Downtime

My Cat’s Cleaning Herself Bald

How can I help her stop the compulsive licking?

A cat cleaning itself.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ziviani/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

My cat is 3 and has been an indoor cat all her life. She has always had separation anxiety, and about a year ago a bald patch appeared on her belly. Then, it spread to her legs. At first she was overcleaning when we weren’t there, then she started overcleaning all the time. She only seems to be content when she is cuddling with my partner or me. She freaks when we leave. Help!

—Plucked and Panicked

Dear Plucked and Panicked,

While your cat certainly sounds like she’s suffering from anxiety and exhibiting compulsive behavior, the first step in her treatment should be a visit to the vet to make sure. “When a cat is grooming certain parts of its body, it could indicate that something is wrong inside,” certified animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado tells me. “Sometimes cats lick the part of their body where it’s uncomfortable. If it is grooming its belly, you want to make sure she doesn’t have some kind of urinary tract issue.” A vet can also determine whether the hairs have been chewed off or they fell out on their own (which could suggest a separate medical issue).

Ruling out any physical ailments is important, but you’ll still want to give the issue medical attention. “If the cat is truly suffering and injuring herself, then we would consider that to be of the same seriousness as if the cat had an eye infection or sprained leg,” Delgado says. Try to document as much of your cat’s anxiety-licking as possible, so you can present your vet with an accurate picture of her behavior. Depending on the cat’s stress levels, the vet may want prescribe anti-anxiety medication.

Humans tend to treat separation anxiety head-on, which is why a fear of sleepovers and summer camp is so often treated with sleepovers and summer camp. This isn’t an option for your cat (we definitely wouldn’t recommend trying to put her in a sleeping bag). Nonetheless, you need to help her become more confident and secure in your apartment. It’s her whole world, after all.

Cuddling may seem like a quick fix for her anxiety, but she has to learn how to have fun on her own. “The cat shouldn’t be dependent on the owner for every second of its entertainment,” Delgado says. She recommends replacing some of your snuggle time with active play. You should also set up the apartment with toys, as well as objects for climbing and scratching. The cat will realize there’s a big environment beyond your lap—your job is to make sure it’s filled with stuff to do.

Your apartment doesn’t have to be a wall-to-wall amusement park. “All cats need the ability to withdraw from social interaction if they want to,” Delgado says. Set up an area in your apartment, ideally one that is elevated and a little private, to serve as your cat’s chill zone. “That is the cat’s place. It will learn that if it wants to be left alone, it [should] go to this spot.” A feline fortress of solitude won’t immediately turn her into Super Cat, but it can help her appreciate the feeling of being alone. Or, in other words, separation without the anxiety.