Why cats overgroom (and what to do to stop it)

What is overgrooming?

Cat overgrooming is when your feline begins excessively cleaning themselves to the point it causes inflammation of the skin. 

Overgrooming in cats is not life-threatening, but symptoms can lead to long-term discomfort and pain. 

The majority of felines are highly accomplished groomers. This practice of self-cleaning, where dust, dead skin, dirt and loose hairs are removed from the body, is as natural to them as showers are to us. 

Excessive grooming in cats isn’t natural though, and can occur for a number of reasons. 

Compulsive licking is a way of making themselves feel better during stressful situations or when they are feeling anxious.

This could be down to a change in their daily routine or the home environment. Some felines don’t respond well to the arrival of a new pet, or a baby, for instance. Others struggle with loud noises. Do they have proper access to water, food and litter trays? Do they have a comfortable place to sleep?

Some cats may start repeatedly licking themselves simply because they are bored. 

Once you have ruled out any potential behavioural issues, you will need to start considering medical causes. 

Skin allergies and infections are two common culprits.

It may be that your cat is experiencing pain or discomfort in a particular area, and they are grooming themselves there in an attempt to soothe the irritation. This will only intensify the pain.

Addressing the cause as quickly as possible is key to managing excessive grooming. If you think it may be a medical condition, consult with a vet. 

How to stop your cat from overgrooming

  • Create a regular daily routine for your cat. Pets love routine. Even the slightest change in their everyday regime can cause upset and distress. This can be as subtle as altering the time you feed or play with them, or even arriving home from work at a late hour. A dedicated daily framework can lead to a decrease in stress and anxiety, which in turn should help keep excessive grooming at bay. Their routine will tend to develop around your own routine, so as long as you have structure in your day, they will too. We know this isn’t always possible, but as long as you try your best to provide stability and consistency for your felines, they should remain stress-free.
  • Provide play and stimulation. Play sessions are a fantastic way to keep your cat fit and healthy. Not to mention they’re fun for everyone involved. Incorporating regular playtimes into your feline’s daily routine should help keep stress levels low. On top of that, it will also alleviate boredom, a known cause of overgrooming in some cats. Schedule these sessions around the times your cat is up and about. Two sessions a day, at 15 minutes each is a good place to start. Try using interactive games and toys to increase stimulation as well.
  • Take your time. A cat who has become hooked on self-cleaning can take time to adjust their behaviour. Be patient with them. Never under any circumstances, shout or lose your temper with a feline for excessive grooming. Remember, the overgrooming may be directly linked to stress they are experiencing. Losing your patience with them will only cause more anxiety. There may be a temptation to comfort them while they are struggling with excessive grooming as well.  Again, this can cause further stress, only exacerbating the issue. It can also take time for a cat’s hair to grow back in affected areas, so don’t be too concerned if the patches remain for a while.
  • Ensure your cat has a safe space. It’s completely natural to want to spend time alone when something is bothering us. Our cats are the same. Provide your feline with a safe space where they can hide and relax when things get a little too stressful. A separate room with a closed door is ideal, but anywhere quiet in the house should suffice. Placing climbing perches and scratching posts around your home is another well used tactic for combating excessive grooming. The more distractions a feline has in its life, the less likely they are to overgroom.
  • Look for an underlying medical condition. There are a wide range of medical reasons that could be behind your cat’s sudden urge to repeatedly lick themselves. Fleas, parasites and allergies can all cause an itching sensation that our felines find impossible to ignore. And once an area of skin is red raw, they will continue licking the same spot in the hope of easing the pain. Hyperthyroidism, where overactive thyroid glands result in a rise in the production of hormones, is another common cause of overgrooming in cats. If you think your cat is suffering from an underlying medical condition, contact your vet for the best advice. 

Does diet play a role?

Diet can be directly linked to overgrooming in cats, in the form of food allergies. 

This occurs when a reaction to a certain ingredient triggers skin flare-ups that leave our felines desperately grooming and scratching in search of relief. 

With so many potential allergens around, it can be difficult to pinpoint the offending food type when these reactions happen.

Food elimination trials are a common method employed by pet parents to find the irritable element, and involve stripping back a pet’s diet before slowly reintroducing ingredients. 

What we feed our cats can also indirectly play a role in excessive grooming. 

A poor diet – lacking in protein, healthy fats and a range of vitamins and minerals – can lead to a myriad of health problems that over time may result in compulsive behaviour from your feline. 

Poorly cats are far more likely to suffer from stress and anxiety, two known causes of overgrooming, while nutritional deficiency can also result in skin irritation. 

We can’t empathise enough just how big of an impact wholesome, high-quality mealtimes can have on a cat’s health and wellbeing.

If you’re feeding your cat a complete and well-balanced diet, and are confident they are not experiencing stress or boredom, persistent overgrooming should be treated by a vet. 

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