By Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, ACVIM
Hair Loss In Cats
There are a lot of reasons why your cat might be losing fur. Often, it’s because he is chewing his hair and breaking it off, or pulling it out through excessive grooming. Sometimes, you may actually catch him in the act of chewing out the fur, or perhaps you’ve simply noticed that he is grooming himself an awful lot. More likely, you’ve noticed a hairless patch. Occasionally, clients will notice clumps of hair in his normal hangout spots, or you might notice a sudden increase in hairballs.
Hair loss from any cause is called alopecia. In order to solve the problem of alopecia, we need to determine, if possible, the cause of the problem.
A very common reason for cats to pull out their hair, especially around the base of the tail, is allergy to fleabites. Most cats in New York City are totally indoors and rarely become exposed to fleas, however, if your cat goes outdoors, even in an enclosed space such as a terrace or balcony, or if you have a dog, it is possible for your cat to acquire fleas. For cats that are allergic to fleabites, it only takes a single flea bite to produce an intense and sometimes prolonged reaction. If this is the case, we can prescribe safe and effective flea preventatives, and can treat the inflammation caused by the bite using steroids and/or antihistamines.
Mites are another parasite that can cause cats to pull out their hair. There are several species of mites that can cause a condition called mange, which can cause cats to lick and chew themselves to try to relieve the itching. If mites are suspected, a diagnostic test called a “skin scraping” may need to be performed to try to identify the presence and type of mite causing the problem.
Ringworm is a fungus that is also a frequent culprit in cases of hair loss, especially around the face, ears, and feet. Hair disappears in small patches, and the skin turns dry, gray, and flaky. There are a number of oral and topical medications available to treat this pesky skin condition. Warning: ringworm can be transmitted to humans.
Some glandular disorders, such as Cushing’s disease, can cause cats to lose hair, usually in a symmetrical pattern along the sides of the body. This is a condition caused by overproduction of steroids from the adrenal glands. Fortunately, this is an uncommon condition in cats.
Localized pain may cause cats to lick an area excessively. An abscess that is brewing under the skin is painful and will attract a lot of licking before it opens and drains. Hair loss over joints may indicate arthritis.
Once parasites and medical problems have been ruled out, there are still two other major causes to consider. Food allergy may show up first in the skin as small red spots that spread. These can turn into scabby or crusty sores that become infected as the cat rubs or scratches them. Itching around the head and face are usually what is seen in cases of food allergy. Allergies to inhaled substances such as dust mites or pollen, can produce similar symptoms. Food allergy and inhalant allergy can lead to eventual hair loss. A trial feeding of a hypoallergenic diet, or a trial treatment with anti-inflammatory medications may be necessary to obtain a diagnosis.
Cats on “lite” or low-fat diets for long periods of time may develop dry, flaky skin, and the coat may become dull and greasy. This skin can then become irritated, and the hair coat may become thin in certain spots. Adding supplements of essential fatty acids to the food can provide relief. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly helpful, and we carry special formulations of these supplements made especially for cats.
Finally, another major cause of hair loss is “psychogenic” alopecia. In other words, your cat is pulling or chewing out his fur due to psychological factors, such as nervousness, anxiety, fear, or stress. This condition is much more common than most people realize. Cats are very sensitive to their environment, and they do well when they’re on a steady, consistent routine. Virtually anything can stress out a cat: a new baby, another cat or pet, guests, a change in food, even a change in weather! Cats groom themselves as a way to relax. It provides them with a feeling of comfort. Think about the last time your cat did something foolish or klutzy, like misjudge a leap or accidentally tumble of the sofa. We might laugh, but the cat immediately grooms. Whether they feel embarrassment is debatable, but cat lovers recognize this reflexive grooming behavior in their cat whenever uncertainty arises. A cat that is chronically stressed may turn to excessive grooming as a means of dispelling his anxiety. In the past few years, veterinary behaviorists have come to realize that some cats and dogs exhibit signs of “obsessive-compulsive behavior”, and excessive grooming can sometimes fall into this category. If this is the case, there are anti-anxiety medications that are often very effective at controlling this problem.
Hair pulling and chewing behavior is a signal that something is wrong, and that your cat is uncomfortable. While it may not be very easy to find out why your cat is doing this, once we get to the root of the problem, treatment is often successful.