Why Is My Cat Scratching And Licking Itself Raw?
What Is Making My Cat Lick Its Paws And Body Too Much?
Hair Loss And Scratching Problems In Cats
Ron Hines DVM PhD
Licking and self-grooming are so basic to your cat’s nature that it can be hard to decide when it crosses the line from normal to abnormal behavior. Happy normal indoor house cats spend up to a third of their day grooming themselves. So most cat owners only realize they have a problem when their cat’s hair begins to thin.
When a dog licks excessively, the behavior generally remains an idiosyncrasy, a quirky behavior without physical damage. But when a cat’s self-licking passes from a normal grooming behavior to an obsession, their unique raspy feline tongue rapidly causes hair loss, skin abrasion (damage) and secondary infections. That’s because the sharp hair-like growths (lingual papilla) that you see on the tip of your cat’s tongue act just like a wire brush.
How Do I Know When My Cat’s Licking Is Excessive?
Your cat has a licking problem when:
Cats are creatures of habit. Be suspicious if your cat’s licking behavior varies from day to day, week to week or month to month when nothing else in its life has changed.
Normal indoor cats do not experience heavy seasonal sheds as some dogs do. Their hair is often a bit thinker in the winter than in summer months; but there should never be times when the hair on its belly, rear thighs or, for that matter, anywhere else on its body becomes thin. When dogs loose hair in a symmetrical pattern on both sides of their bodies, the problem is often hormonal. That is not the case in cats. When they show similar hair loss, they are generally licking the hair off. You may not see them doing the licking because cats are often more secretive about licking and scratching than dogs are. (It is normal for the hair on the temples of cats to thin as they age. That thinning should be the same on both temples. If it is accompanied by scratches or scabs, the cat’s ears need to be checked for mites or infection.)
Your cat’s paws should be dry to the touch. If they remain damp when the home environment is dry, suspect a problem. If your cat’s paws are puffy, have a distinct odor, show areas of discoloration, ulceration or are sensitive to the touch, there is a problem. Blisters, growths or burns are always abnormal.
Paw infections can also cause cats to limp or be reluctant to move about, jump or climb stairs.
Toenails that are broken, cracked or bleeding occur in many skin problems in which excessive licking/scratching is present.
An increased frequency of gagging, hairballs or constipation often occurs in cats that are licking themselves too much.
Increased dandruff and scruffiness are common in cats that lick too much.
What Are Some Common Causes Of Excessive Licking?
I have listed them, more-or-less, in the order of how frequently I find them to be the source of the problem.
Fleas, seen or unseen are the most common cause of excessive licking and scratching. Cats with a flea bite problem often have scabs surrounding their neck as well as on their back near the base of their tail. When the problem is long-term, their coats are often thin and ragged. It is unclear why some cats are more annoyed by fleas than others. It is common for one cat in a multi cat household to suffer more than the rest. Perhaps this is due to that cat’s unique sensitivity (“allergy”) to flea saliva and antigen or that in combination with its individual temperament.
Just because you never find a flea on your cat is not proof enough that fleas are not all or part of its problem. The presence of pepper-sized grains of blackish material (flea feces) on your pet is evidence enough, but cats often lick that evidence off rapidly. That is why most veterinarians and veterinary dermatologists incorporate a systemic monthly flea-control product in their treatment plan no mater what their probably diagnosis.
You can read another article of mine on fleas and what you can do about them here .
Mange mites are considerably less of a problem in cats than dogs. But cats are susceptible to several forms of mange. When it is the root of their skin problems, many of the products used on dogs are unsuitable for use on cats.
Cats occasionally have other skin parasites, mange mites, ticks and even lice. But they are not common causes of licking, scratching or hair loss in cats. When they are, the products used to treat them must say clearly on the label that they are safe to use in cats of your cat’s age. The best produces available when fleas or these other skin parasites are the problem are the flavored, orally administered isoxazoline medications approved for cats. (read here)
Cats will lick an injury incessantly, particularly if the skin has been broken or if some object such as a thorn is embedded in its skin. Paw injuries from hot objects (thermal necrosis), a pad cut, burrs and splinters between the toes or a broken toenail are not uncommon.
Just as common as paw injuries are abscesses that occur subsequent to fighting.
