Cat hair loss can be a slow, gradual thing or it can seem like it happened overnight. Sometimes the cause can be emotional - an outward sign of stress - or it can be caused by something physical.
On the physical side, the most common reason for cat hair loss is cat dermatitis. There are two kinds of cat dermatitis - allergic dermatitis and contact dermatitis.
Allergic dermatitis is usually caused by flea bites - the
cat's skin is reacting to the saliva of the flea when it bites your
cat. The symptoms are bald patches, excessive licking/scratching, small
bumps or scabs where the flea has bitten, and the skin may be warm to
the touch. Check your cat carefully for fleas, especially in "hot
spots" - around the base of the neck, armpits, base of the tail and
pelvic/hip areas on their underside. Fleas like the warmer, more secure
areas on your cat.
If you believe fleas are the cause, the best course of treatment is cat Advantage. Flea dips, shampoos, collars and sprays will only further irritate the cat's sore itchy skin. For further information on how to use Advantage, read our Cat Advantage page.
Check with your vet before beginning Advantage.
If the itching has caused scabs or open sores, your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to speed healing.
Allergic dermatitis can also be caused by allergies to pollen or foods, but a reaction to the extent of cat hair loss (instead of just dandruff) usually has fleas as the culprit. See our cat dry skin page for help with suspected food allergies.
Contact Dermatitis can be caused by the cat's skin coming into contact with an irritating substance. Certain soaps or shampoos, detergents, paints, insect sprays or chemicals can be causes.
Symptoms include reddening of the skin, red bumps, and the area can become moist and sticky. The irritation will usually be limited to the area that was in contact with the substance - for example, the area under a flea collar. If you can narrow down the cause of the irritation (the itching began after using a certain shampoo or a new cleaner on the floor, for example), removing it should do the trick.
In some cases, if the reaction was severe, your vet may use anti-inflammatory medication to get the skin back to normal.
Never use essential oils like peppermint (or any menthol), lavender or tea tree oil on your cat!
Cats' livers are different from humans and lack the ability to process
these oils. Using essential oils on your cat can result in both
contact dermatitis and liver damage!
Hair loss can also be caused by cat ringworm - click here for signs and symptoms of ringworm.
Stress can be
caused by changes in the cat's environment - a move, a new pet or new
baby, for example - or by an emotional cause called
cat separation anxiety.
If the stress is being caused by a change or by separation anxiety, you will notice hairless patches on the cat's sides, bum or belly begin to appear. The cat will lick the spots until the cat hair loss begins.
For many cats, once they get used to the environmental change that they are reacting to, the licking will stop. Give your cat some extra attention or a favorite toy or treat to ease the transition.
The licking itself is not harmful to the cat, but be sure to give your cat some hairball remedy if you notice stress licking - they may have trouble with that much hair in their system all at once.
The difficulty can be getting some cats to "break the habit" of licking those spots, or if the cause is emotional like cat separation anxiety. For some cats, it becomes a bit of an obsession.
In these cases, a good first thing to try is Feliway in a plug in. Feliway is a synthetic pheromone that tells the cat's system to release their own "happy" hormones. One plug in is good for about 500 square feet, so you may need more than one if your cat has the range of a large house.
If you see your cat licking the spots, don't be angry at them or shout. This can lead to more stress when they are confused as to why you are angry with them. Licking really can become a habit or obsession for some cats. Try distraction instead with a favourite toy!
If Feliway and distraction have not helped, and the stressful situation is no longer present, you may need a vet visit.
Your vet may prescribe an antidepressant, like Clomicalm, for your cat (never give your cat anything meant for humans!). Sometimes cats need a bit of help breaking the habit of licking and one round of antidepressants will be enough. In other cats, they may need them for a longer period of time.
Our cat Piglet HATES moving - she was an abandoned kitten and
moving brings back that stress, I think. We had a big move about a
year ago, and during the packing she licked her belly bald. The
previous owner of our new house had cats, so she could smell other cats
in the new house and this also stressed her out. Once we were settled
and she was confident that all her stuff came too (and there were no
strange cats hanging around), she became better.
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Skip to our Cat Dry Skin page for help with food allergies and dandruff