My cat has turned into an obsessive groomer - help?
February 18, 2014 9:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop my cat from chewing on himself?

A while ago, our two-year-old neutered male ginger cat (we think) stepped in something sticky outside and got it between most of his toes. We took him to the vet, who managed to get some of it out and gave him some antibiotics to avoid any infection.

Since then, Barley has been obsessively cleaning and chewing between his toes to the point of taking off chunks of hair and making himself bleed. I've now also noticed that this seem to be spreading to other parts of his legs - raw bits of skin where he's chewed on himself.

I've read up on this and figure that this might be what is called psychogenic alopecia. Nothing (that we know of) has changed outside the house or inside that we think could have caused the guy stress. He has also started hanging out outside all day and night, only coming in for food in the morning and late afternoon. Usually, we would at least see him at some point during the night when he'd come to bed for a bit, or perhaps when he slept on the stairs during the day.

According to the advice of a vet, we should engage in some habitual form of attention with him every day, play time, perhaps with a laser pointer, to distract him from the obsessive behaviour and instill pleasurable associations concerning being inside the house.

Did I mention he's always been a bit of a scaredy cat? Basically scared of his own shadow.
posted by New England Cultist to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Oh boy. We have been struggling with one of our cats who does this. She licks her stomach until it's bald and then until it bleeds. The vet says it's stress, but he said the problem with cats is you can't easily tell what is causing the stress. Some cats freak out if you move to a new home; others can move to three new homes in a year and not bat an eye, but will freak out if you put a vase in a different place.

So we are addressing the physical symptoms (raw skin) by putting on Panalog cream, which helps with healing, and giving her lots of attention. It sort of helps, but she's persistent, and I don't know if she'll ever stop. We still have zero idea what is causing this.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:00 PM on February 18, 2014

You could try a Feliway diffuser and see if it helps him feel more at ease in the house. It's worked a small miracle on our own scaredy cat.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:33 AM on February 19, 2014

Our elderly cat was doing this; he was practically bald in spots. He also had a history of anxious/stressed behaviors, including inappropriate urination. He is strictly an indoor cat. We tried Feliway but found it had limited success. The only thing that helped him was a course of anti-anxiety medication to
break the cycle of behavior (get him out of the loop, as SakuraK said). He's not yet had to be on it long-term; once the cycle was broken, we were able to stop the meds without him reverting back to the behavior. It definitely made us all happier, especially with the peeing everywhere in the house thing!

My parents also had a nervous labrador who would lick spots until he bled, and similar medication helped him, too. This is becoming a common treatment in the U.S. in cases where other, milder interventions and treatments haven't worked.
posted by percolatrix at 3:41 AM on February 19, 2014

My friend's cat had an overgrooming phase. Feliway didn't work on her, but the vet prescribed steroids, which did the trick (and also enabled her to vanquish all her territorial rivals).
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:47 AM on February 19, 2014

How long ago was the last vet visit? Because it sounds like you went in a while ago with the sticky paw issue but not since then. (Apologies if I misread)
In the meantime kitty - who sounds adorable, but we need a picture to be sure :-) - could have acquired a lot of other things that can cause this behavior. Especially since he's been hanging out outdoors, where he is bound to come in contact with other cats, mice, birds etc.

Stress is literally the last thing on your list. Before you assume it is stress related behavior, please have the vet check kitty for:

- ringworm (fungal infection on the paws) (Note: humans can get infected by ringworm)
- bacterial or yeast infections (occur very often after skin irritation due to chemicals, sticky things and the like)
- fleas
- seasonal allergies (like grass)
- food allergies (often grains, gluten)
- unusual skin growth (even benign tumors can cause excessive liking)

Sounds like you already considered this, but I'll ask again: Do you heavily clean your floors? Any new cleaning products? New detergents/softeners for your sheets and clothes? New perfume? New hand cream? New brand/type of litter?
New food? Could kitty regularly eat food outdoors?

If all else fails, yes it might be stress related. There are treatment options, like others have mentioned upthread.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:57 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a cat that compulsively pulled her fur out and the vet tried everything. Nothing helped until they gave her a cortisone shot. Which I gathered the vet didn't like to do first because it can have side effects.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:29 AM on February 19, 2014

+1 travelwithcats. I had a cat who "barbered" (apparently that is the term of art) his belly fur. Multiple sources suggested Feliway as a solution. No help there. Eventually (years later) we figured out it was allergies. We put him on prednisone, which is not a great long-term solution, but it did stop the barbering.
posted by adamrice at 9:27 AM on February 19, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, much appreciated. Another trip to the vet might be on the cards (the previous one was about three weeks ago).

travelwithcats - no new chemicals in the house, since both Ms Cultist and I don't like to use them. No new food etc. either. As far as I know, none of our direct neighbours have cats but I could be wrong, so not sure if he's sneaking food somewhere.

Here's a picture of the dork

He really likes being outside; I'm afraid of exacerbating the anxious behaviour if I close the cat door at night. But it's something I'll seriously consider.

I'm getting a laser pointer today and will start playing with him roundabout dinner time, which is when we usually see him for the first time after breakfast. I'm hoping that the interaction and physicality might help to give him a bit more confidence and maybe soothe some of the anxiety.
posted by New England Cultist at 10:33 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does your cat have a twitchy back sometimes?

My cat over-scratches occasionally, bolts from the room, and sometimes twitches his front paw and head. He also sometimes goes a little trance-like and chews on his foot. It's very mild and generally nobody notices these things-- he seems normal. I only notice because I'm with him the most; he doesn't draw blood or anything and it's not obsessive... but it is more than normal.

In my cat's case, he has very mild feline hyperthesia. We noticed it because of the rippling back effect-- his back spasms (ever so slightly) when touched. If your cat has any of the above-- It could be a similar thing. It may have been mild, but the gunk may have exacerbated it the condition. Some of the more extreme cases of FH can cause the cat to obsessively clean and/or chew on themselves.

I noticed my cat's symptoms lessened when I increased his wet food over dry. I also try to play with him once a day. But again, his symptoms are super mild in my case.

The other suggestions are really good, but, if he's hurting himself he may need anti-anxiety meds, at least until he stops attacking himself. I'd definitely go to the vet. Maybe get a 2nd opinion? As far as I know, with things like this, sooner is better than later because part of the issue is that it's habit forming, and the habit needs to be broken.

Your kitty is lovely, and he looks a lot like mine. I hope he gets better soon!
posted by Dimes at 10:46 AM on February 19, 2014

Response by poster: Took him to the vet, who put him on another course of antibiotics and a hypoallergenic diet as a first course of action before looking at further potential causes. She also gave us a solution to wash his feet in twice a day. Fingers crossed!
posted by New England Cultist at 12:30 AM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

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