Putting topical ointments or sprays on this type of wound without some form of physical restraint or topical bandage is a waste of time. Cats lick these products off as fast as they are applied. Without those additional measures, medications need to be given orally or by injection.
Eosinophilic Granuloma Complex
Eosinophilic granuloma complex or EGC might be listed by some vets as more common than injuries as a cause of excessive licking. The term groups a number of disease that cause similar body reactions – all associated with an abnormally high number of blood cells called eosinophils being present in the itchy area and often present in abnormally high numbers in the cats blood circulation as well. Read more about eosinophilic granuloma complex here.
In some cases, a hypersensitivity to fleas appears to be the cause, in others, perhaps a host of other hypersensitivities or “allergies”. No matter what the underlying cause, all respond favorably to medications that suppress the cat’s immune system with all the dangers doing so entails. So saying your cat has an EGC problem is like saying it has a vomiting problem. The real question is why.
When large areas of the cat are affected by EGC in its crusty rash or red bump form, it is often called miliary dermatitis.
Allergies And Sensitivities
The relationship between Eosinophilic complex disease, simple allergies and sensitivities is unclear. Allergies are true immune system phenomena in which the cat’s immune system attacks specific substances it has mistaken for invaders. In Eosinophilic complex disease a similar process is occurring. In substance sensitivity, the cat simply cannot tolerate exposure to a certain substance or chemical. There could even be cats in which all three processes are involved.
When veterinarians think of allergic skin disease (atopy) they tend to think about dogs. But cats can have allergies too and like dogs, they can express those allergies through itchy skin. The skin appears to be the primary target organ for these allergies in pets, in humans; the primary target is our respiratory system. The inhaled pollens of trees, grasses and mold spores appear to be the most common allergens in dogs and cats. Certain breeds like Siamese and Bengals seem more prone to having the problem.
Inhaled chemicals are not the only root of sensitivities. Perfuming agents added to cat litter, household cleaning products, sanitizers, deodorants and industrial chemicals incorporated into common household goods and carpeting have also been implicated. Occasionally (but not commonly) food ingredients are thought to be the trigger.
Anxiety And Stress-related Obsessions (psychogenic alopecia)
Animals (and people) faced with stress often react with exaggeration of common activities they find pleasurable and comforting. Psychogenic or stress hair loss is a way that cats deal with stress and worry of one form or another. (professorial folk would call this a “displacement behavior”)
When grooming becomes obsessive in this way, the result is a cat with thin or bald areas of hair. These areas are usually similar on both sides of its body. Any area can be affected but the cat’s flanks and thighs tend to show the most hair loss damage. As the problem persists, only areas of the head and in between its shoulder blades remain normal because the cat cannot reach them when it grooms.
Skittish and nervous cats, as well as cats that live in group homes seem more prone to this problem but it only becomes the likely diagnosis when test have ruled out all organic causes. The loss of a companion pet, a caregiver or major changes in the home environment often trigger this problem.
The individual temperament of cats vary as much as they do in humans. So cats do quite well when left alone in a boring environment. Others spend their time munching and plumping up. Still others spend their time licking and grooming. When owners suspect that boredom is the cause of their cat’s excessive licking, they sometimes alleviate the problem by adding another pet, turning on radios and TVs, making window ledge perches to observe the out-of-doors, and other forms of environmental enrichment . Save the thought of adding another pet for last. The effects of additional pets are unpredictable and once they become family members, you are pretty much committed to keep them. Adding a kitten often works – temporarily – but that kitten will mature and when it does, it will assert itself in ways that might add stress to the original pet. I have never done well in predicting which cats will enjoy living in groups and which prefer their solitude the exclusivity of their owner’s attention.
Some cats have more compulsive temperaments than others. Some breeds, like Siamese, Bengals, Burmese, Balinese and Tonkinese appear to me to be more emotionally sensitive and apt to develop stress-related hair loss. I see more cats with this problem that share the thin, “pink panther” physique than plumper felines, and more often in female than male cats. They are also the cats most likely to be “wool suckers”. They also appear to be over-represented in all forms of skin ailments.
The best treatment for compulsive cats is to divert their attention to activities that are not self-destructive.
