Fur mowing is a common problem among cats and is notoriously difficult to manage. This is because fur mowing can be a medical issue or a psychological one – or a little bit of both.
As meticulous groomers, cats sometimes go to the extreme, pulling out the hair on their bellies, legs, and back. Since they rarely cause irritation or skin abrasions, many people assume the problem is psychological. The behavioral version of fur mowing even has a name — psychogenic alopecia —which basically means “feline baldness caused by mental issues.”
However, according to Mar Vista Animal Medical Center:
“Most cats that mow do not have mental illness. The answer is almost always much simpler: cats lick off their hair because they itch and it is important not to launch into treatment with psychoactive drugs until causes of itching have been ruled out.”
Possible Medical Causes of Fur Mowing:
Adult fleas are the only stage of the life cycle visible to the naked eye, yet they account for less than 5% of the population in an infested pet’s home. In other words, just because you don’t see fleas does not mean your pet is flea-free.
These pests are responsible for the most common allergy among pets. The saliva from one flea can cause an allergic cat to itch for up to two weeks, a cycle that continues until the infestation is completely under control.
All animals have demodex mites on their skin, but sometimes these parasites reproduce excessively causing clinical signs like itching and hair loss. Demodex typically affects kittens or immunosuppressed cats.
Despite the name, ringworm is a fungus, not a worm. It is also the most common infectious skin disease in cats causing the hair to become weak, brittle, and fall out in patches. Like demodex, ringworm is opportunistic and usually affects kittens, senior cats, and those with suppressed immunity. Long-haired cats are also more likely to contract ringworm because they are less efficient groomers.
Food allergies are a relatively uncommon cause of fur mowing in cats. The only way to diagnose them is through expensive allergy testing and/or a food trial. During a food allergy trial the cat is put on a hydrolyzed protein diet or a novel protein diet for up to two months to see if the mowing stops. These trials can be tedious because the cat cannot consume anything besides the special food which is notoriously bland.
What If All Medical Causes Are Ruled Out?
If your veterinarian eliminates these causes of fur mowing, the next step is a steroid trial to rule out fleas and other allergens. They may even recommend a skin biopsy.
Psychological Alopecia/Behavioral Fur Mowing
When all other possibilities are exhausted it is assumed the problem is psychological. Cats with psychogenic alopecia typically fur mow due to anxiety, boredom, obsession, or some combination of the three.
Bored kitties may improve with more attention and environmental enrichment such as toys and window perches. Those with anxiety or compulsive tendencies typically require medication to ease their stress and curb their obsessive licking.
Fur mowing can be frustrating to diagnose and difficult to treat. If your cat has noticeable hair loss or seems to be overgrooming, see your veterinarian as soon as possible.