Why'd my cat decide to eat all of his hair?
March 2, 2006 9:14 PM   Subscribe

My cat appears to have some mystery allergy, or allergies, since he is nearly hairless from his shoulders down. Anyone have a suggestion for a cause? I've tried a number of things...

...so, when I moved into my apartment about 18 months ago, my cat started losing his hair. He seems to carefully bite his hair down to skin level while I'm not looking, since the hair is kind of jagged-feeling. This whole thing started at his hind quarters and spread across his belly and now to his back. It's a little scary looking and must be causing him some discomfort.

He's had a flea reaction in the past so he's currently on revolution (I've also tried frontline and advantage just in case)... but this new place has hardwoods...anyways, after visiting a pet dermatologist, he's on a soy diet, but that doesn't seem to be improving things. I've tried to reduce the amount of scented materials in the house, I've switched cat litters a bunch (using compressed saw-dust currently), and I've even tried feeding him children's benadryl (cut in half).

It's really expensive to get a full set of allergy tests ($500!) so any random suggestions as to its cause or a possible solution would really be appreciated.
posted by lester the unlikely to Pets & Animals (19 answers total)
My parents' old cat used to have this. She was basically half bald (her butt and hind legs) when they got her. I forgot what it was and how they cured it, but I can check with them this weekend, if you don't mind waiting a few days for an answer.
posted by easternblot at 9:28 PM on March 2, 2006

Could it be regular old mange? I'd be extremely wary of a "pet dermatologist" that prescribed a soy diet for cat. Cat = carnivore. Soy? Does not compute.
posted by frogan at 9:37 PM on March 2, 2006

It is very likely it's stress associated with the move that is making him over groom the hair- licking it a lot weakens the shaft and causes it to fall out. Does he do this? Very fat cats are also prone to this as they can't groom all over so they continually groom the bits they can reach (belly, flanks) and the hair falls out. Or it could be an adrenal (thyroid) problem which causes them to lose hair starting at the butt. If your vet hasn't already thought of these and ruled them out before telling you to do a $500 allergy test? I'd get a new vet.
posted by fshgrl at 9:39 PM on March 2, 2006

My cat has lost the hair around his neck. His was due to scratching and, for about 4-5 years, he wore a cone to stop his back legs from being able to reach the neck. Whenever we'd remove the cone, he'd go right back to it. Now, most of his hairloss is due to the constant open wounds that he gave himself, but, I'm sure, if he'd been able to bite the hair off to get to his skin, he'd have done that instead. He's been to several vets and there's a mix of opinions ranging from anxiety to allergy. He has much more dander than I've ever noticed on a cat and his general work up shows a high number of allergens (or whatever), however his problems are always worse or relieved when there's some major change in stress. For example, he's always cut himself drastically while we are preparing for a move and shortly after the move. He also stopped cutting himself after my ex-husband moved out, prior to that, there was stress in the house that he may have picked up on. Considering that your cat's problems started with the move, it might be compounding the issue?

They make anxiety drugs for cats and I did consider putting him on them, but it was rather cost prohibitive as I was a poor grad student. So, I worked on environment first and that's helped a ton. I reduce the number of changes or go about them very gradually. If I change his diet, I'll put two seperate bowls of food out and slowly start giving him less of the old stuff. I make sure his litter is clean and his toys aren't all under the refrigerator, etc. He sleeps on my bed and so when I got new bedding, I kept the old duvet cover on the ground next to the bed. Things like that.

To work with the possible allergies, he's on a pretty regular diet of Venison & Green Pea cat food. I'm not entirely sure that it's helping as he still has massive dander, but I put a few drops of oil on his food and that seems to help with that. He's stopped cutting himself and I haven't had any allergy tests done to know if his counts are better.

So, my random suggestion would be to try to limit or ease the changes in the cat's world in order to reduce the anxiety. And, if the soy diet isn't working, try the Venison & Green Pea formula.

