Orange cat licking their paw

Key takeaway

Cats who overgroom may be struggling with a medical or behavioral issue. Common reasons for overgrooming in cats include allergies, dermatitis, anxiety, and infections. Treatment methods can include medication and e-collars.

It can be tricky to tell the difference between a cat's everyday grooming habits and an overgrooming cat. However, aggressive or overgrooming can be a sign of a behavioral issue or an underlying health condition, such as allergies or dermatitis. While grooming is a natural habit and cleaning practice for cats, some cats spend too much time grooming to the point it impacts their health and life. Keeping a close eye on your cat’s daily routine and behavior will help you pick out any health risks early on and get your cat the necessary treatment. 

If you notice that your cat is distracted or relinquishes daily functions, such as playing, eating, sleeping, or interacting with people or other pets, because they are grooming so often, this can be a sign of a behavioral problem or medical condition. In the rest of this article, we'll dive into some of the signs of overgrooming, how it differs from regular grooming habits, and what you can do to alleviate the cause of your cat’s aggressive grooming.

What Qualifies As Overgrooming in Cats?

Cats who overgroom generally spend between 30 and 50 percent of their day grooming1, thus interrupting normal daily activities. Cats who tend to overgroom themselves are usually experiencing an underlying condition. When cats overgroom themselves because of behavioral issues, it’s known as psychogenic alopecia. This form of overgrooming is generally caused by stress or anxiety. Certain skin conditions will cause your cat to feel itchy and lick their skin and fur. It's also very common for cats to bite, lick, and overgroom because of an allergic reaction. 

Cats may also aggressively groom other cats or kittens since it’s a form of tactile communication between felines.2 This is known as allogrooming, which occurs when two cats groom each other. In some cases, cats will groom felines as a way to redirect hostility and prevent a fight from escalating. Moreover, cats may groom as a sign of dominance. 

While grooming is a natural practice that is healthy for cats, it’s important for owners to pay attention to their cat’s skin and watch out for hot spots or lesions caused by overgrooming. It's essential to get your cat veterinary treatment if you notice they’re overgrooming or you find bald spots or missing fur. 

Your vet will most likely perform examinations and tests first to rule out serious health conditions or allergies. If there isn’t something physically causing your cat’s aggressive grooming, it can signify psychogenic alopecia.

Medical Causes for Aggressive Grooming in Cats

There are a variety of reasons that can cause your cat to groom themselves excessively, such as ringworm, fungal infections, skin mites, and other skin-related health conditions. Some cats also overgroom themselves or lick a certain area repeatedly if they are in pain or experience hormonal issues. If you find your cat focusing on a particular part of their body, this can mean they are experiencing discomfort there. Examples of this include an infection or arthritis.

Here are some other potential causes for your cat's itchy skin:

Allergies that cause overgrooming

  • Food—Think about recent changes in your cat’s diet and note these for your vet.
  • Fleas—Fleas are common in cats and can usually be removed easily with a flea bath.
  • Environmental allergens—Your vet will probably perform allergy tests to check for allergen antibodies and prescribe a steroid or antihistamine.

Infections that cause overgrooming

  • Ringworm
  • Bacterial infections

Behavioral Causes for Aggressive Grooming in Cats

Behavioral overgrooming is known as psychogenic alopecia. This form of overgrooming can also lead to other health consequences, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).2 Without the proper treatment, cats can exhibit certain anxious behaviors that interfere with their daily activities since their overgrooming takes up a large portion of their day. 

Although psychogenic alopecia can occur, it’s less common than some of the other causes of your cat’s itchy skin. It's also important to note that in cats experiencing behavioral issues caused by stress or anxiety, reprimanding the cat for grooming can increase their stress. 

There are a few different ways owners and veterinarians can address psychogenic alopecia. In many cases, the first step involves identifying and removing any potential stressors. This can usually be done by noting any recent changes in a cat's environment or routine. 

