An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cat Continues to Lick Herself Bald

Dear Greyce,

I am a distinguished feline of 11 years who for the past 3, has had a licking problem. Simply put, I lick my belly and hindquarters bald! It started around the time my companion cat was dying.

I have tried a number of remedies. First Himself read that food allergies could be the cause and switched my food to a gluten-free brand. That is now my dry food mainstay (which I free feed). I do, however, insist on a spoonful of my adored canned food, three times a day.

Then Himself took me to the vet where I was tested for fleas and mites; there were none to be found. I was given a cortisone shot which helped for a short time. The second vet I saw took some blood, did some tests (the results of which were normal) and said, "some cats just do that sometimes." Then I went to a holistic vet who gave me mixtures to put in my food and water and to spray on my fur, as well as Feliway. He also tried acupuncture but I let him know what I thought of that: I scratched his assistant!

So far, NOTHING has worked for me.

I have no known medical problems. However when Himself touches my fur, my skin ripples.

When I lick, Himself puts a paper plate around my neck (as per the photo) and says, "Don't lick." When I stop, he removes it. I still get that stuff in my water and sprayed on my fur. And the Feliway diffuser is still plugged in. But . . . I'm still licking.

To put this in context: I live with Himself in a small, quiet home with lots of windows. I am a pretty relaxed cat, friendly, calm and loving. The only things I can't stand are thunder and loud noises. I get lots of interaction from Himself and have lots of toys to play with.

By the way, Himself's adult daughter will start to live with us soon and stay until she finds another place to live. Her cat, Elliot, might join us in mid-July.

Can you help me?


Dear Urs,

I assume that you have written me because you think your problem is behavioural. As you may know, I am NOT a veterinarian and thus am not qualified to deal with conditions for which there is a medical basis. From time to time I encounter a cat such as yourself, where the situation is not clear cut: Your issue could be medical; it could also be behavioural. And so for your benefit (as well as that of other readers) I'm going to write about the possibilities - even though most will require you to work with your veterinarian.

From what you have told me, I think you can look at one or both of the following options.
Option One: The potential for an elimination diet to determine if food allergies are the culprit.
Option Two: The possibility that boredom or inadvertent reward is contributing to your problem.
Option Three: Medication to either alleviate anxiety or deal with your compulsion to lick.

I will describe these options and what they could entail. Options One and Three will require further discussion with your veterinarian before you proceed.

Option One: Elimination Diet for Food Allergies

Some of us are sensitive to certain foods and others of us have allergies to them. If you were sensitive, it would be likely that you would show this by having a runny or smelly stool or gas; vomiting is also a possible symptom. But since the compulsion to lick is your only symptom I would think that food sensitivity is an unlikely issue for you. A food allergy could be a possibility, however.

I am quite surprised that you have never tried an elimination diet in your case - which either means that it got overlooked somehow or that there is something about your situation that made the all three vets look elsewhere (and of which I am not aware).In any case, this is worthy of discussion with your veterinarian - if only to clear up why such a diet has not been tried.

From what you have written, you have had many tests. However to the best of my knowledge, there are no definitive tests for food allergies other than an elimination diet. Yes you are on a gluten-free, organic food of high quality. And yes, you adore a very popular canned food three times a day. But that does not mean that you could not be allergic to something in at least one of them.

So let's look at the foods that are most often implicated in cat allergies: beef, lamb, seafood, corn, soy, dairy products, wheat gluten. While your dry food is gluten-free, I have every reason to believe that both your dry and wet foods have some of these ingredients. And that MAY mean that you have an allergy to at least one of those ingredients.

The only way to find out is to go on what is called an elimination diet. Here you have three choices:

Choice A: Try a  food with a novel protein and novel carbohydrate source (one you have never tried before), consistently for 12 weeks; examples of novel proteins include rabbit, venison, and duck; and novel carbohydrate might be peas. Such foods are available from your veterinarian and from some pet supply stores.

Choice B: Try a "limited antigen" or "hydrolyzed protein" food such as Hills z/d (in which case the proteins and carbohydrates have been broken down to such a small molecular size that they no longer cause an allergic reaction). This food is only available from your veterinarian.

Choice C: Try a customized diet involving Himself preparing your food from scratch according to a veterinary recipe. (Resist the urge to just download something off the Internet. This is really a case where getting a proper recipe from your veterinarian is very important. And if you need more reasons that this from me, just ask.) I don't recommend this option at this point. It is time-consuming and requires that Himself commitment to ongoing preparation of your food from scratch, using great care to ensure that it is done properly. And that is a lot to ask.

For more information about food allergies in cats, have a look at Food Allergies in Cats.

If you do decide to try an elimination diet, make sure Himself understands that we cats detest having a food changed suddenly. To get us to accept it, he MUST grade the new food in slowly. This helps us get used to the taste and also minimizes the chances of tummy upset as we adapt to the new food.

