An out-of-context or irrelevant response to anxiety is called a displacement behavior. During a social conflict, for example, a harassed cat may be undecided about whether to run from its attacker or to stand and fight. Instead, the cat displays a third, unrelated behavior, such as grooming. This is a normal activity that cats find calming and reassuring. If the displacement behavior becomes a habit and is generalized to any stressful situation, it becomes a stereotypy–a prolonged or repetitive behavior that serves no apparent useful purpose and, in some cases, is actually self-destructive. Stereotypies are sometimes compared to obsessive-compulsive disorders in humans.
Exactly why such normal behaviors become excessive is unknown. One possible explanation is that repetitive actions release endorphins, the molecules produced by the body to alleviate pain or discomfort due to injury or other unpleasant stimuli. An underlying disease or a response to medication can sometimes cause stereotypic behavior. It is also apparent that certain breeds are genetically inclined to exhibit these behaviors. For example, many Siamese cats are predisposed to suck and chew wool.
The cat’s pet parents can actually be the cause of the anxiety that leads to displacement behavior and if the anxiety continues, to stereotypic or compulsive behavior. If the owner’s behavior toward the cat is inconsistent and confusing, the cat may experience “approach-avoidance conflict”. He wants to solicit petting and attention from the owner, but because of the owner’s recent hostile actions (eg., shouting at or punishing the cat unpredictably or repeatedly), he is afraid to do so and so is in a state of conflict. He decides on a grooming session instead.
Most cats briefly groom their flanks or back after a mild upset. When this behavior becomes compulsive, it is called psychogenic alopecia and the targets are generally the lower abdominal region, the backs of the legs, the lower back, and the feet, shoulders, and front legs. In severe cases the cat may actually pluck out large patches of fur causing bald patches. Bouts of excessive licking may be sporadic or continuous and they may occur when the owner is nearby or when the cat is alone. If the owner is present, he should observe the circumstances in which the behavior occurs, how it begins, and when it happens, so that the cat can be distracted at times of risk by encouraging it to engage in other rewarding activities, such as play, attention or feeding.
The cure for this behavior is to determine the source of the stress and to remove it, if possible. In multi-cat households, the interactions between cats can be a source of stress, so look for aggressive behavior between the cats and note how the overgrooming cat is reacting to the others. The troubled cat may need his own space away from the others, at least for part of the day, a time-out if you will. Some cats are sound-sensitive and should be provided with quiet areas in the house. Tuning the radio to an easy-listening station may help to block out distressing outdoor noise. Time alone with the owner on a regular basis is also very therapeutic. Interactive play (play therapy) with a fishing pole cat toy is excellent for reducing stress (much like jogging is for humans). The play session should be followed by a few minutes of petting or grooming. Make sure the stressed cat has easy access to all of his necessities–food, water, litter boxes, sunny sleeping spots–and doesn’t have to brave “enemy territory” to supply his basic needs. Regular diversions in his safe place (eg., toys he has not seen for a while, a paper grocery bag or a cardboard box to explore) will help to take his mind off his worries.
It may not be possible to provide a stress-free home for the overgrooming cat, but with a little thought and lots of TLC, Kitty may gradually adjust to the household and soon be sporting a lovely new coat.
Wool sucking can take many forms including sucking its own or another cat’s fur, sucking and kneading soft blankets, or sucking the owner’s hair, earlobes, or other body parts. “At its most extreme, the oral activity is directed at all kinds of fabric, including linen, nylon, acrylic, and some plastics, and involves mouthing, chewing, and even ingestion.” At this stage the condition is referred to as pica, the eating of inappropriate nonfood items. Some cat owners find that their cat is literally eating them out of house and home.
Possible solutions for sucking, chewing, and pica problems are as follows:
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