Help! My Cat is Pulling His Own Hair!

Cats groom themselves for comfort, but excessive grooming might mean your cat is stressed.

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Since that time we have moved twice more, and he now pulls hair from his tail, legs and tummy. I have tried different techniques to enable him to feel more comfortable in his environment.

All of the veterinarians who have examined him are unable to offer any advice except for putting him on valium. I would like to avoid medications unless he has a defined medical condition. He absolutely despises pills and becomes very stressed whenever we have to medicate him. If you have any suggestions, I would greatly appreciate hearing back from you. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

A: It sounds like your veterinarian did a good, thorough medical work-up (blood work and skin biopsy) to rule out a medical disorder.  Psychological disturbances are a very common cause of self-inflicted hair loss in cats.  Cats who pull, chew, or excessively groom their fur do this despite the fact that their skin does not itch.  This may be a manifestation of stress or anxiety. 

Were familiar with the stresses that humans face (mortgage payments, traffic jams), but we may not be aware that our seemingly calm cat is actually stressed out about something.  In many instances, the cause is obvious: a move to a new apartment, boarding, a new pet or baby in the household, hierarchical competition in a multi-cat household, etc.

Given the frequent changes in your cats environment (your new spouse joining the household, frequent changes of residence), it sounds like your cat has psychogenic alopecia, i.e. hair loss due to psychological factors. In the past few years, veterinary behaviorists have come to realize that some cats and dogs exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior and excessive grooming can sometimes fall into this category.

Grooming is a comfort behavior, often used by cats to relax themselves. Think about the last time your cat did something foolish or klutzy, such as misjudge a leap or accidentally tumble off the sofa.  We might laugh, but the cat immediately grooms. Whether they feel embarrassment is debatable, but cat lovers recognize this reflexive grooming behavior in their cat whenever uncertainty arises.  It shouldn't be surprising that in the face of stress or anxiety, they may turn to excessive grooming to dispel their anxiety.

Ideally, the treatment for psychogenic alopecia involves the elimination of the potential stressors in the cats environment.  Unfortunately, this is often impossible or impractical, and anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications are warranted to control the problem. Two commonly used drugs are clomipramine and amitriptyline. Some cats with psychogenic alopecia may also respond to chlorpheniramine (an antihistamine) or systemic glucocorticoids.  I know that your cat hates being medicated, and I understand your concern about giving medication to cats unless absolutely necessary.  Frankly, if the problem isn't terribly severe i.e. your cat isn't licking himself to the point where he's causing abrasions on the skin or having terrible hairball or constipation problems from excessive hair ingestion, you may not need to treat him at all.

Arnold Plotnick, DVM

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Reader Comments

Susan    Austin, MN

2/13/2015 6:47:18 AM

I am wondering if the "clothing" has a calming effect on the cat, somewhat similar to the type of garment placed on dogs during thunderstorms to calm their anxiety. The cat may be hypersensitive, like some children on the autism spectrum, and require this method in order to be more relaxed and feel more secure.

kandra    pocatello, ID

12/28/2014 6:14:02 PM

Thank you for this article! I had never thought about the stress of a cat before. My daughter has an approximately 8 month old,nonfixed female kitty.We have had her for about 61/2 months. Over the last month she has licked/pulled out nearly all the fur from her hips down, including her tail all from the midline area. She is black and at a glance one would think she was a skunk and not a cat at all. She wants desperately to be an outside cat which she can't be. I have 2 older cats which she tries to play with them but they want no part of her.As well as 3 large dogs. The youngest boxer is her best friend. She plays with her nearly daily. We honestly believe she thinks she is a dog. When we whistle for the dogs to come inside she comes running to the door out to the porch. There have been no new family members,no new animals or anything of the sort.I am curious if changing the setup of the furniture could cause this? Or maybe adding the Christmas tree to the home? I want to say this started after we put up the tree this year.
We had nicknamed her "devil kitty" because she had been a mean,vindictive furball since we had brought her home. My daughter had wanted "clothes" for Sophie for Christmas this year. So i found a holiday type dress for medium sized dogs and gave it to her Christmas morning. I don't know what it is about this dress but she is such a lover now. She greets me in the morning. Actually sleeps with us vs before she would attack us in our sleep. As well as now purrs quite often which had been heard very rarely before. I'm not one for dressing animals,but she really seems to like it. It also appears that her hair is growing back as well. I also rubbed her down with extra virgin olive oil a couple nights ago and left the dress off for a couple hours. Just in case her skin was dry d/t the weather change. But when the dress is off devil kitty returns...Strangest thing... So I'm hoping these things work, but i will give it another week. If not,off to the vet...Thanks again.

Julie    Naples, FL

8/25/2013 10:42:19 AM

In reference to my comments listed below. The breeder of my cat says this condition, "Stud Tail" is very common in unneutered male cats. The vet says it is uncommon but I would guess most of the male cats she sees are neutered.
The point of all this is with so many articles on cats pulling their fur out most of the articles refer to stress. I bet many times this is a hormonal problem and/or Stud Tail and it is not treated. Stud Tail may also occur in female cats and neutered males although it is less likely.

Julie    Naples, FL

8/23/2013 1:38:48 PM

My nine month old kitten started pulling his hair out and chewing it. His tail is greasy/wax-like in the upper tail area and suddenly clumps of hair were coming out of his tail. Today, I took him to the vet and he has "Stud Tail" which is a hormone imbalance in cats causing a greasy like substance on his tail, possible bacterial infection (which he does have) and exposed skin on his tail. They gave him oil type droplets for his skin near his tail, special shampoo and an antibiotic slow release shot. The vet says it is uncommon and she has had only two cases. So it is not always a behavioral problem although it may appear that way. I wish I had taken him to the vet when he started pulling his hair out a couple of months ago.

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