Hi Dr. B.,
My cat Sherman is losing his hair. It started with a bald spot on his stomach, and now has grown to include the backs of his rear legs, and a little bit on his back too. Sometimes I find clumps of hair on his bed or on the floor. His skin doesn’t look red or irritated, and he eats and plays like always. Do you have any idea what is going on?
I suspect that your cat is suffering from a syndrome called psychogenic alopecia. That is medical terminology for hair loss due to psychological causes.
Many cats respond to boredom or stress by over-grooming or plucking out their hair. Often this occurs only when their owners are absent, which makes it seem that the hair is falling out on its own. The pattern you describe is typical of psychogenic alopecia. Hair loss starts on the abdomen, and then progresses to the backs of the thighs, and then works its way up the back.
The most extreme case I have seen was a cat who had no hair anywhere on his body except for his face. If that cat had been better able to lick his face, I’m sure he would have been bald there, too. The good news is that, although he looked a bit ridiculous, his health was fine. And that is typical of psychogenic alopecia. In most cases, it is a cosmetic issue.
The main triggers for psychogenic alopecia are stress or boredom. This may sound preposterous, since most cats lead lives that appear to be completely free of stress. And, given how much they sleep, it would seem that they shouldn’t be prone to boredom. However, remember that the emotional lives of cats are remarkably complex. Things that seem insignificant to us, such as spotting a neighbor’s cat through the window, can cause stress for your cat. And regarding boredom: in the wild, cats spend most of their waking hours hunting for food. Since for a house cat obtaining food involves little more than walking to the bowl, most pet cats end up with plenty of spare time.
As well, some medical conditions can contribute to the problem. Bladder infections may make some cats lick their abdomens. And exposure to fleas can lead to excessive grooming and psychogenic alopecia in predisposed individuals.
So, what can you do? First, make sure your cat is healthy and provide regular flea preventative. Have a vet look at your cat’s skin to make sure that the problem truly is psychogenic alopecia, and not something more dangerous.
Then, I recommend adding enrichment to your cat’s routine. A period of active play each day, such as chasing a laser pointer, will relieve stress. It also may make your pet too tired to spend time pulling out his hair. In a recent column, I mentioned toys that gradually release food, which can help to make meal time more interesting, and relieve boredom. Also, try setting aside some extra time each day to pet and play with your cat.
For severe cases, medications can be prescribed that may help the problem. However, I recommend them only as a last resort.
Finally, please remember that psychogenic alopecia is not your fault. Many pet owners who do everything right have cats who pluck out their hair.