What Are the Consequences of Overgrooming in Cats?

It's important to stop your cat from overgrooming early to prevent other health conditions from developing since it’s not uncommon for skin-related issues to occur if your cat continues to groom without breaks. Overgrooming itself can cause other problems for your cat. For example, excessive grooming due to allergies and fleas can drive your cat to overgroom to the point of plucking or licking fur away and creating bald spots.

Close up of bald spot on the fur of a cat

Additional potential health complications caused by overgrooming include:

  • Hot spots
  • Bacterial infections
  • Hair loss

Your cat can also exhibit behavioral symptoms, impacting their diet, urination habits, or sleep routine. If your cat's particular case is severe, this can cause your cat to experience unhealthy weight loss or endure the repercussions from lack of sleep. Cats can also develop health issues from their inability to urinate. Furthermore, some cats who spend a lot of their time grooming will stop performing daily activities regularly.

Treatment Options for Aggressive Grooming

The primary goal of treatment is generally to stop your cat’s skin from feeling itchy, so your vet may perform allergy tests and request lab work to identify the root of the problem or rule out any underlying conditions, such as thyroid-related conditions or other health problems. If your cat is itchy because of an allergen, your vet can prescribe an antihistamine to soothe your cat’s itchy skin

Your vet may also prescribe antibiotics if your cat is experiencing secondary health issues, like sores or cuts. Cat dehydration may also occur if your cat has a fever while on antibiotics, so your vet will balance your cat’s symptoms with the treatment options.

Other treatments include:

  • Elizabethan collar
  • Allergy medication
  • Flea and tick medication
  • Anxiety medication

Aggressive Grooming in Cats: Frequently Asked Questions

Why is my cat aggressively grooming?

Your cat will generally overgroom themselves if their skin feels itchy or if they are experiencing anxiety or stress. There are many reasons for your cat’s itchy skin, such as allergies, ringworm, and other more serious health conditions. While it can be challenging to identify the exact reason for your cat's aggressive grooming, there are ways your veterinarian can help you diagnose the issue through testing and the process of elimination in your cat's environment.

How do I know if my cat is overgrooming?

Typically, the rule of thumb when you're trying to discern whether your cat is overgrooming or performing their natural cleaning practices is if your cat is spending 1/3 to half its time grooming. Your cat's excessive grooming may also get in the way of its regular routine, thus interrupting eating, urinating, playing, or sleeping habits.  

Cat licking their paw pad

If you notice your cat’s aggressively grooming, one thing you can do immediately is check their skin for any patches of missing fur, redness, or lesions caused by the overgrooming. Your cat will usually cough up hairballs because of regular grooming, but if your cat keeps throwing up, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Final Notes

Paying close attention to our cat's everyday routine and habits can help prevent them from suffering needlessly with itchy skin and the need to overgroom. Overgrooming is generally a sign of a medical issue or a behavioral issue. While overgrooming can be a symptom of serious health problems, it can also be as simple as mild allergies. There are a variety of causes of itchy skin for your cat, including fleas, ringworm, fungal infections, stress, and other environmental factors. Your vet will most likely provide the diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia when other underlying medical issues have been ruled out.

There are many treatment options and ways to diagnose the cause of your cat's overgrooming. Together you and your vet can think about environmental changes or new stressors since stress and anxiety might also compel your cat to overgroom. Dutch is available 24/7 to help you find the right treatment plan for your pet's particular case, so your cat can enjoy life itch and stress-free.

References

  1. “Cats That Lick Too Much.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 22 Nov. 2019, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cats-lick-too-much. 

  2. “Cat Communication.” International Cat Care, 6 Oct. 2019, https://icatcare.org/advice/cat-communication/

  3. Maciorakowski, Lisa. “Overgrooming Cats.” MSPCA, 14 Sept. 2017, https://www.mspca.org/angell_services/overgrooming-cats/