One cannot prove that fat cats are any more likely to over-groom than thin ones. In fact, I see more thin cats with hair loss than overweight ones. But very fat cats might be inclined to spend more time performing low-energy activities like grooming. Such is the case in dogs. Read more about overweight cats here.
Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome
Feline hyperethesia syndrome or “ghost pain” is a condition of cats that is very poorly understood. The same cats at risk of compulsive behavioral problems appear more at risk of this condition. It is believed to be a neurological problem, which causes the perception of itching or pain in areas where no visible cause exists.
Cats with feline hyperethesia syndrome lick or bite themselves excessively for no apparent reason. During these episodes, they may vocalize as well. The skin on their back often ripples or spasms and they appear out of touch with their owners and environment during the episodes. Some describe it as “pouting”, others as being “distant” still others as having a “tantrum”. In many ways, I find it similar to the frontal lobe epilepsy I have seen in children. These cats have been known to attack their owners during episodes and it has also gone under the name of “cat schizophrenia”. During these periodic bouts, many become hyperactive, overly alert and wide eyed – as if they were a human on some form of methamphetamine or some other psychotropic medication. In humans it is referred to as dysesthesia. (read here)
Some of these cats are sensitive along their backs when touched. Some chase or swish their tails. A few progress to seizures.
Before you jump to conclusions, be sure that fleas are not the cause of your cat’s bizarre behavior. I also check these cats to be sure they do not suffer from the “dry” form of FIP, hyperthyroidism, and are FeLV & FIV negative.
Again, cat breeds known for their compulsiveness are over represented with this problem too. It is hard for veterinarians to treat a disease for which the symptoms are apparent but the cause remains obscure (unknown). But most vets attempt to control the problems with mixtures of human antidepressant and anti-compulsive medications and/or drugs know to control epilepsy and various psychoses. (eg Prozac®, amitriptyline, clomipramine, phenobarbital) The cure rate is low.
Whenever a cat’s skin is abraded, inflamed, or its outer protective coating (stratum corneum) is destroyed by licking, bacteria and fungi (Malassezia) take advantage of the situation. These are called opportunistic infections. They are never the root or underlying cause of the cat’s skin problem. That does not mean they do not need to be treated to allow the cat’s skin to heal and itching to subside. It just means that if the underlying issue is not solved, the problem will return. All cats with skin infections that can not be readily explained or that relapse after antibiotic therapy ceases need to be tested for FeLV and FIV.
Ringworm is a special case. It is capable of causing hair loss and dermatitis when no underlying cause is present. Luckily it can be easily diagnosed and cured.
Certain virus can, on rare occasion, also affect your cat’s skin. One of these is the cat herpes-1 virus. You can read about that disease here. Another is a rare presentation of the feline calicivirus. You can read about skin problems linked to that virus here.
If your female cat has one or multiple pustules, lumps or open sores just ahead of its belly button (umbilicus), have your vet probe that area for perhaps a protruding suture ruminant from the time your cat was spayed. They are easily removed. If your cat was declawed and a paw is incessantly licked, check that paw for a retained suture from the time of the declaw surgery. Old braided suture frizzles into wispy filaments. Depending on your cat’s color, it can be hard to distinguish from fur.
An Improperly Performed Declawing Operation
Occasionally, a inexperienced, poorly-trained veterinarian or their assistants will miss a portion of the nail root when a cat is declawed. These surgeries usually heal normally at first. But the error eventually leads to a painful foot, limping, licking and a persistently draining lesion on the affected toe. It makes me so mad when I encounter these there is no excuse for them. Other vets unnecessarily remove so much tissue that the poor cat has difficulty walking. But those cats do not lick their paws.
Plasma Cell Pododermatitis (Foot Pad Disease)
Cat owners occasionally bring pets that are reluctant to walk or limping to their veterinarian with another poorly understood problem. When the vets examine the paws of these pets, they notice that the food pads of all four legs are inflamed but not necessarily to the same extent. They may be puffy, the skin may be cracked and painful they may be darker in color (bluish) than normal and, when severe, the pads may bleed. These cats did not jump onto stoves or track through harsh chemicals.
