Over-grooming by cats

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overgrooming by cats
Photography: niserin – 123RF

The increase in a particular health issue affecting cats that vets have reported over the previous year could be as much about the owners as it is about their feline loved ones. By John Burfitt

There’s been almost no end to the number of changes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about to the way we live, with one of the most significant being the number of people who have been forced to work from home.

Among the many side effects of having to set up our office in our house has been the dramatic impact this has had on the lives of our pets, particularly our cats.

Many vets have reported a significant increase in clients arriving at their clinics, distressed by changes in the grooming behaviour of their beloved feline, to the point where large bald patches appear in their cat’s fur.

But in many cases, it seems the solution has more to do with the client’s behaviour at home than that of their cat.

The change in routine—where once kitty had the run of the house all day until the owners returned from work, but now has a home that doubles as a noisy workplace that’s busy throughout the day—has proven too much for some pussy cats. 

Grooming helps rid the coat of dirt and parasites such as fleas, and it has long been recognised as a strategy cats employ to relieve stress. Grooming releases ‘feel-good’ hormones that induce relaxation when a cat is feeling anxious or stressed. It’s estimated cats spend as much as 50 per cent of their awake time indulging in some form of grooming.

It’s when the matter gets out of control and the cat indulges in overgrooming that it’s a signal something is wrong. 

“Treating this effectively as veterinary professionals is about looking into the amount of stress that has been added into the household over the past year,” veterinary nurse Janet Murray, former board member of the Veterinary Nurses Council of Australia, says.

“The human behaviour of intense work phone calls and loud online Zoom sessions that had previously been reserved for the office has been brought into the home on a daily basis—and has caused a major interruption to the cat’s routine. Many have been used to having the home to themselves for eight to 10 hours a day, so it’s no surprise that cats are psychogenically overgrooming. It might be their only way they can think of to cope.”

Beyond stress and anxiety, overgrooming in cats can be caused by a number of other issues such as orodental, abdominal and musculoskeletal pain or dermatitis, confirms Dr Matthew Muir, the director of Sydney’s All Natural Vet Care practice.

I have seen that behavioural problems have intensified across our clinic, which may be due to transference anxiety from pet guardians who are under distress or not coping with their own lack of sleep or a lack of routine.

Dr Matthew Muir, director, All Natural Vet Care 

“But I have seen that behavioural problems have intensified across our clinic, which may be due to transference anxiety from pet guardians who are under distress or not coping with their own lack of sleep or a lack of routine,” he says. “There has been some increase in overgrooming as a coping mechanism.”

This has, in many cases, resulted in the vet taking on a form of counselling role with the client to discover what is going on within the home to cause this kind of reaction in the cat, says Janet Murray.

“This is about how we treat the person as much as how we treat their animal. It can be as simple as asking about how things have changed around the home and how they are coping with it. This is when we as veterinary professionals really need to give clients the time during the consultation to explain and talk about these things, which just might help them identify the problem as well and relieve some of their stress. It might well lead to a better outcome for their cat as well.”

Dr Manuela Trueby of the Balmain Village Veterinary Clinic is Sydney’s only registered homeopathic vet. She agrees it’s crucial to allow time for pet owners to talk through any issues that have emerged within the home.

“Of course, you have to first rule out any underlying medical conditions with the cat, but from what I’ve seen in many cases in recent times, this increase in overgrooming is about the owners being more at home and a cat’s stress response to that,” Dr Trueby says.

“Cats are creatures that pick up on energy and will go into a similar state as the owner, and we have all been stressed through these COVID times. So it’s important to ask your client about factors like an increase in noise, sound, distractions and stress-inducing behaviours in the home which has led to the cat reacting this way. Then work through some of the solutions that might help both the client and the cat.”

Catnip remains an enduring treatment that suits many cats, as well as the Feliway pheromone air diffuser which is said to offer a scent that gives the cat a sense of security within the home.

Dr Matthew Muir says attention also needs to be paid to the cat’s diet. “We routinely employ moist diets high in meat and omega-3 fat, low in simple carbohydrates and enriched with phytonutrients and prebiotic fibres to the majority of our feline patients,” he says.

Among the treatments Dr Trueby regularly prescribes for cats to better deal with stress and help strengthen their emotions include homeopathic and Bach flower remedy drops that are added to the cat’s water, as well as courses of vitamin B injections. 

She also recommends natural products such as Bach flower rescue remedy. The milk protein-based Zylkene and Blackmore’s topical treatment Dermoscent are also effective. In acute cases, she says there is a good range of antibiotics and steroids to also call on.

“There are a number of fine treatments available. We need to listen to what’s going on at home as each case is very different,” she adds. “We can’t ever forget each family pet has their own emotional life and it’s a matter of understanding that.”

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