Your Cat’s Fur as a Health Barometer

Aging and illness can impact your cat’s grooming habits. Here’s what to look for — and how you can help her.

One of your favorite things about your cat is her sleek, shining fur. Lately, though, it seems like your cat has been having a bad fur day — maybe even several. Her fur looks rather unkempt. When you think about it, she hasn’t seemed very interested in grooming herself over the past couple of weeks. What’s going on?


A decline in grooming, or a change in your cat’s fur, are some of the subtle signs that may indicate your cat is ill. In fact, you can view your cat’s fur as a barometer of her overall health and well-being. If you do notice a change, report it to your veterinarian so that you can take steps to start any necessary treatment quickly.

When Fur Changes Indicate Illness. One of the most common fur changes in cats is the loss of hair. You might notice clumps of fur coming out when you pet her, or her fur might just start to look patchy and scraggly. Causes for hair loss — called alopecia — include skin parasites (fleas and mites) and internal parasites (tapeworms or roundworms). These culprits indirectly rob your cat’s body of nutrients.

Bacterial, viral and fungal infections can also cause skin eruptions. Anything that irritates your cat’s skin may be the culprit for thinning fur. Other medical reasons for hair loss include an overactive thyroid or other hormonal gland abnormalities. Cats can also suffer from allergies — just as humans do — to proteins from grasses, molds, pollens, dust mites, medications and even familiar foods.

Often, allergens are accompanied by itching (pruritus) and then licking or scratching, which leads to skin crusts or scabs and fur loss. The continued cycle of itching and scratching is both uncomfortable and unhealthy. Occasionally, people will notice streaks of reddish tinges developing in their non-reddish cats’ fur. While some experts think this could be a sign of a serious protein deficiency, there are other conditions that may cause this color change. Red streaks may also be a sign of fleas (as flea feces are digested blood).


But a less obvious skin problem can also do this. For some cats, skin irritation leads to repeated fur licking. The saliva — which contains proteins called porphyrins — stains the fur, making the hair develop a reddish/orange tinge.

Too Much Grooming. One thing that drives human companions crazy is a cat’s excessive licking (or chewing, sucking or rubbing) of the same place over and over. These behaviors often cause fur loss, skin irritation and even ulcers and thick scabs that won’t heal until the behavior stops. How does excessive grooming start? There are several ways. For example, some cats may continuously lick their abdomens when they have cystitis or other causes of abdominal pain. When the bladder condition is resolved, the licking usually stops.

Other medical conditions include irritation from fleas, mites and ringworm (see page 4), any of which will cause a cat to lick or bite at the itchy, inflamed area. Anxiety may also lead to excessive grooming. It’s equivalent to the human habit of nail biting. Called psychogenic licking, this emotional/behavioral condition may be triggered by separation anxiety, the addition of a new pet or family member to the household, a lack of attention — and even just plain boredom. The main thing to remember is that excessive grooming may persist long after the initial cause is gone.

Too Little Grooming. Grooming is a big part of your cat’s daily regimen (besides eating and sleeping 16 hours a day). It’s time to be concerned when your cat stops grooming herself. Failure to groom usually goes hand-in-hand with other signs of illness, such as not eating, hiding and appearing lethargic. Sometimes overweight cats cannot move flexibly enough to groom all parts of their bodies. The result is usually snarled fur and dandruff. Besides losing weight, such cats may need extra help in keeping their skin and fur in good condition.

Longhaired cats may also have trouble grooming themselves. Their long fur prevents them from thoroughly getting through the inevitable tangles, resulting in tough mats that you can only get rid of with the help of a brush and comb, or even a clipper.

Treatment for Fur Problems. At any sign of grooming problems or fur changes, have a veterinarian examine your cat for illness or abnormalities. A complete physical exam and history, along with some simple tests, will often help identify an underlying medical problem if it exists. After health concerns have been eliminated, your veterinarian can address the possible stress and behavioral aspects that may be playing a role in hair loss or the licking/ chewing/gnawing behavior.

Treatment for excessive grooming problems due to stress may involve anti-anxiety medication or a referral to an animal behaviorist who can help your cat change his habits and get back his crowning glory of beautiful fur.