Plasma Cell Pododermatitis often improve temporarily when the cat is given corticosteroids. But the problem comes back once the drug’s effect has worn off. Doxycycline antibiotic and medications that aid in blood flow (pentoxifylline) will occasionally give short term relief as well.
When tissue from the affected foot pads is examined by pathologists, the most remarkable finding is the presence of abnormally high numbers of plasma cells. These cells are a component of your cat’s immune system. They generally rush to an area of the body that is perceived to have been invaded by some foreign agent. When this problem occurs and no foreign agent is present, we call it an autoimmune phenomenon and assume that the cat’s body mistakenly perceives some portion of its normal tissue as being a foreign agent.
Many cats go on years with intermittent, mild foot pad inflammation that requires no treatment. In others, it can become debilitating. Veterinarians rely on medications that suppress the cat’s immune system to keep these difficult cases under control. However, the use of any of these medications, other than for brief periods, bring problems of their own. Cyclosporine (Atopica®) is one of those agents.
You can read a scientific article on plasma cell Pododermatitis here.
Although hormonal imbalances are a common cause of non-itchy, symmetrical (same on both sides of the body) hair loss in dogs, they are an uncommon cause in cats that have hair loss that look quite similar. However, the thyroid gland function of older cats and those on fish-based diets ought to be part of the initial blood scans on licking and hair loss cats unless another cause is readily apparent.
Foot Tumors In Old Cats
Elderly cats occasionally develop tumors on their paws and elsewhere that can lead to licking and hair loss. There are so many possible tumor types (squamous cell carcinomas, mastocytomas, exocrine sweat gland tumors, lymphomas, liposarcomas, etc.)
I mentioned that veterinarians suspect that several of the skin conditions I previously mentioned have an element of autoimmune disease in them. But a classic form, pemphigus foliaceus, is also known to occur in cats. By the time your general veterinarian becomes frustrated with the problem and refers it to veterinary dermatologist for diagnosis, about 6 in 100 cat skin problems end up being cases of pemphigus foliaceus. These cats usually have dermatitis of one degree or another on the front of their head, which is unusual in most of the conditions I previously mentioned. You can read a thorough review of the signs and treatment for this disease. (read here & here)
Other Health Issues
Cats with health problems that are not primarily skin problems often look bedraggled and ill kept. In their poor health, they may not replace lost hair at the rate they once did nor are they motivated to do much else than lie around, groom and lick. These cats tend to loose hair on their bellies. They can lick that area due to pain-related health problems such as cystitis/FUS as well. Cats with inflammatory bowel disease or triad disease tend to dry, flaky skin because they do not absorb fats and proteins adequately. They can benefit from highly digestible diets. You can read about such diets here.
How Will My Veterinarian Diagnose My Cat’s Problem?
When you take your pet to the vet for licking, scratching and hair loss, your veterinarian’s examination will include some of the following:
Simple as it may sound in the 21st century with so many sophisticated tests available, the two most important diagnostic aids your vet has are listening you talk about your cat’s home life and how its skin problem developed followed by a careful physical examination of your cat.
Your Cat’s History
In obtaining that history, your vet will keep you on track with a few critical questions that guide him to the most likely causes for the symptoms you describe. All vets sore these mental flow charts in their brains that help lead them through maize of possible causes for what they see. “when did you first notice the itching or hair loss ? ” “How did it progress ?” “Have there been any other changes in its behavior? ” “What medications does it receive? ” “have any other family members developed similar signs? ”etc.
Your Cat’s Physical Exam
Often, your vet will be conducting his physical examination at the same time this conversation is occurring. He/she will be observing the small characteristics and distribution of the hair loss, rashes, bald areas, scratches, etc. and making mental notes of similar cases he has seen in the past or read about.
Your cat’s age is also an important clue. Kittens and adolescent cats are more likely to have fungal or skin parasites at the root of their problem, while cats in their twos and threes are most likely to experience allergies and food sensitivities. As I mentioned earlier, breed can also be an important clue.
An Examination With An Ultraviolet Light
Most vets follow their physical exam with an examination of the affected areas using an ultraviolet light source (a woods lamp) in a darkened room. Individual hairs of cats with fungal infections (ringworm) often glow under this light source. You can see how its done here Your veterinarian will then probably go on to a microscopic examination of a skin scraping from an affected area. They will be looking for parasites or evidence of fungi. If the hair loss is characteristic of fungi but none were found, they may pluck out some likely hairs and submit them for fungal culture.
