Is my cat over-grooming due to stress?

Q My cat started stress induced over-grooming nine months ago when my daughter was born. She now has furless patches on her belly and all four legs. She has been checked by a vet and does not have a skin condition.

I cannot devote as much time to her as I used to do, but I let her sit on my knee when the baby is in bed. She has quiet, private places to sleep. I have tried a Feliway diffuser and am now giving her Zylkene every day, but it doesn’t seem to be helping. Can you give me any advice?

Behaviourist Francesca Riccomini says: The best solution would be to enlist the help of a properly qualified feline behaviourist who could look at your home environment, management and interactional style to work out all the issues that are stressing your cat and what you can do to help.

It seems unlikely that it is simply a matter of you not being able to spend as much time with your pet as you used to that’s causing her to over groom, although that may be part of the problem. If she was not used to sharing her home with a baby, your daughter’s arrival will be something of a stressor, as will the changes in your household routines.

We can usually help by making sure that cats have plenty of private places to escape to and de-stress, some of them high up and some dark, in every area of the house. In addition, when you do have time together, don’t do lots of close contact fussing but concentrate on play with dangly and thrown toys and simply talking to her. Always let her decide how close, and when, she sits with you and let her leave the second she wants to, so you give her a sense of being in control.

Feline stress often comes from a feeling of everything being unpredictable. Consequently, setting a routine for everything that happens, say feeding and play times, could help to increase the stability of her circumstances and make her feel better.

The pheromone preparation and Zylkene are helpful when we get the other things right – but nothing will work if we don’t adjust our environments, management and interactional style so that our cats have a sense of predictability and control, and plenty of suitable resources to help them hide and de-stress when they need to.

How to tell if your cat is stressed

  • Is your cat more clingy or distant than usual?
  • Is your cat spending more time outdoors or refusing to come inside?
  • If your cat is being bullied by a neighbouring cat he may refuse to go outside
  • Has your cat started scratching furniture, marking or soiling inappropriately?
  • Does your cat seem to be over-grooming, scratching or biting at his skin?
  • Stress can lead to cystitis in cats so keep an eye on your cat’s toileting habits

If you think your cat may be stressed, take away the stressor if it is obvious; provide high-up and dark hiding places; place facilities for each individual cat in separate areas of the house, away from windows, cat fl aps, doors etc; do not over-fuss your cat as this can be intimidating and actually exacerbate the problem; and provide Feliway diffusers or spray to help put your cat at ease. It’s always worth seeing your vet about sudden changes as there could be an underlying medical cause.