I've always liked cats, though never considered myself a huge pet person. It's amazing what a crazy little animal will bring out in you. Good luck to you & your cat.
posted by imbri at 9:54 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: couple things: the vet ruled out stress, although fshgrl's reasoning seems sound, and I have seen a lot of licking...the soy diet is not pure soy either--it has selective chicken proteins that are shorter and easier to break down in it. Supposedly this makes it less likely to cause a reaction while making it palpatable. And he seems to like it. oh yeah, and I look forward to your parent's solution easternblot...
posted by lester the unlikely at 9:59 PM on March 2, 2006

I'd love to know how the vet ruled out stress. Did he have a chat with the cat? Seriously, I just don't see how he could rule it out completely.

It might be a mix of anxiety and allergies. If it's allergies, something like predinisone might help. If it's anxiety, buspar is supposed to work well for cats. I second the suggestion to try another vet. Do you have a referral clinic in you area? Referral clinics are vet specialists who don't provide do routine treatment but only take referral cases from other vets.

Good luck. It's hard to watch them be miserable.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 10:25 PM on March 2, 2006

This is a good link on stress vs hormonal hair loss in cats. Worth a read.
posted by fshgrl at 10:48 PM on March 2, 2006

My cat has either undiagnosed allergies or massive unexplainable stress that presented at about the age of 4. The seasonal nature (once every 11-12 months) of it leads my vet to lean toward allergies. Cats can also develop allergies to an array of household substances, some of which can't be easily removed from the environment. We went through litter and food alternatives without any success.

Whenever he starts displaying symptoms, which is usually licking his shoulder raw in a quarter-sized area, we take him to the vet to get a $35 cortisone shot. Now, you can (many do) argue the long-term effects of steroids on cats, but the few vets I've discussed it with have said there should be neglible harm at the current rate he's being injected. Each time he gets the shot the symptoms disappear within hours. He's 8 years old now and in apparently excellent health.
posted by empyrean at 10:50 PM on March 2, 2006

Best answer: Allergies are not always the first port of diagnostic call when considering what causes a cat to over groom. A good cat vet will start with a blood test to exclude an internal cause such as hormone imbalance. There is no way a vet can exclude 'stress' without the involvement of a qualified animal behaviourist to study the cat in it's own environment, usually over a period of time where they will look at your behaviour, the environment and the cat's behaviour.

My suggestion is this - the key being that your cat is over grooming when you don't see him doing it. Your cat may have been unsettled by the move to your new apartment. A new environment will not smell familiar and can cause the cat to become anxious. A change in your own routine may have caused him to become anxious too. Cats frequently over groom to express anxiety. A constant stress-over grooming cycle can lead to a controversial condition called 'hyperaesthesia', where the cat really gnaws at hair and skin to relieve eternal irritaion and the skin becomes hyper-sensitive. Even without the development of hyperaesthesia, over grooming, once established can be a very difficult behaviour to change.

I would start with some enviromental basics to ensure your cat can be as relaxed as possible. Don't wash his bedding too often, ensure he has plenty of stimulation in his environment, plenty of play time with you. Get hold of a product called 'Feliway'. (despite the UK link it is available in the US). This is a synthesised, generic facial pheromone, the pheromone that a cat leaves behind when they rub their face over furniture, door ways and you. The product comes in a plug in diffuser form and also spray form, you spray it at cat head height on all the places he rubs his face in your home. This smell makes him feel more secure by making his home smell more of him.

Try and ensure that your home has some humidity too. A damp towel over a radiator will help this, dry air can make skin dry and itchy. Food wise, I'd suggest a good organic complete cat food, such as James Wellbeloved. Some very gentle grooming with a soft baby brush may help too, as long as the skin is unbroken. It will also help your psychological bond with the cat.

I have a cat who over-groomed extensively after another cat had to be euthanased after a long illness. My vet and I tried everything including all of the above and allergy testing and eventually we turned to a qualified homeopathic vet, who after a long consultation in our home came up with a mixture of remedies which eventually calmed the cat until she stopped ripping her coat to shreds.

If the Benadryl is having no effect, stop using it.

One more thing, if your cat is an indoor/outdoor cat, make sure he's regularly wormed. Some worm infestations can cause skin itching.

