Once a week or so, I’ll answer readers' behavior questions. Since I won’t always have all the necessary information, I’ll keep responses general to help as many readers as possible. Charlotte asks about her cat's over-grooming:
Ask Amy: Help! My Cat is Pulling out his Hair
“One of my cats pulls his hair, from the tail to the middle of the back. He has been doing this for the past two years that we have had him. Each time we go to the vet they say there is nothing wrong with the skin and that it is OCD. The hair in this area feels dry. We have gone through the process of determining if he is allergic to the food and no matter what food he eats he still pulls hair. Any suggestions?”
The OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) of self-barbering behavior in cats is called psychogenic alopecia. Veterinarians diagnose the condition by ruling out other causes, such as:
Food allergies typically prompt facial itching. These cats can rub off the fur or develop sores around their mouth from the allergy (usually to a protein). Flea allergy also can cause hair loss along with a sand-paper-scabby feel to the skin (miliary dermatitis). Airborne allergens that cause hay fever symptoms in people cause all-over itching in cats.
Sometimes cats that hurt will lick-lick-lick those areas to relieve the pain, in the same way people massage a sore muscle. Depending on the age of your cat, there may be arthritis involved. Up to 75 percent of cats develop arthritis, but it’s rarely visible by X-ray. If the pulled out fur is over the top of a painful joint (perhaps arthritic hips) that might prompt the behavior.
Cats love routine, so anything that disrupts the status quo could prompt a bout of self-grooming. You'll often see upset cats grooming simply to calm themselves down, a behavior called "displacement grooming." You mention he’s “one” of your cats, so I assume you have others. The more cats in a home, the greater becomes the potential for stress.
Suggestions and Solutions for Compulsive Hair Pulling
There are drug therapies designed to help relieve the anxiety that prompts psychogenic alopecia. These work better in some cats than others, and it takes time for them to take effect. If one doesn't help, there are others to try.
A rare disorder called hyperesthesia syndrome also can cause cats to pull hair or even attack and self-injure themselves. Referral to a veterinary neurologist for further diagnostic tests may be something to consider. If you see the cat hair-pulling, interrupt the behavior with a hand clap, or other startling noise.
Meanwhile, relieving the stress also can help, as noted in this article on the subject. Create a house of plenty, so the cats don't have to share anything. More toys, additional cat trees, kitty tunnels and boxes to hide give them places to have fun while avoiding potentially stressful face-offs. The product Feliway can also reduce stress. Harp music actually can act as a natural sedative.
A warm place to sleep and rest can relieve arthritis discomfort. Situate a lamp over the cat's bed, for example. Pain medicines can be tricky with cats so only offer those your veterinarian has approved. Adequan has been helpful to relieve arthritis pain in some cats.