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Sadly, overgrooming in cats is becoming a really common ‘problem behaviour’. As our fur babies deal with more and more stress in their lives, they turn to this self-soothing mechanism to cope.
In this blog I will share with you what overgrooming is, warning signs to look for and how to help your cat if they have become stuck using this method to deal with their emotions.

What is overgrooming?

Overgrooming is a term commonly used to describe cats that are constantly grooming themselves in a particular area of their body. It is more common to see it on the tummy, but some cats will also create bald patches on the inside of their leg. The affected area isn’t limited though, a cat could be overgrooming on any part of their body, including the tail.

This behaviour isn’t just constant licking of the same area. Some cats will pull at the fur, chew their skin, lick the same space, or even constantly rub their body against something.

Why do cats do it?

The short answer – it is a self-soothing mechanism. The cat is trying to feel better.

The reason behind this extreme behaviour will vary for each cat. After all, every cat is unique. Just like humans and anxiety – we all deal with it differently.

It could be due to poor nutrition, a physical health issue, mental health imbalance or an emotional reaction.

The science behind it starts when cats are kittens. They are cleaned by their mother to remove the birthing sac and fluids. She then licks their anus to stimulate urination and defecation. The mother will lick the kitten to keep them clean, distribute her scent and to provide the base for social development and creation of behavioural patterns. Licking of the coat is a functional and emotional behaviour.

As the kittens grow, their eyes open and they explore their surroundings, the mother cat will clean the kittens to impart her scent onto their coat. It’s almost a way of marking the kittens. Don’t forget cats use their sense of smell for EVERYTHING!

Kittens are then cleaned by their litter mates as they get older which strengthens their bond. They learn to clean themselves as the mother reduces her contact, and then cats experience touch from us. Have you ever given your cat strokes and then watched them have a clean? Leo does this all the time!

Cleaning, licking, and coat maintenance provides the following for the cat:

🐾 Keeps the coat clean and free from knots, tangles, or clumps

🐾 Distributes scent over the coat and ingestion of scent is soothing for the cat

🐾 The act of cleaning is relaxing for cats

🐾 It triggers their emotional centre – memories of being nurtured

Warning signs to look for

How can you tell if your cat is simply having a clean or if they are overgrooming? Sadly, this behaviour isn’t always recognised until it is too late. The cat has established the coping mechanism, they have bald patches on their tummy and now you are left trying to break the habit.

So, what can you do to prevent this happening?

Know the normal for your cat.

We spend quite a lot of time with our fur babies so be present with them. Get to know their cleaning habits and routines.

For example, I know that Leo will clean his coat meticulously after we have stroked him. Or after he has eaten. Baby Max generally only cleans after food. Some cats will clean as and when they need to. Others will spend most of their day doing it! What does your cat do?

I remember the first winter we had Leo. He wasn’t allowed outside yet so he needed interaction and play from us. A couple of times I was too tired to play with him and I noticed he would spend longer licking his tummy. So, Husband and I created a plan to take it in turns to play with Leo every night. Sometimes we managed 10 minutes, other days 40 minutes.

But when we made the effort to engage with him. After a couple of days of this I noticed that he rarely licked his tummy. I think we dodged a bullet to be honest. If we had carried on leaving him to just ‘do his thing’ (basically get bored and fed up), I think he would have been overgrooming on his tummy.

Cats are social creatures; they need interaction and stimulation. Indoor or outdoor cat it doesn’t matter. We are their guardians, so we need to cater to their needs.

Is your cat focussing on a particular area?

It’s ‘normal’ for cats to clean all over their body. Not necessarily every time they clean, but throughout the day they should clean the whole of their body. Is your cat going back to the same area over and over again?

Are they hyper focused when cleaning?

Most cats should be able to be distracted by something else when cleaning. If you are worried your cat is creating a habit of overgrooming try to distract them on occasion. Don’t tell them off or use negative reinforcement. Offer a treat or get out a toy. If the cat is simply having a clean rather than overgrooming they will be distracted and engage with you.

Are they tender to touch in the area they keep grooming?

Be cautious as you check this, if cats are in pain, they can become aggressive. Don’t just prod or poke your cat in this area. When you are having cuddles, or offering brushes gently touch the area and gauge your cats response. If they appear to be sore in this area get a vet check.

Do you see your cat clean at regular/consistent times?

If the answer is yes, you may have identified a trigger. When cats are overgrooming they are trying to self-soothe. Make themselves feel better. They are using this behaviour as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, anxiety, fear etc. When does your cat start this behaviour? What is their trigger? Can you remove it?

How can you help your cat?

If you have identified that your cat is starting to overgroom or if you are reading this because your cat has bald patches on their tummy or legs, I’m glad you are here.

Obviously not because you have a cat that is struggling to cope (my heart goes out to you both), but because you can try my suggestions below to help your feline friend and I hope it gives them some relief:

  1. Remove the stressor

If you have been able to identify what is causing stress for your cat, remove it if you can. If you can’t figure out what is causing your cat stress and anxiety, or you are unable to remove the stressor – get help. Sometimes we are too close to an issue to know how to change it. If you need more help take a look at my  3 module masterclass.

  1. Vet check

Be sure to get the cat checked by a vet to rule out any mites or skin reactions that need to be treated.

  1. Cancel the carbs!

Cats are obligate carnivores and any diet (dry, wet or raw) that contains cereals, grains or carbohydrates can aggravate the cats skin which can cause them to overgroom. Transition your cat to a more species appropriate diet if possible.

  1. Healing herbs

A herb garden is a great way to offer your cat physical relief from the itching and soreness overgrooming can cause. They also help to reduce stress and anxiety. My herbs are organic and carefully selected to help support your cats physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. All you have to do is put down a small blanket with the herbs on and let your cat do the rest! You can see my range of gardens here.

  1. Let’s get stinky

Essential oils are a wonderful way to help your cats emotional and mental state. They are safe and very effective when used alongside self-selection principles. We have over a dozen references to overgrooming in The Aromatic Cat. From herbs to hydrosols and a comprehensive list of essential oils that can help your cat to kick this habit. You can get your signed copy here.

  1. Catch the replay

You can watch my Cats and overgrooming webinar replay. It’s got more content than I could put here and other treatment suggestions to explore.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog. If you are struggling with your cat, get in touch. You don’t need to deal with this on your own.

With love,
Julie-Anne, Leo and Max xxx


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