Feline Fur Mowing: When Cats Lick their Nipples and Pull out Their Hair

Dr. Laci Schaible

What can I say? Cats are unique creatures that are easily stressed out and typically thrive on routine. Almost any change in the environment may cause stress; a new house, a new baby, packing for a trip, a new food, a new cat roaming the neighborhood, a new work schedule, a new romance...cats are VERY sensitive and easily upset.

There is a growing amount of attention in the veterinary world finally recognizing a self-induced condition of our sensitive and compulsive felines called psychogenic alopecia, often referred to casually as “fur mowing.” Before you laugh at the thought of this, get the facts on this often-misdiagnosed condition.

Feline psychogenic alopecia is characterized by chronic licking often of the belly and around the nipples, and is thought to be an anxiety neurosis similar to a compulsive behavior in people. Various patterns of alopecia may occur as long as the alopecia is in a place the cat can reach with its tongue. Usually the skin is intact and no sores are seen, but they may be if it progresses.

Psychogenic alopecia is a recently recognized condition affecting cats and not a tremendous amount is known about how to arrive at the diagnosis, other than history, ruling out other causes, and response to treatment. If the hair re-grows with an e-collar, psychogenic alopecia has a good chance of being the diagnosis. Many cats respond well to behavioral drugs--yes, that's right; drugs like Prozac are prescribed for this condition.

The good news is that cats can get generic Prozac from a human pharmacy. Target and Walmart, for example, offer programs where this drug is available for as little as $4/mo. A vet will have to write you a prescription if they think your cat is a good candidate for the medication, of course. In addition, this may involve halving or cutting the pills into quarters, depending upon the dose the vet prescribes so you may want to purchase a pill cutter. Your vet may also recommend having the drug compounded into a gel at a compounding pharmacy. Prices around the country vary, but $10-20/mo is common. This gel is rubbed into the inside of the ears daily, and most cat parents finds it much easier than shoving a pill down a cat's throat.

Before making a diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia, your vet will consider other causes of feline hair loss, such as mites, fleas, and metabolic disease. A very common cause of hair pulling in cats is a food allergy. Non-seasonal itching and chewing is the most common symptom of a food allergy. Often, this itching is intense and directed around the head and neck but it is not limited to these areas. Food allergy has also been implicated as a cause of various skin infections and non-lesional fur mowing in cats. Less common manifestations of food allergy in cats include gastrointestinal symptoms. The mean age of onset of food allergy in cats has been reported to be 4-5 years of age.

When medical causes of feline licking and hair pulling are ruled out, you may want to initiate behavioral therapies before moving onto psychogenic drugs. As with other compulsive disorders, feline psychogenic alopecia may begin as a displacement behavior arising from situations of conflict, frustration or anxiety. Regular owner initiated play sessions with chase toys two to three times a day, more opportunities to climb and explore, a variety of chase toys, multiple small meals and ample opportunity to escape and perch may be useful.

Getting on top of feline hair pulling before your cat develops scabs and secondary bacterial infections is important. Do remember thorough diagnostic testing should be done before ascribing a behavioral cause to hair loss in cats.

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