Cats can spend up to half of their waking time grooming, which is pretty amazing considering cats seem to be awake for about two hours a day. Nevertheless, various causes can take this necessary ritual too far, and your once-furry kitty can start to look like Kojak.
Knowing you've got a cat who grooms excessively isn't always easy—you're not going to catch him admiring himself for long periods in front of a mirror, after all. Symptoms of excessive grooming can be subtle, but you'll see them if you know what to look for. Abnormally long or frequent grooming sessions are obviously the most common sign, but your cat may be a “closet licker” and groom at night or in another part of the house. Thinning hair or bald spots indicate a particular obsession with certain areas, and the skin may also be irritated from the constant scraping of his rough tongue. He may produce more hairballs than usual too, which you may find on the hallway carpet or on your new shoes.
Various things can cause your cat to cross the line from normal grooming to “Holy moly are you STILL licking??” grooming, ranging from medical conditions, parasites and psychological issues. Underlying medical conditions typically produce additional symptoms, such as changes in behavior or appetite. Parasites such as fleas or skin mites leave other clues such as flea dirt and skin irritation. Psychological issues are a little harder to determine, but usually occur after a cat's routine has been changed. Cats hate change and even a seemingly small alteration from the norm, such as a new brand of food or even a new piece of furniture, can make your pet uncomfortable. He'll deal with these changes by grooming because it helps calm him. If he's highly stressed, he'll groom more often and for longer periods.
In addition to the possibly annoying sound and sight of your cat licking, licking and licking himself every waking moment, excessive grooming can cause your cat pain, hair loss and skin problems. The more he licks, the more likely he is to swallow large amounts of hair, which can result in larger and more frequent hairballs, or even intestinal obstruction if they become too large to effectively hack up. Once the hair is gone, his continual licking can injure his skin, causing lesions and possible infection.
As tempting as it might be to fashion a tiny cat muzzle to stop the incessant licking, properly treating excessive grooming involves identifying what has caused this obsessive behavior. If your cat shows any additional symptoms of a health problem, have your veterinarian look him over to rule out any underlying medical conditions and find the appropriate treatment. Over-the-counter flea-killing medications and shampoos will eliminate those freeloaders, while your vet will need to diagnose and treat skin mites. If your cat has developed this grooming compulsion after a change in his normal routine, show him more affection to encourage a feeling of safety, and use a calming pheromone to help soothe him. These are available over the counter at many pet stores.
Jane Williams began her writing career in 2000 as the writer and editor of a nationwide marketing company. Her articles have appeared on various websites. Williams briefly attended college for a degree in administration before embarking on her writing career.