How can I get my cat to stop licking itself too much?
August 30, 2014 4:59 PM   Subscribe

We have an otherwise healthy kitty (about 3 years old) except for this issue with the fur on her back. She's basically licking herself to the point of creating sores on her back. How do we fix this?

It's been going on for the better part of the year. We took her to the vet about 6 months ago. He gave her a couple shots and charged a bunch of money. It got marginally better for a short bit and then got worse again. That sort of expenditure isn't really in our budget if its not going to be effective.

Picture one and two for reference.

Things we've also tried with little to no success:

Cone: She won't eat or drink and just hides under the couch miserably until we take it off of her. We're not interested in starving her.

Vitamins: We've tried a couple (This and this). She eats the chewy one but not the hard one (we've tried pill pockets with no luck).

Coconut Oil: We think she just licked herself more

I've envisioned trying to put a kitty cape on her that covers from her neck to her tail so she can still use the bathroom, but can't get to her back. I'm not sure if it'll work. I don't think a thundershirt would reach far enough back.

posted by lownote to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Overgrooming can be caused by stress or allergies, but also by more serious issues, like thyroid problems. Did your vet do bloodwork? Steroid injections will stop it for a bit, but not permanently.

There are special diet foods specifically for skin issues (will require prescription, not cheap). But a change of diet could help.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:05 PM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would definitely try a low allergen food. Food allergies often manifest as itching in cats.
posted by something something at 5:10 PM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a cat who did that for years, and the only thing that worked long term was changing her food.

If you want to try something before you go to the prescription food route, Newman's Own wet food in chicken and brown rice worked for her. FWIW: I'm not sure if this is still true, but at the time it was one of the only grocery store cat foods that didn't have any fish products in it.
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:25 PM on August 30, 2014

Changing her food is probably the long-term answer. In the short term, I have a friend who, as recommended by her vet, is keeping her cat in a baby onesie to deal with overgrooming due to an (environmental) allergen. So that might be a way to control the symptoms while you try to root out the cause of it.
posted by MeghanC at 6:05 PM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mine also had luck with a Feliway wall plug in - made all sorts of her stress-related behaviors go away.
posted by msfrizzle at 6:07 PM on August 30, 2014

I have the same issue with my cat; he was overgrooming thanks to a combination of allergies -- to chicken and dust mites, among others -- and anxiety. It took a long time to find the right combination of drugs and food, including a while giving him custom-made allergy shots from the vet. For the last couple of years he's been a very happy kitty thanks to amitriptyline (the generic version of the antidepressant Elavil) and a diet of this Hill's Prescription Diet dry food.

Nthing the suggestions to start your cat on a low-allergen food and to have bloodwork done at the vet.
posted by zebra at 6:08 PM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

If cost is an issue, first try feeding only canned food. No dry chow! See if there is improvement with that first step before you move to pricier choices.
posted by crw at 6:31 PM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a cat who did that when he had other (related) problems. It wasn't an allergy, and he was put on kitty steroids which solved the behaviour. The pills cost about 5 cents each.
posted by jeather at 7:06 PM on August 30, 2014

I had a cat who overgroomed, and I went through every hypoallergenic food on the market with no luck. The vet prescribed a special shampoo to use several times a week, which went about as well as you'd expect bathing a cat that frequently to go. Vet was reluctant to prescribe more than short-term steroids. Providing more stimulation seemed to help the most - I tried both time outdoors and clicker training (I fed him about half of his dinner as "treats", then the rest when he started losing interest).
posted by momus_window at 7:15 PM on August 30, 2014

I don't know what types of allergy meds you give cats, but dogs respond well to several types of allergy meds (including Zyrtec and Atarax). Our Corgi was an obsessive scratcher/licker and would give herself hot spots during allergy season. We gave her Atarax and fish oil daily. Then once a year or so it would get super bad and the vet would giver her a steroid/allergy shot that would calm things down. I'd talk to your vet about this.

Also since you've already seen the vet recently about this, you can definitely call and talk to the vet on the phone as a follow-up without paying for another visit.
posted by radioamy at 7:39 PM on August 30, 2014

We have one that does this as well. We've tried everything in the other comments as well: Feliway, steroids, every food on the market. We settled on Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Green Pea & Duck dry food as she tolerated it best (oh the cleaning from previous failed attempts).

While this lessened her licking and pulling, she still tore huge tufts out on a regular basis. After many trips to the vet, we put her on Prozac (about $4 a month for cats). She's stopped now and her hair is growing back and the sores have healed. The drugs make her sleep a lot, but it's better than the track she was on. We're getting ready to wean her from them so we'll see if the change is permanent.
posted by youknowwhatpart at 7:50 PM on August 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

We switched to a high-end grain-free kibble and the problem went away. We would have fed wet food or done homemade food, but this cat only liked kibble (?!?!?!).
posted by bluebelle at 9:43 PM on August 30, 2014

There are a lot of reasons why kitty might be doing this, but you need to rule out major medical issues. I've encountered this issue with 2 of my own cats. For one, it was simply anxiety. For the other, she first had to have a non-functioning kidney removed. The problem came back years later, and it ended up being inflammatory bowel disease. You may want to have kitty worked up by an internal medicine specialist. You can try changing her food first and see if that helps. Good luck!
posted by bolognius maximus at 10:57 PM on August 30, 2014

I inherited a cat from a co-worker who had this problem. She had been in a stressful situation. I made her life as stress-free as possible. I found Feliway plug-in helped.

