Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats
Alopecia, or hair loss, can result when cats over-groom and remove fur. Over-grooming can take the form of excessive licking, or the pulling out of tufts of hair. The diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia as a compulsive disorder is reserved for those cases in which no underlying medical problem is evident.
Most cats with alopecia have an underlying skin disorder, such as fleas, flea bite hypersensitivity, inhalant allergies, food allergies, parasites, infections, or dysfunction of the internal organs or endocrine system. A steroid trial and an eight week or longer food trial (with a novel antigen or hydrolyzed protein diet) may often be recommended before considering the diagnosis to be purely behavioral. Cats normally are fastidious groomers and as much as 30 – 50 percent of the time that they are awake is spent performing some type of grooming behavior.
As with other compulsive disorders, feline psychogenic alopecia may begin as a displacement behavior arising from situations of conflict, frustration, or anxiety, but might in time become compulsive.
Increasing interactive play (chase toys, training) and increasing environmental stimulation (play centers, chew toys, food or catnip packed toys, kitty videos) should be added to help calm, settle, and occupy the cat. In order to keep toys novel and enticing, they should be varied from day to day and removed when the cat is finished with play. Food- and treat-filled toys, and those that can be batted or chased, seem to be the most enticing. In addition, cardboard boxes, paper bags, and new climbing and perching areas can help to increase stimulation when the owner is not available to interact.
The owner can provide social play with toys that can be batted or chased, as well as some basic food reward training exercises to keep the cat occupied and focused.
By adding more regular sessions of social and object play, the cat should be more relaxed and less likely to chew or over-groom between sessions. Attention should never be given to the cat while the behavior is being exhibited. In fact, inattention or some form of remote punishment device may be the best way to ensure that no rewards are given. Remote devices such as a water rifle, a can of compressed air, or an ultrasonic or audible alarm, may serve to interrupt or deter the undesirable behavior without causing fear of the owner. As soon as the undesirable behavior ceases, the owner should immediately engage the cat in an alternative acceptable behavior (e.g., play, chew toys).
The owner should also try to identify environmental or social changes that may be contributing to anxiety and behavior. If a source of stress or conflict can be identified (as in relationships with owners or other cats) then a specific program to resolve these problems may need to be implemented. Conflict and anxiety induced over-grooming might also be treated concurrently with antihistamines or anxiolytic drugs. For compulsive disorders, serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as clomipramine or fluoxetine will likely be required.
In multi-cat homes, allowing the cat some quiet time away from the other cats may be needed if conflicts between the cats cannot be managed and are contributory. It is also useful to keep a written record of the location and size of the lesions, the amount of hair loss, and the amount of time spent engaging in over-grooming. As treatment progresses, compare recent records to the earlier ones to assess treatment success.