DEAR DR. FOX: My 10-year-old gray tabby has "barbered" her lower belly and the upper parts of her hind legs until they are totally hairless.
Some months back, she had a lower urinary tract infection but that has been cleared up for six months. She is otherwise healthy, happy and energetic.
I have heard that barbering is sometimes the result of anxiety in a cat. I was sick recently, but this problem began before that time. Still, would feline pheromones help?
Any other ideas? Could it be the self-heating purr pad I gave her for the winter months?
She has no sores on her belly, but it looks terrible. What can I do? -- S.P., Washington, D.C.
DEAR S.P.: I discuss this kind of excessive grooming in my book "Cat Body, Cat Mind." It is all too common in cats, and as you suggest, it can be triggered by anxiety as a self-comforting behavior that can become an obsessive compulsion, leading to self-mutilation.
But there are other possible reasons. Considering your cat's age, hyperthyroidism could be the issue, or a food allergy or intolerance -- especially if you have recently changed her diet. I am always suspicious of pet heater pads and beds, especially those manufactured in China, some of which have been found to contain toxic, volatile chemicals.
I would advise you to seek a veterinary consultation for your cat, ideally with an animal doctor who does in-home visits to help reduce the stress of taking the cat to the clinic, which is an extremely stressful experience for many felines.
DEAR DR. FOX: About a year ago, we agreed to pet-sit a cat who has now become a permanent member of our household. She is the sweetest animal I have ever owned, but she has difficulty using the litter box. We have talked to our veterinarian, but he has no ideas about how to fix this problem.
Our cat is a female, about 18 months old, and is probably a Siamese/tortoiseshell mix. When we got her, she had diarrhea continuously, and we would find fluid feces on the laundry room floor (the only place where we can keep a cat box). At my suggestion that perhaps she was not able to digest regular cat food, the veterinarian did tests for worms and parasites, then changed her diet; she has done better with an all-meat prescription diet of venison cat food, which we provide for her in moist and dry forms. Her coat is much more glossy and healthy than it was before. The diarrhea has stopped, but her stools are still the consistency of toothpaste.
Unfortunately, she still regularly urinates and defecates on the laundry room floor -- at least once a day. We try very hard to keep the cat box clean, but when we wake up in the morning, invariably we have a mess to clean up. We are at our wits' end over this. Do you think there is some other underlying medical condition we should be concerned about? -- R.T., Vienna, Virginia
DEAR R.T.: There are many reasons why cats behave as yours is doing, notably prior association of pain and fear while in the box evacuating because of some physical condition such as cystitis or severe cramping diarrhea.
Having the box in a quiet place (some cats do not like to be disturbed when going in the box), using a dust-free litter made from corn or wood fiber and having no cover (covered boxes can become very ammoniated if not cleaned several times a day) are steps to consider.
A urine test for chronic cystitis may be worthwhile, as is placing a second litter box in the laundry room with several sheets of newspaper spread around. If your cat likes catnip, give her some every day -- it is a natural, calming herb for cats. It may also help reduce any smooth muscle spasms. Probiotic supplement in her food to help repopulate gut bacteria may be crucial to resolve chronic bowel inflammation and malabsorption of food, which you should discuss with your veterinarian.
Try my home-prepared cat food reciple, posted on my website, which may be less expensive in the long run.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
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