Some vets will make glass slide impression smears from affected areas, process them with special staining solutions and examine them under a microscope (cytology). I have rarely found that to be diagnostic when the test is interpreted by other than a trained pathologist but a few astute vets excel in detecting tell tale clues from the procedure.
Much more helpful are small snippets of affected skin (biopsy specimens) that are sent to a central pathology laboratory. Many skin diseases can be ruled in or ruled out through biopsy results. Biopsies are often reserved for cases that fail to resolve with treatment.
Skin Culture and Antibiotic Sensitivity
In some more severe cases, bacterial skin cultures with subsequent antibiotic sensitivity tests on the bacteria found are desirable to determine which antibiotics are liable to be the most helpful. Again, it is uncommon to do skin cultures unless initial treatments fail. One major problem with isolation of bacteria and fungus from traumatized skin is that bacteria and fungi always take advantaged of traumatized skin in which the pet has removed protective outer skin layers by scratching. So other than the isolation of fungi like ringworm organisms, the bacteria and fungi found by the lab may have nothing to do with the underlying cause of itch, licking and skin trauma.
Allergy testing , both through intradermal testing or analysis of the cat’s blood, rarely adds treatment options or confirms a diagnosis. When it is performed, at least 4 months need to have passed since a course of corticosteroids have been given.
Read more about the limitations of those tests here.
What Treatments Are Available For My Cat?
Treatment options are harder to carry out in cats than dogs because cats are considerably harder to medicate. Owners need frequent encouragement and support from their veterinarians or many of them are likely to give up rather than face a constantly struggle to get medications into their cats. Some cats are more obstinate about taking meds than others. Unfortunately, it seems like the obstinate, high-strung ones are the ones most likely to have the problem.
Topical Ointments And Sprays
I am not a fan of topical ointments applied to cats. Cats quickly lick these products off when they are left uncovered or when the cat is left without some form of physical restraint (Elizabethan collars, neck cones etc.) Both bandages and restraint collars just add to the underlying stress the cat is experiencing.
A much more effective way than ointments or sprays to deliver antibiotics is for your veterinarian to prescribe them orally or by injection. Antibiotics need to be given for about three weeks to gain the most assurance that the problem will not return. Commonly prescribed antibiotics for skin problems in cats include clindamycin, and amoxicillin/clavulanate (Clavamox). Cephalexin and cefadroxil are OK, but they sometimes cause digestive upsets. In obstinate cats, an injectable form of cefovecin (Convenia®) is available that lasts for a full week.
Doxycycline antibiotic seems to aid in certain cat skin problems through an unknown mechanism that does not have to do with bacteria. But when it is given orally, it must be followed by food or water to prevent esophageal damage. (read here)
Veterinarians are becoming more aware that frequent antibiotic treatments of pets cause bacteria in the household to mutate into antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They are a potential threat to all family members. So be sure that the underlying cause of itching and scratching is addressed as well. Bacteria themselves (or yeast fungi/ malassezia) are almost never the underlying cause of a skin problem.
Medicated Shampoos And Rinses
These products can be very helpful in the long term controlling of many skin conditions. In some cases, medications they contain suppress itching and inflammation directly. In others washing toxic or inflammatory substances from the cat’s skin surface are their primary mode of action. They are rarely a cure in themselves, but they are often part of a successful treatment plan. They include products that contain colloidal oatmeal, topical steroids, antiseptics, petroleum distillates or parasite-killing sulfur. Not all dog or human medicated shampoos are safe to use on cats. Be sure the product states somewhere on its label that it is approved for use in cats.
Antihistamines are not as effective in controlling the signs of allergy in cats or dogs as they are in humans. But they can be part of a good long term treatment plan and their side effects in cats tend to be mild at the proper dose. Two that I have found particularly effective are hydroxyzine (Atarax®) and cyproheptadine (Periactin®). They seem to have a calming and increased well-being effect in cats that is unrelated to their antihistamine properties. When using antihistamines, begin at a low-end dose and gradually increase it under the guidance of your veterinarian. Lower the dose if anxiousness or hyperactivity occur. Some cats on these products need diet control to keep them from gaining too much weight.
