The Mind of Your Cat: 07/02

Question: I have a 14-year-old cat. Her appetite is good, she is playful, and her coat is shiny. For the past year, she has been licking her legs and stomach. Even though her bare skin is exposed, she continues to chew. When the licking began, her skin was clear – no rash or redness. My veterinarian prescribed a trial hypoallergenic diet but she would not eat it, so I went back to her premium cat food. Recently, I noticed a sore on her back, though she cannot reach this area. I suffer with her condition. What do you suggest??

Answer: There are many reasons why a cat will lick intensely enough to cause hair loss. Some cats may be given a behavioral diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia – hair loss associated with a psychological condition. However, many cats will have a medical basis for the licking.

Excessive licking is a clinical sign, much like a swollen paw. The question is, what causes and maintains the behavior. Until a thorough medical work-up has been completed, it would be inappropriate to assign a behavioral diagnosis to any cat that grooms herself excessively. Furthermore, since your cat has a visible lesion, some medical intervention is certainly indicated.

Many medical conditions can elicit excessive licking. Even indoor cats may harbor mites or fungal organisms that may lay dormant for years in a healthy host. That is, there may be no clinical signs until the cat experiences another change in health, such as a weakening of her immune function.

Cats may suffer from allergies to things they inhale or ingest. The cleanest of homes harbor dust mites. Some cats are allergic to human dander! We are often led to believe that a premium diet is a hypoallergenic one when in fact a cat may be allergic to a single ingredient in that excellent diet.

Cats can also be irritated by or allergic to chemicals in the environment. Examples include detergents, disinfectants, carpet cleaners, and even kitty litter. Contact with these substances may trigger licking.

Naturally, any systemic infection or organ system dysfunction can affect the skin. In particular, endocrinological conditions such as diabetes mellitus or hyperadrenocorticism may affect the immune system as well as the skin.

The examples mentioned above do not comprise an exhaustive list. Rather, they represent the minimum of conditions that must be considered in order to offer a behavioral diagnosis. It is important that your veterinarian rule out these and other conditions before pursuing a diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia. His plan to initiate a diet trial was a good one. He will probably be able to suggest a different diet if your cat did not like the first one that was offered.

If all of the medical tests are negative, we can begin to pursue a behavioral diagnosis. Grooming likely offers comfort to cats, and some cats may begin to groom excessively following a stress in the environment. Stressors may include the addition or loss of a family member or household pet, a change in the health of a family member or pet, or a change in routine. For instance, some cats begin to lick themselves when a person begins a new job that requires the cats to spend more time home alone.

As you can imagine, the list appears to be endless. Moreover, of course, it is nearly impossible to predict what a given cat will find stressful. Some cats appear to enjoy their days alone, becoming rather crabby when required to spend an entire day with their family.

The important thing is to carefully examine your cats physical and social environment. Look for any changes so that we may assess their impact and perhaps improve your cats tolerance. For instance, if there is a new person in the home, there are ways to improve your cats relationship with that person.

Also, note any recent changes in your cats demeanor. Is she more or less playful? More or less demanding of affection? Frightened of any things or people that she had tolerated in the past? Although these changes may have a medical basis, we can often apply behavior modification techniques to improve your cats response. New styles of play that are more appealing may need to be created. We can usually improve a cats tolerance of being alone, as well as lessen any underlying fear.

What specifically can you do when you discover your cat licking herself? First, avoid giving her attention when she is engaging in this behavior. Otherwise, she may learn to lick herself just for that purpose. You may distract her with a sound, but do not offer her attention for responding.

You may be able to help her relax on cue. This is not always an easy task. However, if you discover a position in which your cat generally appears relaxed, you may encourage her to assume that position. Some cats relax by lying on their sides on a soft surface or even by lying on their backs. In that case, offer a fleece pad. As you notice your cat about to lie down, use a verbal cue such as relax or tummy up. Soon, you may be able to present the mat and your cat may know that it is time to unwind. Then, you may present the mat when your cat engages in a bout of licking, and your cat might be encouraged to lie quietly, thus reducing her stress.

When behavioral and environmental techniques are inadequate, psychogenic medications that work to chemically reduce anxiety may be prescribed. Such drugs should never be prescribed until a very thorough medical work-up has been completed.

Do not despair. You are most certainly faced with a challenging situation. Yet, if you approach the problem systematically, it is very likely that your cat will once again be covered with beautiful fur.