But what really solved the problem was a trick which I tried out of desperation and did not expect to work. When I saw her grooming I very gently put my hand in the way when I saw her stop for a second. I put it between her face and her body. She licked the back of my hand once and looked confused. I just repeatedly did that whenever I saw her grooming 'that spot'.

Now I work full time, so I didn't think this would work - she had far more opportunities for grooming than I was able to thwart. It worked in a couple of days. I was amazed.
posted by communicator at 12:10 AM on August 31, 2014

I just had to go to the vet with my cat for seriously bloody spots from over grooming and allergies. Looks like the little bugger is allergic to either chicken flavored food or my dad's dog. said cats can be allergic to anything humans are, so now he doesn't get to play with dad's dog. We have also switched to grain free food that is fish based (which also stopped the random puking! Yay!).

Per the vet, Chlor-Trimeton is the human allergy med you can give to cats. It's OTC and has a store brand so I got a big bottle at the blue store for $4. I give 1/2 a tablet a day to keep things under control but could go up to twice a day if needed.

The vet did give him a steroid shot at our visit because poor kitty was a hot mess and it cleared everything up quick. She said that wouldn't be needed again unless he couldn't stay healthy on the meds and food far so good!
posted by MultiFaceted at 3:34 AM on August 31, 2014

By the way, chlorpheniramine maleate is the generic name for Chlor-Trimeton. It's an older allergy med so it will either be on the top or bottom shelf in the allergy section (it's not as famous as Allegra or Zyrtec, but still as widely used as benadryl I think).
posted by MultiFaceted at 3:40 AM on August 31, 2014

Some cats are allergic to flea bites, which creates a whole cycle of craziness for them. Make sure your flea meds are up to date -- yes, even if you have an indoor-only cat.

Seems that Advantage and Frontline don't work so well anymore, so ask your vet for Comfortis -- that zapped all our cats' fleas pretty good, and they don't groom themselves bald in spots anymore.
posted by vickyverky at 10:54 AM on August 31, 2014

Thanks all! We're gonna start with the diet changes and onesie and work our way down the list. I'll check back in once we find a solution!
posted by lownote at 11:20 AM on August 31, 2014

Just wanted to add this, which is certainly not a full solution but might help alongside other changes (especially after your cat's skin has healed): this brush, essentially a furminator-style comb, is awesome.

I expected it to cut down on the amount of shedded hair floating around my home, and it definitely did. A surprise side benefit was that my cats now spend WAY less time grooming. One of mine tends to overgroom, and even when she doesn't do actual skin damage, it's sad to see her looking obsessive about it, and this brush immediately changed her behavior (even before I'd done a really thorough job on her) and brought her grooming down to a more reasonable frequency.

Also, for short-term help, there is some OTC human topical painkiller which is safe to use on cats. Starts with a L, I want to say lidocaine but I could totally be wrong. Would be worth a call to the vet. Whatever it is has numbing qualities and also doesn't taste great, so it doubly discourages licking of a sore spot. Using this was the only way to get my overgroomer past one dumb bug bite she made a million times worse.

Good luck!
posted by jessicapierce at 5:28 PM on August 31, 2014

Seconding the allergies to fleas. My recently-departed kitty had never had major problems before, but in the last year or so started grooming bald patches and it was due to flea allergies. I think I had slacked off the Frontline because she mostly stayed indoors, but once she was de-fleaed she was fine. Definitely ask the vet if that could be a possibility.

Another story which was something else completely different going on: my MIL had a cat who was ageing and kept licking holes in himself. Many visits to the vet, steroids, hormones, etc later and the problem was only ever barely managed. Then they got a kitten. Hole-licking went away. He had someone to boss around and instruct in the patrolling of the territory and play with and ignore and generally act as Senior Cat towards. He died a few years later of old age but much happier. So yeah, stress, but sometimes working out the cause of the stress and its solution is less obvious.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:38 PM on August 31, 2014

The area she's licking (tail and lower back, from the pictures) makes me wonder if this could be related to feline hyperesthesia?
posted by augustimagination at 6:50 PM on August 31, 2014

This is a common spot for cats to react to fleas, so definitely deal with that.

I had one cat who was grooming the hair out of his belly; eventually we wound up putting him on prednisone, which did the trick. You're not supposed to put a cat on it long term; we did.
posted by adamrice at 8:36 PM on August 31, 2014

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