When a cat starts grooming itself often enough to develop thin or bare spots, it’s important for the owner to pay attention. This behaviour can be stress-related, but it can also indicate an underlying health problem. Here are some steps you can take to narrow down possible causes and try to address the issue.
Identifying stress reactions
Does your cat go outdoors? If not, has it recently been in contact with an indoor/outdoor animal? If the answer to either question is yes, you may want to skip the next step.
Consider whether anything has recently changed in the cat’s environment. Has it been separated from you or another companion (human or animal) for a longer period than usual? Is there a new animal (or human) in the household? Have you moved or changed your home in some way (i.e., new furniture, rearranging a room?) How about changes that may be audible rather than visible, such as louder, higher-pitched noises or an increase in the overall noise level? All of these things can be stressful for cats and may cause them to overreact by over-grooming. In addition, have you noticed any other changes in your cat's behaviour and interaction with you? Does it seem to be avoiding you, hiding, or less interested in food?
If you have any "yes" answers, you may want to jump to Section 2, but read on for the moment.
Look at the location of the bare spots. Are they all on easily groomed areas, such as the cat’s belly, flanks, back, chest, and legs? Or are some of them on and/or inside the ears, on the top or back of the head, or on the chin or neck?
If there are bare spots on the ears, head, chin or neck or you can’t easily identify a possible stress trigger, you should probably contact your vet before trying any of the strategies in Section 2. You may still be dealing with a stress-induced anxiety reaction, but it is somewhat more likely that an underlying health issue will need to be resolved first. It's particularly important to see the vet quickly if your cat has been outside or had contact with an outdoor animal. It could have acquired ringworm or another fungal disease. These usually show up first on the ears or elsewhere on the head. They are not serious, but require immediate treatment to prevent transmission to other animals and can also affect humans. Your cat may also have an allergy to pollen, dust, or mites, or to some type of food, but you can try some stress-reduction strategies before investigating this with a vet.
If you have found one or more possible stress triggers or all the bare spots are in easily-groomed areas, you may still need veterinary assistance, but it's OK to try some of the suggestions in Section 2 first.
Soothing the skin
If you aren't going to take the cat to the vet right away, you should purchase something to treat the bare spots and soothe the cat's skin. Skin care gels containing vitamin A are available at pet shops. They aren't very pleasant to taste, so they may also help discourage the licking. A spray form is also available but I don't recommend sprays for cats. You can also try a hydrocortisone cream or gel or one of the many products available to control itching if you have noticed the cat scratching as well as licking.
Even if you and your vet find that the excessive grooming was prompted by a treatable medical condition, you will most likely still need some stress-reduction strategies to get the cat to stop this behaviour. Start by trying to make its environment more soothing. One way to do this is by purchasing a feline pheromone spray dispenser and installing it in or near your cat's favourite part of the house. If you have more than one cat, other animals, or children, your cat may be in need of privacy and quiet. Provide it with a hiding place such as a cave-style bed or tent.
You also want to make the environment more interesting and interactive for the cat. If you don't already have a cat tree that enables it to jump and climb, consider investing in one. And start allocating a specific amount of time each day to interactive play with the cat, using any kind of toy that dangles on a string to entice him. The more physical activity a cat has in its life, the less likely it is to be preoccupied with anxiety.
Build--or rebuild--a routine for your cat. Try to feed at the same times each day and arrange your play time on a regular schedule as well. Knowing what to expect and when is comforting to a cat and reduces tension.
There are many products available that can be used to calm a cat, but their effectiveness varies dramatically. Try products containing L-tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes feelings of contentment.
If you have tried several of these recommendations without any noticeable effect, it's likely that you will need your vet's help--even if there is no apparent medical issue involved. Psychopharmacological medications often prescribed for humans are proving increasingly valuable in treating stress-related or compulsive behaviours in cats, and vets who were reluctant to consider them a few years ago are now prescribing them regularly. Drugs such as Elavil (amytriptaline), Prozac (fluoxetine), and Anafranil (clomipranine) can relieve anxiety for both you and your cat, and the small doses used for cats are not expensive, so please don't rule out this option.
Unless your vet directs it, don't put an Elizabethan collar on your cat to stop the licking. It will just increase the cat's stress and probably cause it to scratch around the edges of the collar until its neck is bare.
Don't positively reinforce the licking behaviour by fussing and trying to comfort the cat whenever you observe it. This will teach the cat that it can get your attention this way! Instead, try to ignore the behaviour and give your cat attention and affection under other circumstances.