Everyone who has owned a cat knows they can be rather mysterious animals at times. So it can be quite frustrating when your cat is acting rather oddly for what seems like no reason at all. One behavior that can seem alarming: over-grooming or pulling hair out. Even if you don’t actually catch your cat in the act, there’s an obvious way to tell the cat is pulling hair out: He’s missing hair. You may see bald patches accompanied by red and irritated skin.
So we asked Jackson Galaxy, YouTube content creator, bestselling author and longtime host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell, for the scoop on this behavior. Below he shares why you may see your cat pulling his hair out and how you can get them feeling calm once again.
Top reasons cats pull their hair out
You’re most likely to notice your cat missing hair on his belly and the inside of the back leg, says Galaxy. And whether you’ve spotted your cat engaging in the odd behavior or simply notice bald spots in his fur, you may be wondering what’s triggering it. Generally, it can be attributed to two categories.
“There’s the physically based and there’s behavioral based,” he explains. “The physical most often is an allergy, environmental factors or a food sensitivity.” For that reason, Galaxy recommends taking your cat to a veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist first. This will allow you to determine if your cat is experiencing any health issues, like parasites, fleas or a fungal infection, all of which can cause hair loss.
If the vet rules out physical causes, then it’s time to look at your cat’s behavioral health and stress levels.
“If it’s something that you’ve never noticed, take a look at what’s happening in your life, in your world, because cats are like energetic sponges,” shares Galaxy. “Whatever is going on in the human or family dynamic is often reflected in the health of the animals in your house.”
Like people, cats can find varying ways to cope with stress. In fact, cats see grooming as soothing because it reminds them of early kittenhood when they’re cleaned and comforted by their mother. But sometimes it can get out of hand. “It’s a constant thing in order to feel more centered and calm, says Galaxy, who compares the habit to nail biting in humans. (How are your cat’s claws looking? Click through to see how to trim cat nails at home.)
How to stop your cat from pulling his hair out
If stress is the root of the problem, there are things you can do to help him elicit calm in a more positive way, assures Jackson.
The first is to “stop the clock,” says Galaxy. “What you want to do is go back to the first time you noticed it and then rewind the (metaphorical) tape to a solid month before that and say, ‘Okay, what changed in our lives?’” This could be anything from a new pet to a job that has switched up the schedule at home. Then you can begin to look at how you can help your cat adjust to that change.
Next, he says you want to replace the hair-pulling behavior your cat sees as a self-soother with new calming rituals. You can do this following the “routine, ritual, rhythm” mindset. For instance, playing with your cat during his peak energy hours is a routine. When you do it over and over, it becomes part of your cat’s ritual and then is grounded into his circadian rhythm.
“In one of the more active parts of the day where normal spikes in energy can be translated to this over grooming, we want to interrupt that cycle with a more productive expulsion of energy,” says Galaxy. “Play is the easiest and most direct way to do it.”
Another possible cause of hair pulling? A change in schedule or environment, like going from working at home to back at the office. This can cause your cat to over-groom to cope with the stress. “So we want to insert these productive rituals before you leave the house,” he advises. Try playing with him before you have to leave or giving him a food puzzle to keep him occupied. (These are the best toys for cats.) This becomes part of the routine, so you heading out for the day isn’t as stressful. The most important key? Don’t make a big deal when you do leave, says Galaxy. “Just walk out,” he adds. “Saying ‘Goodbye, I’ll be home soon, there’s nothing to be afraid of’ will turn leaving into an event — one that will elicit fear instead of soothing it.”
What other behaviors are a cause for concern?
Hair pulling is usually a hard-to-miss behavior, but even if you don’t notice your cat over-grooming, there may be other signs that indicate your furry feline is stressed. Galaxy says signs of anxiety can including hiding more than usual, eating less, appearing lethargic or acting more aggressive.
“Anything you see that is completely out of the ordinary, pay attention to it,” he says. “Context is really, really important. You know your cat as much as you know the humans you live with. It’s time to call upon your innate, intimate knowledge of this individual and look at anomalies in how they how they conduct their day.” (Click through for tips from Galaxy on how to get your cat to love you.)
Sudden behavioral changes of any kind naturally warrant a trip to the vet to determine if there may be health issues at play. But if the vet gives your cat a clean bill of health, it’s time to address potential stressors around the house. Following Galaxy’s advice can have your cat feeling calm, happy and safe once again.
For more help on cat behavior, keep reading!