This time our expert cat behaviorist Claire Hemington asks the question “why do cats pull out their hair?”, and offers practical advice to help them stop.
It’s not unusual for me to receive emails with variations of the following descriptions in the subject header, frequently preceded by the world “Help!”
‘My cat is pulling her hair out in clumps!’
‘My cat is pulling out the hair on his tail’
‘My cat is pulling hair out and losing weight’
I strongly suspect that the reason these emails are fairly commonplace is because when cats start pulling out their hair, it’s one of the more distressing behaviors for us cat owners to have to witness.
In this article we’ll explore the different reasons for cats pulling out their hair and how the way in which they do this might give us clues as to the cause.
We’ll also look at what to do when our precious feline family member starts to display this behavior.
Why Do Cats Pull Their Hair Out?
When we see our cats doing anything compulsively we naturally assume that this is a problem associated with behavior.
However, you might be surprised to hear that in most cases of cats pulling their hair out, the initial cause is almost always due to either pain or an issue with their skin.
In fact, cases of purely behavior-related hair-plucking are very rare.
That isn’t to say that behavior doesn’t play a part and we’ll explore this later.
But first let’s take a look in more detail at the two main reasons why cats pull their hair out.
Cats with Itchy Skin – Allergies
Our cats’ skin is one great big sensory organ and when it gets itchy it encourages them to either bite, chew, scratch it, or pull out the hair.
The most common cause of cats that are pulling their hair out is the itch that occurs in those that have an allergy to flea saliva.
This is called flea allergic dermatitis.
When a flea bites their skin, it irritates them and causes intense itching. This in turn encourages the cat to groom in response, and this then creates an itch/scratch cycle.
Cats can also develop sensitivities to certain foods, pollens, trees and plants and even house dust mites – all of which can cause cats to pull out their hair as a way of dealing with their itchy skin.
Allergies such as these are more likely in middle-age to younger cats.
Cats with Itchy Skin – Other Causes
Less common reasons for cats having itchy skin are bacterial infections as well infections such as ringworm.
Ringworm is caused by a fungus that can grow on the cat’s skin and which uses the skin hair and nails as a source of nutrition.
Despite its name, it has nothing to do with worms!
Some skin cancers can also cause irritation that drives cats to groom and chew excessively, often making things much worse.
Itchy skin can also be a side-effect associated with some medications.
Cats in Pain
The other main reason why cats pull their hair out is pain.
Pain such as that created by an injury (old or new) can motivate cats to pull out their hair on or around the area which is causing the pain.
Pain is also associated with common cat diseases such as osteoarthritis.
This is usually prevalent in senior cats who are more likely to suffer from painful joints.
Diseases of the bladder can also be very painful and is another common reason why you might see cats pulling their hair out.
In these instances, they will excessively groom the areas around their abdomen.
There are a number of bladder diseases that can affects cats in this way:
Feline Urethral Obstruction
This is where something blocks the urethra of male cats (ie the tube which runs from the bladder to the penis) and prevents them from urinating.
This can be a life-threatening disease if not spotted and treated early.
Also known as Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease.
This is a painful condition that recent research has shown, has a direct association with stress.
Feline Hyperaesthesia Syndrome
Also known as ‘Rippling Skin Syndrome’ this is a recently identified but poorly understood condition where cats exhibit exaggerated responses to touch and have sudden bouts of intense grooming, self-mutilation or tail chasing.
So, whilst it’s clear that pain and skin problems are almost always the primary reason why cats pull their hair out, behavior also has a role to play.
Cats Experiencing Stress
As mentioned earlier, there are some diseases such as Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease which have a direct relationship with stress, and this is where things can get a bit confusing.
This is because some of the physical conditions described above can be exacerbated or even triggered by prolonged periods of stress.
Especially in already anxious cats that aren’t very good at dealing with life’s everyday challenges.
So, how does stress make cats want to pull their hair out?
When cats are chronically stressed they are constantly releasing stress hormones and this can affect their immune response causing their skin to become particularly sensitive.
So, not only does the skin become itchier, making cats more likely to pull out their hair, but the stress is also likely to make any underlying physical condition or disease much worse.
Here are some other things to consider for cats that are pulling their hair out:
Breed of Cat
Certain breeds of cat appear to be more likely to pull their hair out than others.
These include pure-breed oriental cats, especially Burmese and Siamese, along with more recent breeds such as Bengal cats.
It is thought that these breeds may be genetically predisposed to the behavior.
However, these also happen to be highly energetic, intelligent and sensitive breeds that may pull their hair out as a result of being kept in environments that don’t necessarily offer them the level of stimulation they require.
Cats are the ultimate control freaks – they thrive on consistency and predictability.
So, any deviations from their normal routine might trigger episodes of stress.
Upheavals such as the extended absence of their owner, building work inside or outside the home, the arrival of a new baby, and conflict with other cats are all highly significant and upsetting events for our cats.
Even the death of a feline housemate with whom they shared a close bond can trigger a stressful period of mourning.
So, when they happen, cats might turn to a predictable and satisfying activity that they can control, such as pulling their hair out.
In most cases cats experiencing stress will show additional symptoms such as hypervigilance, hiding, feigning sleep, avoiding contact with people and other cats and a reduction or increase in eating.
What to Do If Your Cat Is Pulling His Hair Out?
