Max Factor with his fur all grown back is shown above
Cat hair loss, also known as alopecia, can be caused by a variety of ailments, including parasites (such as ringworm) and food or airborne allergies. Hormonal or endocrine problems, although rare, can also affect a cat's coat. Stress is a factor as well.
Physical causes of hair loss can be diagnosed in the vet's office if a parasitic infection, such as fleas or mites, is obvious. A good indicator of that is a thinning of the coat, along with inflammation, scabs or skin lesions in the affected area. Patchy hair loss is usually a sign of infection.
Cat hair loss in the tail area or around the face is also a good indication that fleas are to blame. In some cases the cause is not quite so obvious and extensive testing...like blood-work, skin scraping or microscopic examination of the hair...will be required.
Under a microscope, a vet can see if the hair is diseased, as with ringworm, or if the shaft is broken, a sign that the cat hair loss may have been caused by excessive licking or biting. It is also important to know how long it has been going on, whether there's any seasonality to it, and whether the cat is itching or chewing.
Allergies in cats, both food and environmental, are the number one cause of cat hair loss. If the cause is an inhalant or pollen allergy, it might have a variability with the season. If it's focal, it might be more apt to be an infection like ringworm. Vets say they are more likely to treat alopecia in long-haired cats although short-hairs aren't immune to it.
A lot of long-haired cats with hair mats sometimes lick and cause cat hair loss. Other cats will get something irritating on the skin and their hair will fall out. A cat can get a bite wound and the hair will fall out around the wound.
Allergic skin diseases that make a cat itchy can cause the cat to excessively groom the problem area. They are nicknamed "hair mowers" because they lick off their hair, usually around the belly, resulting in a shorn look.
Another cause can be mental stress and this is called psychogenic alopecia. A recent move, the addition of a new pet or some other change in lifestyle can cause excessive grooming. Too much grooming breaks off the fur.
Our cat Max Factor, who had been abandoned, was so stressed that he compulsively over-groomed and with so much hair missing he looked pathetic. In Max's case a good home and lots of love cured this behavior and his black, shiny fur returned.
Anywhere a cat can lick, they will take the fur off. They can't reach the neck, but everywhere else...the tail, tummy ,limbs etc. will have hair loss. While stress may be a factor it's important to first exclude more common ailments, such as allergies, before turning to behavior modification. While the signs of over-grooming may be the same, the causes may be different.
The treatment for cat hair loss or alopecia is relatively simple. For cats that suffer from food allergies, it can be as easy as changing your cat's diet. Protein-rich foods, such as beef, pork, milk, eggs and fish, are most likely to trigger an allergic reaction in cats; however, because most pet foods contain some of these proteins, changing brands may not be the solution.
Instead, your vet may try to restrict your cat's diet to a protein with which he has had little prior exposure, such as rabbit, venison or lamb. Even then, your cat may become allergic to the new diet and you'll have to start from square one again.
Cats that are allergic to pollen, mold spores, dust mites or animal dander show localized hair losses and can be treated with antihistamines or cortisone, or occasionally allergy injections.
For cats suffering from cat ringworm which is marked by tiny, bald dime-sized patches, therapy usually consists of antiifungal antibiotics such as Griseofulvin and topical applications of anti-fungal dips and shampoos. A ringworm vaccine often can prevent the problem from reoccurring. Also decontaminate your pet's home environment, using a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water.
Cat hair loss that develops in symmetrical patterns on the front legs, face or back and which is accompanied by scaling, scabbing or redness is generally caused by fleas and should be dealt with using an anti-flea preparation.
For a listing of these go to fleas on cats. If you have an indoor flea infestation, you will have to treat the environment to eliminate a possible repetition cat hair loss. There are products available from reliable vendors on the Pet Products Page
A less common cause of itching and cat hair loss ... alopecia ...in cats is chyeletiella, a parasite known as the "walking dandruff" mite. Usually, these mites cause itching and baldness around the middle of a cat's back and are treated using anti-parasite products such as those used for flea control.
You have to treat each cause specifically. If it's a food allergy, use avoidance. If it's airborne allergies, mask it with antihistamines or cortisone or desensitize it with allergy shots. If it's ringworm, use an anti-fungal medication. If it's psychogenic, try behavior modification.
Cats that suffer from psychogenic alopecia require behavior modification or drugs to keep hair loss to a minimum...or in some cases like our Max...once the stress cause was gone, so was the behavior. Most felines spend time grooming and it’s a favorite pastime ….following eating and sleeping. A cat devotes a lot of care to its coat by licking each patch of fur and repeatedly rubbing its forepaw over its face and also nibbling out knots between the paw pads.
As vital a task as grooming is to a cat, some take it to extremes and lick and chew their fur until only stubble remains. Excessive grooming and cat hair loss (also known as alopecia) can be caused by a number of things and one of them is mental distress.
When cats have changes in their environment such as a new cat arriving, the death of a feline or human companion, or even a change in furniture in the house, they can react by over grooming as a way to cope with their anxiety. This is called psychogenic alopecia. Your compulsive over groomer will have one or more of the following traits.
Longer-haired cats ...Burmese, Abyssinians, Himalayan and Siamese breeds...are more apt to be psychogenic because sometimes they are a little high strung and more obsessive-compulsive about their grooming. It almost becomes a fetish. Of course other breeds are not immune, especially if they have suffered a trauma like our Max did when he was abandoned.
We humans, can take a pill to get us over a stressful time while a cat starts licking its fur. And once it starts licking the skin, it can get a compulsive disorder. There are narcotics, endorphins, produced in the body and, with licking, the endorphins are released. The behavior has not only a behavior component, but a mental addiction as well.
Giving your stressed out feline more attention can do wonders. It can offset...if not eliminate...the "hair mowing" behavior. Play with your cat...teach your cat tricks. See Cat Training. If more attention doesn't solve the problem, drugs can be useful.
Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs such as Valium or Buspirone should be a temporary solution ...you don't want your cat to be a "junkie"...so when your cat adapts to the stress or the stress goes away, you can take the cat off the medication.
Whether allergies, parasites or stress is the cause, feline alopecia can be reversed within a month. It may take several months, though, before a cat's coat fully returns to normal. As long as the cat isn’t damaging the skin by being so overzealous, and the owner gives the animal hairball preventives to stave off gastrointestinal obstructions, the cat is no danger...except by not looking like a fashionable feline.