All veterinarians know that they can stop itching dead in its tracks with corticosteroids drugs. The most common one used in cats is prednisolone. However, veterinarians also know that there can be a large price to pay for giving these products for long periods of time. It is always a cost versus benefit decision when electing to administer corticosteroid products for more than a few weeks. When they are given for skin problems, there is no place for the long acting preparations such as Depomedrol® (“Depo”) unless the cat absolutely refuses to accept oral steroid medications such as prednisolone. Their long-term use in cats has been associate with the development of feline diabetes.
Distractions And Diversions
You know, in your own life, that annoyances, aches and pains are less of a problem when enjoyable or interesting things are going on at the same time and worse when negative events are occurring. The same system occurs in your cat. Every disease has a “psychogenic” component – an increase in severity when the brain focuses on a physical or mental problem. So the more you keep your cat occupied with happy, interesting distractions, the less severe the skin problem is likely to be. In some cats, the improvement can be profound, in others, less so. Only when stress, boredom, anxiety or compulsiveness are the root cause of the skin problem will distractions be sufficient in themselves. But they should always be part of the treatment plan. Good active diverters are things like kongs, tennis balls, laser penlights, chasing Christmas lights, scratching posts, food mazes, puzzle feeders etc. The number of things you can add and do to divert your cat from licking and scratching is limited only by your imagination.
Mood Altering Drugs
When all else fails, some owners and veterinarians resort to mood altering medications. There is no harm in giving these medications at the proper dose, for limited periods of time (a month or two) – time enough to give lifestyle changes and other medications a chance to work. Itching can be self-perpetuating – itching causes scratching and licking and scratching a licking causes more itching. So there can be a place for mood altering drugs as an alternative to physical restraint. One commonly used medication in this class is amitriptyline, an antidepressant which some veterinarians believe also functions as an antihistamine. It needs to be given under the close supervision of your veterinarian as it can have a number of worrisome side effects including lowered white blood cell counts, altered mental states, urinary retention, dry mouth and constipation. It must be given with great caution to cats receiving hyperthyroid medications or other psychoactive drugs. Another commonly prescribed medication is clomipramine (Clomicalm®, Anafranil®) Your cats can receive one or the other of these two medications , but never both at the same time. Some cats respond positively to cat facial pheromones such as the Comfort Zone™ system or catnip which mimics it. I know of no down side to using them. But in one study, only about 1/3 to 1/2 of all cats examined responded at all to catnip (read here). That might apply to the artificial cat pheromone-like products like Feliway™ that you see in stores as well.
Tranquilizers And Sedatives
Like the mood altering medications, tranquilizers can have a place in your cat’s treatment plan when they are used for limited periods to open a window for other medications and life style modifications to work. The two most common ones dispensed to cats are acepromazine (Promace®, etc.) and diazepam (Valium®). Triazodone another sedative has also been used. (read here) However it use has been associated with occasional liver damage in dogs.
Drugs associated with pregnancy, called progestationals, also have a calming effect (eg Depopovera® and megestrol) . But they cause side effects similar to corticosteroids that can include eventual diabetes. So they must be used just as cautiously. With these drugs and corticosteroids, owners needs to ask themselves, is a period of itch-free life more important that eventual possible side effects? Have all other treatment options been tried? When all else fails, rear paw declawing a suffering cat is not in my mind an inhumane thing to do.
These products often have an antibiotic ingredient in them as well. But it is the steroid in them that works – if at all. The steroids used in topical sprays, (often betamethasone), is a type that hopefully is less absorbed into the cat’s body when it is licked off than the corticosteroids such as prednisolone that are given in pill-form. But don’t overuse them because some of it will be absorbed even when applied in a topical manner. These sprays appear to stings when applied to some cats and some cat owners (and cats) find the odor of these products objectionable. Those odor-related effects generally pass after a minute or two. Do not apply them to open wounds as they retard healing.
