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Searching for Clues

My catís sudden excessive grooming prompts a consult with my veterinarian.

[From Tufts February 2011 Issue]

Recently, Murphy, my 12- year-old cat, was suddenly looking more like a molting bird than a domestic shorthair. In the span of 10 days, she had methodically and persistently licked and pulled fur off her front paws, abdomen and right flank. Her barbed tongue had removed hair down to the skin in some places, causing red rashes.

Yet, she continued to purr and engage in play, eat and sleep as she normally does. The only deviation from her routine had been this overzealous grooming that left me puzzled, frustrated and concerned.

I booked an appointment to have Murphy examined by my veterinarian, Mary Gibbs, DVM, of Vista, California. In preparation for the appointment, I jotted down as many specifics as possible to help Dr. Gibbs pinpoint the possible cause. Among the clues I shared:

- No signs of Murphy scratching — only licking.

- Running a flea comb through her coat yielded no parasites.

- None of the other resident pets — my dogs, Chipper and Cleo, and cat, Zeki — were itching or scratching their coats.

- Murphy had supervised access to my backyard that contains artificial grass and no chemicals.

- There were no house guests or dramatic changes in the household routine.

- I did not take any trips with Murphy.

- I switched to a new dry food that lists turkey as the first ingredient. Her previous kibble contained salmon.

Dr. Gibbs took a medical history and performed a head-to-tail examination.

“Has Murphy’s behavior changed recently?” she inquired.

“No,” I responded. “Murphy continues to be mellow and sweet. She hasn’t gotten into any squabbles with Zeki or my dogs and she continues to use the litter box appropriately.”

As Dr. Gibbs explained, there are many causes for skin conditions in a cat — including possible allergic reactions to parasites, food, dust, pollen or mold — and demodectic mange, particularly in cats with deficient immune systems. The cause can also be psychological — a condition known as psychogenic alopecia that surfaces in cats who are overly stressed.

Dr. Gibbs suspected the cause was the sudden change in diet. She gave Murphy a cortisone injection and prescribed a liquid antibiotic and fish oil supplements. Murphy stopped grooming herself excessively and the rashes subsided.

Our cats can be masters at masking pain and disguising signs of weakness or illness. I share Murphy’s story to remind us to pay close attention to our cats’ habits. Consult your veterinarian when your cat deviates from his normal routine.