Behavior in Cats - Hair Damaging, Self Damaging


Behavior in Cats - Hair Damaging, Self Damaging

Tail Damaging

Question: Dear Dr. Richards. I have a four year old, long haired cat (I have been told he looks like a Maincoon). Last August he had fleas and I treated him with a flea dip. Afterward he kept twitching his tail and seemed to be annoyed by something at the tip. I thought maybe he still had fleas and I examined his tail and the rest of his body, but could find nothing wrong. Then he started to bite the tip of his tail. I took him to my Vet and he was placed on antibiotics for a week and given a collar to keep him from reaching his tail. Unfortunately the collar I was given was not large enough to keep him from reaching his tail and he bite his tail to the point of mutilation. We went back to the Vet and I was told that the tip of his tail had been crushed, it was then covered with a bandage, he was kept on antibiotics and placed in a larger collar. After a month of this treatment he was still attacking his tail. It was decided that amputation of the tip was the only solution. The amputation was done, removing approx. 1" of his tail and he continued on antibiotics. After two weeks the stitches were removed. His tail had been shaved to the skin approx. 3" down from the tip. When he looked back and saw his skinny little bald tail he was petrified and tried to run away from it. If I put my hand or a blanket over his tail he would be fine, but if he could see it he would either try to run from it or attack it. I tried covering his tail with a gauze wrap, which I would remove frequently so that I could try to get him used to his tail under my supervision. After a few weeks of him constantly removing the bandage himself, I decided to let nature take its course and just let him deal with his tail. The hair had grown back to about a quater of an inch in length and he eventually got to the point that he was cleaning his tail and he became much calmer. Then I noticed that the tip of his tail was bald and I caught him biting at the hair. I again wrapped his tail with a gauze bandage in hopes that if the hair had time to grow in, he might leave it alone. After about a week I noticed that he was biting the bandage and had actually bitten and mutilated his tail again. I contacted my Vet and she had no idea as to why this was happening or what could be done. At this time I decided to get a second opinion and I took my cat to another Vet who had come highly recommended. Again my cat was placedinto a collar and back onto antibiotics for two weeks. At the conclusion of this treatment he was still biting his tail. Again amputation was performed removing approx. another 1.5". This time though the Vet did not shave the hair to the skin. Enough hair was left that it wasn't bald, but it was still quite different from the rest of his bushy tail. When it came time to remove the stitches the Doctor decided to leave them in an additional week. Then came the day the stitches were removed. Immediately we were back to square one and my cat was again scared of his tail and again tried to mutilate it. I am at my wits end. My cat and I have been dealing with this problem for over four months now. He is again in a collar, which I try to remove when I can watch him, at which time I bandage his tail so that he can clean himself and have some semblance of a normal existence. I am also again trying to get him used to his tail. I will sit with him, pet his tail and let him smell and clean it, but as soon as he gets the chance he immediately tries to bite his tail and the sight of it terrifies him. I imagine that if this behavior continues the rest of his tail will have to be amputated, but I am not sure that even that will stop him from mutilating himself. If you can shed any light as to what I need to do to help him I would be forever in your debt. My cat's playful and loving personality has changed drastically over the past few months and it breaks my heart to see him so scared and depressed.

Respectfully, Kathleen

Answer: Kathleen-

We have had this problem with tail mutilation in our practice several times. It has been frustrating enough that we advise cat owners to allow us to amputate most of the tail when it is necessary to amputate a portion of it. I can not explain why some cats will continue to mutilate the tail when a partial tail is left but leave it alone when most of the tail is amputated (we leave about 3/4 inch of the tail). This may be a form of obsessive-compulsive behavior or it may be a variation of feline hyperesthesia syndrome, which is a problem with sensitivity to touch that make some cats have episodes of "rolling skin" and biting at their back and the area around the base of their tail. Some cats do seem to respond to medications used for obsessive-compulsive disorders based on anecdotal reports, including clomipramine (Clomicalm Rx, 5mg per cat twice a day), fluoxetine (Prozac Rx, 1 mg/kg once a day) and amitriptyline (Elavil Rx, 2.5 to 10mg per cat once or twice a day).

I have not tried this for a cat, but we have had some luck using a liquid bandaging material, Facilitator (tm) on dogs with sores that they will not leave alone. It is applied once a day to once every three days and seals the wound, apparently making it less stimulating to lick it.

I wish that I had a sure cure for this problem.

Mike Richards, DVM 2/4/2001

Cat pulling out fur

Q: I have two female cats, and one, Samantha, is pulling out her fur. I've tried salves and sprays for itchy skin. She doesn't have fleas. The skin itself looks fine. But nearly every day I find tufts of fur. I'm supposing some kind of emotional problem.

She's a tabby and has always been aggressive when anyone tries to pet her--other than me; with me she's quite docile and accepting of pretty much anything. She's very vocal and, if I'm not giving her enough attention, she'll begin calling, sometimes loudly. She is slightly aggressive toward her companion cat, although they've never hurt each other. Sam will hit Kitt over the head with loud thumps of her paw and hisses, and she'll bite her around the neck, although, with Kitt's ruff, I doubt Kitt even notices too much. I think there's some contention over which cat is head-cat, but I hestitate to interfere if they're vying for leadership. You'd think, though, after about 10 years together, they'd have it worked out by now.

I don't quite know what to do. Any ideas?