Cyclosporin (Neoral®, Atopica®)
These products were at one time heavily marketed (corticosteroids are off-patent and cheap). Their possible side effects include warts (papillomas), gum disease (hyperplastic gingivitis), activation of silent (latent) toxoplasmosis and cancer. I avoid dispensing it whenever I can. Cyclosporin has even been known to grow hair on women (hirsutism), so no one really knows what its long-term effect might be on cats. It still has applications in human medicine in preventing the rejection of transplanted organs. Like any drug, you must weigh its benefits against its risks. You can read more about cyclosporin here.
You can run down to your local Petco or PetsMart and pick up a bottle of bitters spray. It has a vile taste. But I have not found that it stops licking, itching or excessive grooming. One side effect is that everything in your home will taste bitter as your cat spreads the product around the house. I know from personal experience that it takes about 4 months for the house to free itself of the taste.
A Diet Change
Unless your veterinarian is quite certain that he/she knows the cause and a possible cure for your pet’s skin problem, a diet change can be a good inclusion in your cat’s treatment plan. Your veterinarian might suggest one. Even though food allergies are not high on the list of causes of itching in cats (or dogs) they are one of the few that have a simple cure. If the cause of your cats over-grooming is not apparent, it is certainly worth a try. To accurately determine if a diet change is helpful, you have to give it for 30-60 days when no other anti-itch/lick medications are given. Although I much prefer that you prepare your cat’s diet at home from supermarket ingredients + a supplement, you vet probably has some sacs of cat food in the back to sell you. Mealtime is always a delightful time for cats. Aroma has much to do with that. Not only is what they eat important, so is the presentation, frequency and portion size. So even if you cat has no food hypersensitivity, a new, savory, home-prepared diet – presented in novel ways – is an excellent means to distract it from licking and scratching. For itchy cats, I prefer diets that are high in a single meat ingredient, high in fresh animal fat, low in grains and other plant products, correctly vitamin and mineral balanced and prepared at home. You can read about them here. Be cautious about including fish or other sea foods other than moderate amounts of human-quality fillets. It is possible that the high iodine content of fish byproducts increases your cats risk of hyperthyroidism. (read here). Make all diet changes very gradually. If you purchase one of the many limited-ingredient commercial diets, a moist one or a moisten kibble is always better than one that is dry. Cats rarely drink sufficiently to keep themselves properly hydrated when they consume only dry kibble. Their natural prey in the wild was 75% water.
Flea Control Products
Even if you are positive that your cat’s skin problem is not flea-related, any exposure to fleas is going to make the problem worse. So use one of the newer monthly topical flea control products – at least for a few months. Be sure the package says it is approved for use on cats. There are veterinarians who increase the frequency of application to twice a month even though product instructions suggest a single monthly application. I can not vouch for the safety of that. You can read some tips on flea control here. To be effective, you must treat every dog, cat or ferret in the household. If you have an in-and-out cat, consider making it and “in-only” cat. If you have animal feeders outside, remove them at dusk. Opossums and raccoons carry fleas.
Lifestyle Changes And Environmental Enrichment
It is hard to separate distractions and diversions from lifestyle changes and enrichment. But things like bird feeders outside your windows, climbing platforms in the house, hinging mobiles, etc. will all keep your cat from becoming bored or focusing on its skin and fur. Lifestyle changes, particularly for sensitive or shy cats, need to be made gradually. Spend more time with your cat if you can. Some cats feel threatened by even the visual presence of outdoor cats seen through a window. That in itself can be enough to cause a cat to urine spray and even to intensify compulsive behaviors such as over-grooming or forgetting its litter box training.
Punishment , Denial Of Affection Or Shouting
Never a good idea.
These collars or donuts are just an increased stress on your cat. There is no doubt they will prevent your cat from licking and chewing. Consider them as only as a short term fix – like duct tape on a broken car window until you can get to the auto shop.
No Baby Or Mineral Oil Topicals
Do not use baby oil or any other petroleum oils on your cat’s skin. These petroleum oils can lodge in the cat’s lungs when they lick it off.
Booties And Bandages
These work well to control compulsive paw licking in dogs. I have no experience using them on cats. Bandages on your cat’s paws or other portions of its body tend to become damp with oozing liquids causing paw infection.
Yes, they might be helpful
Some cat owners believe that they are helpful. If you live in a dry, arid climate or your winter furnace heat is dry, you might experiment with one.
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