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Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
skin conditions
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Click here for a pdf version of this article.  See related products at Pet Supplies

Cat lickingCats spend a lot of time grooming. Sometimes it becomes excessive and the cat may develop bald spots or at least the hair coat becomes very thin. Psychogenic alopecia is one cause of baldness.

What is psychogenic alopecia in cats?

Psychogenic alopecia in cats is a compulsive behavior disorder in which the cat grooms excessively. The behavior may have started out as a response to frustration, conflict, anxiety, or stress, and then develops a compulsive component, similar to excessive nail biting in people.

What are the signs of psychogenic alopecia in cats?

Cats with psychogenic alopecia develop a thin hair coat or baldness in areas that are easily reached when grooming. Areas include the abdomen, inside of the thighs, and the lower back. Cats may overgroom when the owners are not present, so the behavior itself is not always readily apparent.

How is psychogenic alopecia diagnosed?

There are many conditions in cats that can cause excessive grooming or hair loss similar to that seen with psychogenic alopecia. A number of tests will need to be performed to rule out these other causes. These other conditions can include:

After a thorough physical exam, the first test to commonly be performed is to look at a few hairs from the affected areas under the microscope. With psychogenic alopecia, the veterinarian will see that the hairs have been broken, which signifies the hair loss is from excessive grooming, not that the hairs are simply "falling out".

Further tests include:

If all of these tests come back negative, a diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia is made. A diagnosis of feline psychogenic alopecia is only made when all other causes of the symptoms can be excluded.

How is psychogenic alopecia in cats treated?

In managing psychogenic alopecia, the underlying cause of the anxiety or conflict must be identified, and resolved if possible. For instance, if there is conflict in a multi-cat household, attempts should be made to provide plenty of resources to reduce competition. This may mean increasing the number of litter boxes, window perches, toys, sleeping areas, food bowls, etc. Placing a bell on the more aggressive cat may help the anxious cat.

Pheromone therapy, using a product such as Feliway, may be beneficial. Feliway contains pheromones from the cat's face. Pheromones are chemicals which are used to communicate with other members of the same species. You may notice your cat rubs her face and chin on vertical surfaces. She is leaving a scent there which contains these pheromones. The pheromones from the face have a calming effect on other cats. When Feliway is sprayed or diffused into a room, it can have a calming effect.

In addition to behavior modification, it may be necessary to use prescription medications. Not all cats respond to the same medication, so it may take several tries before the right medication is identified. Medications may include clomipramine, buspirone, fluoxetine, benzodiazepines or tricyclic antidepressants.

Owners should not give attention to cats with psychogenic alopecia when they are grooming because this may inadvertently be interpreted as a reward for the behavior. Instead, increase the amount of playtime and social interaction with the cat to reduce the time spent on grooming.

References and Further Reading

Landsberg,G; Hunthausen, W; Ackerman, L. Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. Saunders, Philadelphia PA. 2004:217-220.

Waisglass, SE; Landsberg, GM; Yager, JA; et al. Underlying medical conditions in cats with presumptive psychogenic alopecia. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2006; 228(11):1705-1709.

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