people are not down with that kind of thing. She might appreciate something that smells like you to snuggle with.

Finally, if you can get another cat (maybe a male kitten with a sweet disposition) then that would probably help, clearly. I realize that might not be an option.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:38 AM on November 1, 2013

This happened with one of our cats, Sammy, when my boyfriend and I moved in together, my one cat joining his two. Sammy did the grooming thing to the point that his tummy was completely bare and licked raw and oozing. Sammy could just never adjust to my cat, even though my cat was old and mellow and never bothered him. He just couldn't tolerate having an invader in his house. So he groomed. After two vet trips for antibiotics, and Sammy wearing a cone all the time (increasing his misery), I started doing my own research. I asked the vet for Prozac. For some reason she was a bit reluctant, saying we should rule out any allergies first, but I knew that the grooming thing was not allergy related.

And, happily, the drug worked and it was cheap. Sammy was a bit stoned for the first week, then adjusted well. The overgrooming stopped and his belly healed. We were able to reduce his dosage, and when my little old cat died, Sammy was taken off the Prozac entirely.

So if you can't change your situation, you may want to talk to you vet about Prozac.
posted by kimdog at 6:55 AM on November 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would make a concerted effort to spend a little more time at home. I know it's hard, but as the owner of a very people-oriented cat, I think that's the best thing you can do for her--even if it's only an extra hour a day, during which you do some dedicated play time with a feather on a stick.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:59 AM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your solution is to be home more or hire someone to play with her. She needs more time and attention -- and I know that some cats can soak up 24 hours a day 7 days a week and still feel that you're not there enough, but she used to have other people, and now she has no one. Cats are independent as a rule, but not every cat does well with an owner who is home only to sleep.
posted by jeather at 7:03 AM on November 1, 2013

I think a companion might be helpful if she previously got along with other cats and if that's an option for your current living situation. If not, do you have a reliable friend (with some time on their hands) that the cat trusts who would be willing to stop in for a couple of hours a week to spend time with her? That might help while she settles.

You could also look into paying a petsitter to spend some time with her, again, a few hours a week. Our petsitter charges $15 a visit when we're away and she feeds them, cleans the litter boxes, and I know she also spends time with them and they love her (she's a petsitter, so obviously she's going to like animals and be good with them.) Since this wouldn't involve feeding or cleaning the litter boxes and the time would be flexible, you might be able to negotiate something like a flat rate of $40 a week for 4 hours that's ongoing. I know that's still not cheap, but it might help.

Also, definitely look into medication.
posted by data hound at 7:08 AM on November 1, 2013

I think another cat might just stress her out right now. Put her scent on everything, keep a regular schedule and spend more time with her.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:35 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, more time with her is definitely on the table in the future. I plan on settling down myself a bit once my life sorts itself out, with more days and nights at home, which should satisfy her eventually. I know that what she really wants is for me to be home with her and for my schedule to be normal. But in the short term, when this is not possible, I think I am mostly concerned about alleviating her stress NOW while things are still a bit hectic.
posted by Young Kullervo at 8:55 AM on November 1, 2013

Here's a different calming pheromone that you can use in addition to Feliway.

I also have a cat (foster cat! In case anybody wants to adopt a sensitive but very extroverted little girl in NC) who overgrooms when she gets stressed. I can't point to any of the following as being definitely successful, but the _seem_ like they'd be helpful:

- Keeping the cat in a single room while you're gone - less unfamiliar territory means quicker acclimitization. This is standard practice when moving a cat to a new place, and seems to help my kitty when she's stressed even though she's used to being here. Need to balance this with her need to be near you when you're home, though - your bedroom is probably best, but you'll need to spend time in there, too.
- grooming the cat - they often groom each other (when they live in groups, which they do naturally), and it seems reasonable that it would help stress. Find the right tool for your cat's fur and brush her, gently, so that she likes it. If she's not used to being brushed, she'll probably come to like it more and more over time.
- Petting the cat more (similar to grooming), and petting with short strokes around the head, like another cat would groom her.
- Making sure the cat can be really warm when she wants to
- Leaving a radio on, playing softly, when you're gone so that she isn't in a kind of sensory-deprivation environment - but softly enough that she can ignore it or get away from it if she wants to. I use NPR/talk for this.
- There is now a Thundershirt for cats - I'm not sure how well this would work, and you'll want to be careful with it, but it's worth looking into.

Definitely Google "cat anxiety" for other ideas, and you can also research cat behaviorists in your area.

Thank you for taking care of her! It's good that you noticed she's having problems.
posted by amtho at 9:11 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a kitty with over grooming problems. Besides a few months on kitty antidepressants, I made a point of having calm kitty petting time every day as part of our routine, to encourage her to be mellow. She was fine after a bit of adjustment and went off the mess and is still going strong 15 years later.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:37 AM on November 1, 2013

Our cat had a little scratch on his stomach that he licked so much he gave himself a rash. We did the cone of shame along with a powder to ease the itching. It was rough as it lasted 35 days until he had enough fur grown back to take the cone off, but he was totally fine after that. We had daily supervised time without the cone which is how we knew when he was ready to go without it (based on how soon he went for his stomach).

We tried a shirt briefly so he could move about normally but not be able to lick his stomach. That initially seems to work wonders as he didn't try to take it off, but within about a day he started walking with a limp, and then stopped eating, drinking, and even moving. It turns out he really didn't like the shirt—the vet said it messed with his sense of touch and switching back to the cone solved all those issues, so be observant if you use some sort of shirt.
posted by ridogi at 6:04 PM on November 1, 2013

Thanks everyone. Now she has decided that she wants to be an outdoor cat. This will never happen as there are feral tomcats, racoons, and foxes in my area and she has no experience as an outdoor cat. She simply sits and meows at the door now, no matter how much we cuddle or play. I did take her out for a spell and noticed that the entire area has been scent marked, which might be why she is upset. I am taking her to the vet on Tuesday to discuss her behavior and our best options.
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:09 AM on November 4, 2013

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