Cats are notoriously fastidious groomers who clean their fur day after day in an endless attempt to keep it clean. If you notice your cat biting, chewing or gnawing his tail a lot, though, he may have health issues in need of attention. Contact a veterinarian before symptoms worsen.
Cat Tail Tales
Cat tails are sensitive appendages that help your cat maintain balance and display emotion. They typically have 18 to 23 vertebrae, attached to which are muscles that control voluntary movements. Cats normally groom their tails as they do the rest of their bodies. Sometimes they chew their tails because they're itchy, which isn't cause for concern. Excessive biting and gnawing, though, can indicate a multitude of medical issues. If your cat is chewing on his tail more than is typical take a closer look and call a veterinarian. Regardless of its cause, excessive tail biting can cause secondary infections.
Wounds and Growths
Your cat might not be able to tell you when he's experienced some trauma, but his tail biting can clue you in. Routine fur cleanings can irritate wounds or growths, exacerbating licking and biting as they scab or weep. When your cat's licking a single spot on his tail, examine the area. Your cat probably won't react well to being touched in a trauma area, so you may want to pacify him with a treat. If the tail is sore to the touch or has zero sensation, your cat could have a fractured or dislocated tail. You may discover cuts, abscesses or growths. If they're bleeding, consider treating them with antibacterials to stave off infection as you arrange for further treatment.
If you notice bugs on your cat's tail and hindquarters in the areas he's been biting, your cat probably has fleas. Cat fleas—Ctenocephalides felis, if you want to get technical—affect indoor and outdoor cats alike. They even affect dogs and, sometimes, humans. Treatment options depend on the severity of infestation. Oral and topical medications are usually supplemented by flea combs and environmental treatments. Note that some flea products intended for dogs are harmful, even deadly, to cats; very young kittens may also need special treatment. Tail biting may continue after all fleas and flea eggs are eliminated, as lingering skin irritation can build on itself.
Allergies and Stress
Allergies or feline hyperesthesia can also cause your cat to gnaw on his tail. If your cat doesn't have glaring wounds or bugs, and you suspect allergies, try reversing recent changes in environment and diet. If you see improvement, you're on the right track. A veterinarian can run a full allergy test. Your cat can develop allergies to foods after years of eating them with no trouble, so exhaust every variable. If your cat is sensitive to touch along his spine and tail and you notice rippling skin or muscle spasms, consider your cat's stressors. Hyperesthesia, or extreme sensitivity to touch—and its oft-overlapping partner, feline psychogenic alopecia—are generally diagnosed by eliminating other possible problems. The condition is caused by stress: boredom, and changes in space, schedule and dynamics between animals, are a few of nearly infinite instigators. Reversals or positive changes can help.
Cat Acne and Stud Tails
If your cat's tail hair is greasy or matted, and he has blackheads, she may have cat acne. If symptoms are concentrated at the base of her tail, it could be a stud tail. In both cases, overactive gland secretions cause skin irritation and oily fur, which can lead to waxy buildup and cause hair to fall out. Medicated shampoos can help ease this chronic condition. Unneutered males are more likely to get stud tails because their hormones increase gland secretions, but the condition can affect any cat. Incidentally, anal gland issues—more common in dogs than cats—can also affect cats, instigating tail biting. In extreme cases, your veterinarian may recommend medications to treat skin conditions or stud tails.
- Cat Hospital of Chicago: Tail Biting in Cats
- Catster: 10 Common Cat Skin Problems
- Cornell University Cornell Feline Health Center: Cats That Lick Too Much
- Cat Health: Feline Hyperesthesia
- University of Illinois: Don't Ignore Your Pet's Pain in the Butt!
- WebMD: Stud Tail in Cats
- Feline Advisory Bureau: Feline Acne and Stud Tail
- Kansas State University: The Biology, Ecology and Management of the Cat Flea [PDF]
- The Ohio State University Indoor Pet Initiative: Feline Life Stressors
- King County, Washington: Excessive Licking
- Washington State University Extension: Cat Anatomy and Physiology [PDF]
- Felinexpress.com: Tail Talk
- Yamaguchi University Veterinary Physiology Department: Anatomical Structure and Action of the Tail Muscles in the Cat
- TheCatSite.com: Cat Tail Problems
- PetPlace.com: Structure and Function of the Tail in Cats
- Peteducation.com: Licking Around the Tail
- PetPlace.com: Tail Trauma
- University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program: Pests of Homes, Structures, People and Pets
- WebMD: Slideshow—Skin Problems in Cats
- Michael Blann/Lifesize/Getty Images