Irrespective of the cause, in all cases where cats are pulling their fur out, it is imperative that they are examined by a veterinarian.
The vet will ask you for background information about the behavior, what it looks like and when it’s happening, so it’s always a good idea to be prepared to give as much information as possible.
Here are some things to look out for:
Where is the Cat Pulling its Hair Out?
Where on their bodies cats choose to pull their hair out is usually very significant.
Most hair pulling in response to itchy skin creates a symmetrical pattern of baldness or damaged hair on those areas that cats can comfortably reach on both sides.
For example, you might see cats pulling hair out of both their back legs or pulling hair out on both sides.
Other signs that cats are itchy include the skin appearing to ‘tick’ and the fur to ripple, an increase in rubbing, rolling, scratching and licking activities, and you may also notice their hair feels sharp where it has been broken off.
Hair pulling in response to pain, whether due to injury or disease, is usually unilateral ie focussed on one site where the pain is felt.
Why Do Cats Pull Out Their Hair? Finding Clues in the Location
Pain from any of the bladder diseases mentioned earlier may cause cats to pull their hair out around their lower abdomen or on the inside or underside of their thighs.
Where male cats compulsively lick ‘down there’ as a new habit, it’s important to take a closer look.
Male cats rarely show their private parts, so if their penis is sticking out, then this could be an indicator of Feline Urethral Obstruction.
This may be accompanied by other symptoms such as lethargy, crying out when picked up, blood in the urine, being unable to urinate (making frequent unproductive trips to the litter tray) and vomiting.
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Is There a Pattern to the Behavior?
The pattern of the behavior can also give some important clues as to what could be causing it.
Is it seasonal?
If the behavior is usually worse in the spring and summer and resolves in the winter months this could indicate an allergy to harvest mites, pollens, trees or plants.
Conversely if the behavior only appears during the colder months, it could be a symptom of boredom or frustration.
My Siamese cat Billy sucks the tip of his tail throughout winter, a habit he’s got into a result of not wanting to take advantage of the great outdoors and all the stimulation it has to offer, albeit cold and wet.
So, for at least three months of the year I regularly have to put up with being smeared by a wet and gooey tail!
Why Do Cats Pull Hair Out? Fleas
It’s also important to review the type of flea control used on cats and the frequency of application.
Many of the ‘off the shelf’ flea treatments aren’t as effective as those prescribed by veterinarians.
And even the best flea treatments won’t keep those pesky fleas at bay if they’re not applied consistently and at the intervals indicated on the packet.
Cats that have never put a paw outside should also be regularly treated for fleas.
Whilst they might not pick them up directly, anyone coming into the house is capable of bringing fleas in with them on their shoes.
At the same time, it’s essential to treat the house with an effective household flea product, making sure you spray right up to the edges of carpets.
It’s also a good idea to regularly check for signs of flea excreta on the cats themselves and on their bedding.
Why Cats Pull Out Their Hair – The Role of Diet
Just like us, cats can be allergic to different types or brands of food.
So, if they start pulling their hair out following a recent change in diet, they could be allergic to the new food.
Cat Pulling Hair Out – What Happens Next?
Providing your veterinarian with as much detailed information as possible from your observations of the behavior, as well as any relevant background information should help speed up the process of finding a diagnosis.
Having taken a history, your vet will give your cat a general physical examination to locate any areas of pain, as well as a dermatological examination to identify any areas of lesions or hair loss and how they’re distributed.
Further investigations may be necessary including blood tests, skin biopsies, allergy screening and analysing the cat’s urine.
Referral to a specialist veterinary dermatologist may be required.
In the absence of any medical cause the vet might then refer you to a cat behavior specialist.
Treatment Options For Cats Pulling Hair Out
The most effective treatment is usually based on a combination of veterinary and behavioral intervention.
Veterinarians will treat any underlying disease that is causing dermatological or pain related hair pulling.
At the same time, a behaviorist will put in place a programme focused on making changes to the cat’s environment and social interactions to remove any stress that could be contributing to the behavior.
Why Do Cats Pull Out Their Hair?
When I recently asked my husband his thoughts on why do cats pull out their hair his confident response was: “Because they’re too hot.”
Although he was joking (at least I hope he was!) it highlights the fact that there are certain behaviors performed by our cats that don’t always have an obvious or definite cause, as much as we might like them to.
Hair plucking in cats is a good example of one of those behaviors that might not be as straightforward as we think.
Hopefully however, the information contained in this article will give you a better understanding of the behavior, the important signs to look out for and what can be done to help our cats that are pulling their hair out.
Does Your Cat Have a History of Hair Pulling?
Were you able to find out what caused it?
How did you help them stop?
Please share your experience with fellow cat owners in the comments section below.
An Itch to Scratch: Ethodermatology (Behaviour & Dermatology) Explored. Peter J. Ihrke VMD, Diplomate ACVD, Robert Falconer-Taylor BVetMed DipCABT MRCVS and Peter Neville DHc BSc (Hons)
‘I’m Getting Bald!’ Is It Stress Psychogenic Alopecia? Gonçalo da Graça Pereira. Southern European Veterinary Conference 2015
Itchy Cats. Where to start? Natalie Barnard BVetMed CertVD DipECVD MRCVS
Feline Urethral Obstruction. Dr Justine Lee DVM, DACVECC, DABT
Vicky Halls RVN MBACP