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Cats have a reputation for being precise self-groomers who can sometimes go overboard with their fastidious preening. It’s not uncommon for cat owners, alarmed to find a bald spot near a kitty’s belly or armpit, to ask their veterinarian for advice about handling excessive grooming.
Contrary to popular opinion, licking off entire patches of fur isn’t typically related to a behavioral problem in felines, says board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Sueda, DVM, of the VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. In fact, it’s usually a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as parasites or a food allergy.
Significant hair loss in one spot may indicate an external parasite — mites, ticks or fleas, in particular — or a fungal infection, such as ringworm. Once skin scrapes or blood samples are tested, a veterinarian can usually confirm the cause and treat the diagnosed condition with the right medication.
If it's a diagnosed food allergy that's causing the excessive grooming, the problem can be addressed with dietary adjustments, such as a veterinarian-prescribed hypoallergenic diet.
In some cases, a cat may also be trying to get at a source of pain caused by an internal problem, including kidney stones.
If a veterinarian rules out a medical problem, the next step is to look for new environmental stressors, such as a new pet, baby or boyfriend. “Cat overgrooming is similar to people playing with their hair,” says Dr. Sueda. "You do it more when you’re nervous."
Behavior modification and training can help reduce a cat’s stress levels. In the case of a new animal in the home, owners can give the overly stressed cat extra attention or private space away from the newcomer.
Regardless of the cause, hair loss and overgrooming are usually clues that something’s wrong, so consult with your vet sooner rather than later.
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