A: Debbie-

There are several reasons that cats pull out their fur. Sometimes it is a behavioral thing but lots of times it is due to problems such as fleas, mange, ringworm (a fungal infection), allergies, immune mediated disease and bacterial infections.

Even if you never see fleas, you can not assume that they are not present on a cat that has skin disease. Cats are extremely good at removing fleas from their body and cats that are allergic to fleas are usually even better at than other cats. So it is almost always best to use a product like fipronil (Frontline Topspot Rx) or imidoclopramide (Advantage Rx) that will kill fleas. These products also kill some of the types of mange mites that affect cats, so they help if that is a problem, too.

If using a flea control product does not solve the skin problem, then it is a good idea to have your vet examine your cat and determine if one of the other skin diseases is present. This can take several visits since the conditions look very much alike and it is easy to believe that one problem is present and decide to treat for it rather than do a lot of testing. If the treatment doesn't work, then testing becomes much more important.

Behavioral hair pulling is usually a diagnosis that is made after other causes have been ruled out and the problem still persists. There are medications that help many cats with this type of problem and sometimes relatively easy to implement changes in the cat's lifestyle can help. I really think that behavioral problems should be considered but I also really think it is important to eliminate most other causes before relying on this diagnosis.

I honestly think it would be best to get Frontline or Advantage, if you are not already using one of these products. If they do not produce a lot of improvement in two to three weeks, then it would be best to have your vet examine Samantha and start the process of diagnosing her problem.

In the meantime, some cats respond favorably to antihistamines. Chlorpheniramine (Chlortrimeton TM) 4mg, 1/2 tablet twice a day is an OK dose for most adult cats but it would be best to ask your vet to help you determine the dosage specifically for Samantha if you want to try antihistamines.

Hope this helps.

Mike Richards, DVM 8/22/99

Biting hair

Q: Dr. Mike, My male cat , about 6 years old, is biting out his hair on the sides of his body (about 3" in diameter). Thre are no fleas, appetite is good & there appear to be no other symptoms. He then swallows his hair & coughs on it. Do you have any ideas why he might be biting his own hair out?..No scratching is involved. Thanks, L.

A: Lots of cats bite at themselves instead of scratching when they are itchy. I would consider this to be an itchy condition until it is possible to prove otherwise. The most common cause of this sort of behavior in my practice is allergy -- either flea allergy or inhalant allergy. Mite infestation occasionally occurs in cats and is a possible cause of this sort of behavior. Some cats do seem to have "pyschogenic" hairloss, in which they deliberately chew their hair for reasons of stress, compulsive disorder or some other psychological cause.

The first step is a visit to your vet to start sorting through these problems. Your vet will probably be able to help.

Mike Richards, DVM

Psychogenic Alopecia?

Q: I have a cat with what I think is psychgenic alopecia, I found this out by looking through your index of info on cats. I am unsure as how to treat this because my cat "Jack" hasn't had any major disruptions in his life (to the best of my knowledge) so I'm not sure how to make him "less stressed out". He has always been very skittish and only comes around for attention at bed time (Primarily an outdoor cat). Do you think it would be helpful to start a routine of brushing every day, or some activity that he enjoys??? He doesn't have fleas, but could this be a dermatological problem??? I would never take my cat to a "pet psychologist" but I'm really at a loss as to what to do, his belly is completely bald, and now he's working on his flanks, pulling the hair in large tufts!! Any advice would be greatly appreciated and by the way thank you for providing such a helpful service!!!!

A: Jack may have psychogenic alopecia but it is also possible that this could be flea allergy, inhalant allergy or parasitic infection (Demodex or notoedric mange). It would be worth having your vet examine him to be sure that none of these other problems is likely. Flea allergy is particularly important to eliminate. In several studies of cats with this condition no fleas were found on exam of the affected cats in a majority of the cases. Apparently, cats are very efficient at removing fleas from their bodies if they are allergic to the bites and irritated by the flea.

If this is not a physical condition, it is sometimes beneficial to do things like grooming or games which distract your cat. Antihistamines seem to help some cats even when the problem seems to be psychogenic. There are several anti-anxiety medications which can be helpful and it is often possible to use them for a relatively short duration of time then wean the cat off the medications. Sometimes, just breaking the habitual cycle of licking and chewing helps for a long time.

Mike Richards, DVM

Licking abdomen

Q: My 8 1/2 year old cat has been licking her lower abdomen for almost 5 months now. I took her to the vet in January and they ran extensive tests on her and found nothing physically wrong with her. She was given steroid shots to possibly stop the psychological licking, but that did not seem to work. Is there anything that can be put on topically, or will she always have a bald spot on her stomach?

A: When this condition is not responsive to corticosteroids I usually look for one or two other conditions. Some cats lick their abdomen when they have cystitis or other causes of abdominal pain. We have seen this resolve in cats with bladder stones once the stones were recognized and removed. I felt really bad about not recognizing this possibility in the first case --- but I just hadn't thought about the possibility of pain as an initiating factor in the licking. Some cats do seem to do this as a neurotic type behavior. Using anti-anxiety medications or identifying the underlying cause of stress can help in resolving the situation in that case.

Ask your vet about the possibility that this behavior may be related to cystitis or abdominal pain and about medications for anxiety if you think that may be helpful.

I don't know of a topical medication likely to help.

Mike Richards, DVM

Last edited 01/08/07


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...