Loose hairs weaved into the sofa, embedded in your wardrobe, and clumped into the Furminator are cliche signs that peak shedding season is here. But then, those innocent self-grooming sessions reach new extremes: Fluffy’s licking has progressed to chewing and hair yanking. This obsessive habit can lead to open wounds and infections, so why do cats pull out their fur and sometimes eat it?
Cats pull out their fur because there’s skin itchiness caused by allergies, matted fur, flea or mite infestations, unbalanced diets, ringworm, or stress. Itchiness aside, a cat’s hair-plucking could also stem from painful conditions (i.e., arthritis) or compulsive behaviors causing alopecia.
Those hairy tumbleweeds in the bedroom aren’t your kitty’s way of warning, ‘I need a haircut!’ Nor is this hair-pulling a quirky feline behavior (à la the plastic-chewing or litter-eating seen in pica). To learn about why cats pull out their fur, read on!
The Most Common Culprit: Itchy Skin
No, cats don’t pinch hair follicles between their toes and tug out lone hairs. When skin itchiness is the culprit, a desperate kitty might do the following to tame that creepy-crawling sensation:
- Nibble (or chew)
- Rub their itchy area against a stationary object
A few tongue swipes or couch rubs will soothe the itch in ordinary cases, leaving dead or loose stray hairs to shed in the process. When the irritation persists, these once-relieving behaviors wind up yanking out perfectly-healthy hairs and leave behind bald patches.
Itchiness — and the resulting pulled-out locks — can come from:
A cat’s coat is its first line of defense when brawling with fellow tomcats, and their digestive systems are resilient enough to swallow goldfinches whole. A cat’s body is also highly sensitive to common household allergens and even simple food ingredients.
These ‘invading’ allergens kick the immune system into overdrive and trigger inflammation in nearly every bodily system. An allergic kitty might wheeze, have diarrhea bouts, or even experience swollen paws after a rendezvous in a pollen-laden prairie in April.
Allergies are among the most common culprits for itchy skin and excessive, spore-producing grooming sessions. Cats can be allergic to just about anything, including:
- Grass, weeds, mold, and pollen
- Food ingredients (most often fish, beef, chicken, or beef)
- Harsh chemicals like perfumes, detergents, or air fresheners
- Rubbers and plastics
Cats might not experience sneezing fits after every spring breeze gusts through the cracked window, but they do suffer from allergies!. The video below explains the common feline allergies:
Fleas, Mites, or Ticks
A cat relentlessly gnawing at her tail’s base or compulsively scratching her belly might be struggling with a more troublesome culprit: Parasites. When an unsuspecting cat picks up fleas outside, these almost-microscopic insects will burrow into a kitty’s skin to feast on its blood.
The hair loss stems from the discomfort that fleas, mites, or ticks cause. A mite crawling up your cat’s back might send ripples down her spine and trigger a scratching fit. But while they’re sucking your kitty’s blood, they’re also siphoning in their own saliva — causing severe itchiness.
The scratching and rubbing provide the same relief as massaging your mosquito bites! All three infestations are reversible with proper removal and treatment. But allowing these to go untreated can lead to mange (scabies), severe hair loss due to scratching, and scarring.
Those hair tufts gathering on your cat’s bed might not be from itchy skin as much as brittle hair. When your cat’s diet lacks the following nutrients, even the classic face-wipe and tail-licking session can reveal bare spots:
- Protein (aids with keratin production and healthy hair growth)
- Fat (particularly linoleic acid. Omega-3s, and Omega-6s for healthy skin)
- B vitamins (choline, biotin, and niacin)
- Vitamin E
An unbalanced diet can deliver nightmarish consequences three-fold: Itchy or scaly skin, brittle hair that sheds easily, and slow hair regrowth.
Ringworm — scientifically-known as ‘dermatophytosis’ — is a skin-level fungal infection that relies on keratin to thrive. This condition might appear like a reddish ring on a cat’s once-plump coat and leave hair relatively sparse. Where skin allergies might produce itchiness from nose to tail, ringworm will usually confine its itch and hair loss to the back, legs, chest, and forehead.
Other Reasons Cats Pull Out Their Fur
A patchy coat and its painfully-reddened skin doesn’t always stem from an unsuspected flea infestation or hidden ringworm infection. If the problem is at least partially psychological, these factors might be to blame:
A naturally-aloof kitty might tolerate lifestyle changes quite well and ‘roll with the punches.’ But cats more sensitive to ‘new’ or ‘different’ might experience emotional turmoil due to:
- Introducing a new baby, dog, cat, or roommate to the household
- Moving to a new home and becoming adjusted
- Reorganizing household furniture
- Straying from the daily routine (working later, feeding Fluffy at 8 a.m. instead of 7 a.m.)
- Exposure to fear-inducing things (fireworks, outdoor predators, etc.)
Veterinary experts believe that licking releases the euphoria-inducing hormone, endorphins, in a cat’s brain — also called the ‘feel-good hormone.’ A fearful, anxious, or overwhelmed kitty might lick her belly until hair clumps fall out in an attempt to self-soothe.
One of the most unsettling hair-pulling triggers is a cat suffering from pain. When arthritis causes achy hips, a sprained back leg begins throbbing, and a fresh cut leaves behind a burning sensation, cats will dedicate extra attention to licking these areas. The licking might provide temporary relief, but the relentless pain waves might lead to patchy spots over time.
Second to napping, which cats dedicate up to 20 hours a day to, a kitty’s favorite activity is grooming (up to five hours a day). But when a cat’s licking and nibbling becomes compulsive or even neurotic, it approaches psychogenic alopecia territory — known as ‘over-grooming.’
Compulsive grooming will lead to broken hairs, bald patches, and more frequent hairballs (if your cat prefers to lick). A cat suffering from psychogenic alopecia will have more consistent hair loss from neck to tail, not confined to one leg or just the tail’s base like itchy skin might cause.
The Hidden Dangers & Consequences
The clumpy hair loss isn’t only catastrophic in the cosmetic sense. The raw skin located in these ‘hotspots‘ also becomes ultra-sensitive and far easier to break open, thanks to those dagger-like claws, sharp canine teeth, and sandpaper-like tongues.
When left untreated, excess hair-pulling can eventually lead to:
- Sparse or completely bald patches
- Open wounds (sores or lesions) that bleed or ooze pus
- Bacterial or fungal infections
- More itchiness in the affected area
- Scabs (from healing)
- Greater risk for sunburn
- Feeling chilly
When your cat’s casual licking becomes skin-tearing scratching, the worst thing you can do is nothing! Consult your vet immediately to decide on a treatment route (i.e., antibiotics, steroids, or even anxiety medication). Distracting your kitty with new toys, treats, or cuddles when she struggles with the urge to scratch (or lick) can help make progress while healing.
Some cats might yank fur chunks after you swap in a new kibble or use a different laundry detergent (allergies). But the hair-pulling usually fades after a vet diagnosis, short-term treatment, or ‘undoing’ whatever the trigger is (i.e., transitioning back to the old food).
Even if the bald patches and raw skin don’t seem to phase your resilient kitty, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Open wounds are hotbeds for bacteria, fungi, and even potentially life-threatening abscesses. Don’t wait for gushing scrapes or tooth puncture wounds to notify your cat’s vet.
That plump, fuzzy coat will return in 4-6 months.