Here is one way to grade the new food in:
Step One: 1 part new kibble mixed with 9 parts regular. If you accept this, then eat this proportion for a few days. Then you are ready for Step Two.
Step Two: 2 parts new kibble mixed with 8 parts regular. Again, if you are fine with this combination, eat it for a few days and go to Step Three.
Step Three: 3 parts new kibble mixed with 7 parts regular
and so on until
Step Ten: all new kibble; no regular.
At any point, if you are NOT fine with the new proportion, go back a step or two and eat that for up to a week; then proceed with the next step and so on.

NOTE: Himself MUST do the same for that lovely canned food you adore. Since you eat such a small amount of this every day (but really, really enjoy it), I suggest he mix up the proper combination and store it in a very clean, glass jar in the fridge. He will need to throw out any un-used, open wet food within a week (or check with your veterinarian about food safety in this regard).

Urs, many vets will suggest a quicker grading-in process. The one I suggest is slower but that is because you are older, and because Himself and you have been through so much that I want to give you the greatest chance of success. If Himself and you are willing, then a faster grading-in process would be to start with 25% new and 75% old, then 50% of each, then 75% new and 25% old, and then 100% new  - all done within a period of two weeks (that means switching proportions every 3 to 4 days). It is quicker but it MAY be more difficult for you to except.

ONLY WHEN YOU ARE ON 100% NEW FOOD can you actually start the 12 week elimination diet period, to evaluate whether or not this is working. And if you try, for example, a food with duck and it doesn't work for you, the vet might suggest that you try rabbit, etc. Whatever you do, you MUST stick to the same food for the 12-week period UNLESS it is making your situation worse! This will be the only way you can find out if allergies are the culprit. It takes time, possibly some guesswork if you need to switch, and costs more than regular food.

So if you think that food allergies could be involved (or just need to clear up why an elimination diet has not been tried with you), consult your veterinarian.

Option Two: The possibility that boredom or inadvertent reward is contributing to your problem.

 Some cats start or continue to lick because they are bored, and licking is one way to alleviate their boredom - especially if they are indoor cats because the indoor environment can lack the necessary stimulation.

I know that you have toys and interaction with Himself. But it is important that you have interactive toys and that Himself gives you regular workouts (twice daily). 

Since I have written about this issue before, I suggest that you look to the labels column to the right of this blog entry. Then click on Play/Predation.You will get a list of articles; click on On On My Terms; don't worry that the cat has a different problem. The advice on toys and playtime can apply to you, too.

Have a look at your environment. You MIGHT benefit from having a new box to explore (just a carton from the store) if you are a box-investigating kind of cat. Or purrhaps you need a cat tree on which to perch and look out the window. Consider having a look at the article, A Cat Tree for Every Cat (2/7/10); just go the that label column again and click on Cat Tree and look for that entry.

Also humans whose cats have licking problems get upset when they see the licking and try to stop it. For example, they may ask you to stop or try to distract you. Unfortunately this might end up being the way you really get attention. If that is the case, the best thing that can be done (in addition to the other measures I've mentioned above) is to ignore you when you start to lick. That way you don't get any attention reward for it.

Option Three: Medication to deal with your compulsion to lick.

For some of us with compulsive licking, a solution is medication. You have mentioned a cortisone shot which helped you for a short time. You have also mentioned a number of non-pharmaceutical,anti-anxiety mixtures as well as the use of a Feliway diffuser. None of them has seemed to work for you.

Since you do not believe they are of any benefit, consider stopping their use - in consultation with your veterinarian. I suggest consulting your veterinarian just to make sure that any of the things that are being added to your food or water require a weaning-off process.

You can stop the Feliway right now. Just unplug the diffuser. No weaning-off process is needed.And if the Feliway is really doing you some good, it should become apparent once it is discontinued (and then it can be plugged in again).But save that Feliway because it will come in handy for another use I will mention it in another blog entry, related to the arrival of Elliot - that other cat.

You have also mentioned rippling skin. Have you brought this to the attention of your veterinarian? I ask because it could be part of  feline hysperesthesia syndrome. Cats whose skin ripples sometimes get quick jumpy and start to lick as a way to calm down. Should this be the case, medication (such as those listed below) may be considered.

Medication can also be considered if general anxiety is an issue - even though you say you are a relaxed cat.
Anti-anxiety pharmaceutical such as amitriptyline (Elavil) or chlomipramine can be tried. Of course, this can only be done under veterinary supervision.

Most are now available as a topical gel (if you specify this prefurrence) which means it can be gently rubbed on your ear flap for absorption rather than being given in pill form. This can be a great advantage for many of us. (I hate being pilled, so I opt for gel whenever I can.

So these are the options I think you have Urs.

Meanwhile you have mentioned another matter, the possible arrival of Elliot. I will address this in another blog entry because it is quite important too.

Do let me know what option(s) you try and how it works for you.

Best wishes,