Good luck :)
posted by Arqa at 2:37 AM on March 3, 2006

I would try a new vet, frankly. I would personally rather see a cat with suspected allergies put on an elimination diet before going straight to something like soy. If diet is ruled out as a cause, the cat is an indoor cat, and you have eliminated all obvious things like scented candles, scented laundry detergent, etc., and you've put some effort into treating this as a stress/behavioural issue, then I would go for the full-on allergy testing, I'm afraid. But I would first seek out a vet who specializes in cats and see what they have to say.
posted by biscotti at 4:09 AM on March 3, 2006

Feliway, I think, is a great suggestion. Also, I would look into the steroids because by now, he's probably causing/aggravating an inflammation with his skin. A course of prednisone or cortisone would eliminate any inflammation, which in conjunction with the environmental changes, would probably make a difference.

Oh, and plastic. Get the cat a stainless steel or ceramic bowl to eat and drink out of. Some cats apparently become allergic to plastic.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:24 AM on March 3, 2006

I adopted a cat from the pound that turned out to have a few "issues". The poor baby threw up a lot, and when he did, he'd run frantically with his ears pinned back. I think his old owners used to hit him when he threw up. He also had hair loss and some rectal bleeding.

Anyway, through trial and error, we discovered Iams Select Bites, sold in small foil pouches. This food seems to have calmed his digestive issues, and also his hair loss. I think he was just feeling bad on his old diets and the stress of being abused when he had a digestive reaction just caused more problems. He's a much happier cat now. Try some different foods, try the Iams and see if it helps. Good luck!
posted by 45moore45 at 6:15 PM on March 4, 2006

SSRIs (e.g. Prozac) are used to treat both depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Overgrooming in some cases may be obsessive-compulsive. There is lots of info on giving Prozac to cats and dogs.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:40 PM on March 4, 2006

I asked my parents: the cat was on meds to treat the baldness when they got her from the pound, and they don't remember the name (of the meds). She got better, but a year later she lost hair again. They went to their own vet (not the one who originally wrote out the prescription when the cat was still in the pound) and he immediately knew what pills the cat would have been on before. (So it would have been something common) Initially they were thinking it could have been hormonal, because she had been fixed around the time of the first hair loss, but then it did come back once (and only once) a year later, so it might have been something else.

Not much help. Sorry, nobody remembered what the cat was on 8 years ago.
posted by easternblot at 8:16 AM on March 5, 2006

Our cat Sid has the same problem. The vet's diagnosis, after several tests, changes of food, and rounds of steroids, which work but are expensive and not good for kitty, was "psychogenic alopecia", which roughly translates to "he chews his hair off and we don't know why".

He doesn't seem uncomfortable or in any distress, so we've decided he just likes having racing stripes.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:10 PM on March 5, 2006

Over the last moth or so, we've been progressively adopting our neighbour's small dog (poodle-Jack Russell cross) and for a couple of weeks there our cat had a bald belly. I caught her at the biting-hair-off thing once. She's getting over it now though, as she and the dog renegotiate their relationship, and the belly fuzz is growing back in.
posted by flabdablet at 5:46 PM on March 8, 2006

A lot of people (and cats) love Feliway (recommended above), but it completely freaked my cat out. She wouldn't enter a room for hours after I sprayed it. I have no idea why, and she is a pretty nervous cat in general, but I'd test a little bit of it first, if you use it.
posted by digitalis at 9:29 PM on March 12, 2006

My cat has had the same problem in the past. If you look up barbering you can probably find some vet resources online. My cat was licking her belly to the point of making it completely bald with some raw patches. She is better now but she still does it to some extent as the hair there is still shorter. We never did single out a cause for it getting so bad. The treatment we got was new food - duck and pea. The reason for the new food and probably the soy suggestion is that if it's a protein that your cat was not previously exposed to they won't be allergic to it. She was also given a steroid spray to calm the inflammation and a cone head so that she couldn't lick it. The vet explained that if the inflamed areas get a chance to heal it may reduce the barbering - like not scratching at mosquito bites. After two weeks of this the raw patches healed and her barbering decreased. She is back on regular food and is doing fine. I don't know if stress triggered this reaction or an allergy. Good luck with your cat.
posted by mothbeast at 2:03 PM on March 16, 2006

Response by poster: My cat's doing much better now. I'm not sure if it's the food or the feliway, but either way much thanks to all your suggestions.
posted by lester the unlikely at 10:57 PM on April 2, 2006

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