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.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Molly Cat Pulls Out Her Fur

Dear Greyce,

I am a 13-year-old spayed female with a long but thin grey and white fur coat. I have been a fur-puller - hind quarters are my specialty - for several years. I pull and eat my fur and then vomit up hairballs. And it  is getting worse.

Purrhaps it is part of my purrsonality, for in addition to being very intelligent, curious and extremely loyal and affectionate, I am a worrier. I am very connected to my human and so I tend to pull fur when she is out or has locked me out of the room she is in.

Right now, Herself is selling our home and so there are visitors from time to time. I'm not really bothered by them as I tend to prefurr people. Indeed I like all humans but am definitely not a lap cat, though I will snuggle up. However Herself has experienced a change in a relationship in the last three months that has been stressful for her.

I am hyperthyroid and have recently switched diets to help me gain weight. I have some arthritis in the sacral area and am not a jumper.

My regular routine is to get up early and have a wet food breakfast, followed by a 40-minute leash walk. I rest, eat and drink for the balance of the day unless Herself is at home, when I will sit with her or climb into cupboards for a while. I become more active around 5:00 p.m. I wait for Herself to come home by sitting in the window.  I have dinner around 6:00 p.m. and then, if the weather is nice, ask to go outside. With Amber (my feline companion), we watch Herself have dinner and try to encourage a handout. Then I sit with Herself while she deals with her computer, watches TV or reads. We all sleep together.

For fun, I go outside on a leash. I have perches inside. And I play interactive games, though not daily.

Along with Herself, I have a tortie companion, Amber, who is 12 years old. She is very affectionate and a bit of an attention-getter, definitely a magnificent jumper, very playful and curious. She is a lap cat who loves to snuggle.

She also has some litter box issues. Would this, purrhaps have something to do with the fact that I guard the box? 

I beat her up from time to time though I've been getting slack recently. Sometimes Amber is relaxing in the sun in the bedroom, or in the kitchen; sometimes Amber is doing her crazy cat dance around the house and I can corner her. Usually when she comes and sleeps beside me a fight will break out if I groom her too much (which I usually do). When we are both outside, Amber will howl, sometimes spit and rarely swat if I get too close. I remain calm and just avoid her then.

Getting back to my problem: I have been checked by my vet and there seems to be no medical basis to my problem. As mentioned, I've have this problem for years and have fairly consistently pulled and eaten my fur, several times a day, for the past four - ever since Himself (who was my favourite) left us. Now I tend to do this more when Herself is out or shuts me out of her room. She has tried to intervene when she catches me in the act and that stops me -  for a while.

To deal with my fur-pulling, Herself just bought a pheromonal diffuser (to give me a sense of comfort). I'm also trying a homeopathic remedy and Bach flower remedies. Is there anything else I can do?

A worried cat,


Dear Molly,

I can only imagine how many coats' worth of fur you have consumed and thrown up. That would be very hard on your system. (I do hope you are taking some furball paste or treats to help dissolve the fur in your tummy.) I'm glad your vet has checked you to make sure this is not a medical issue because fleas, allergies, arthritis and a host of other conditions can lead to fur-pulling in cats.

Let's have a look at how I see your situation and then I will offer advice on what to do about it. Here is how I see it:

First, you thrive on human companionship. You become distressed (pull fur) when you do not have access to Herself (either because she is out or she has locked you out of where she is). It's like a form of separation anxiety. No doubt you also pull fur when Herself is distressed (as would occur during selling the house and dealing with her own relationship changes both four years ago and three months ago). I  think that you are very attuned to what is happening with your purrson. In other words when she is distressed you mirror that distress by fur pulling, even though you appear as if all is well.

Second, the onset of this problem was apparently the disappearance from your life of Himself. But frankly, four years is a very long time to be distressed about this and so I think that 1) either there was an additional, undetected trigger, or 2) that this method of dealing with stress gave you comfort at the outset and so has become your favourite method for dealing with any stressor now, or 3) that from either of those two factors, this method has triggered an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Such conditions are difficult to treat and often can only be managed once they are triggered. In other words, they will never go away completely but can be controlled.

Third, your relationship with Amber is one that is stressful even though it appears that you tend to be the aggressor in many instances. Yes, you seem to remain calm when the two of you are outside and she is moody (which a tortie can be, but I also wonder if you are making her so). But you do corner her. And you guard the litter box.

You say she has some litter box issues but have not been specific. It would not surprise me in the least if your guard activity contributed to them. Any cat who cannot pee or poop in complete safety - either because she is denied access to her box or fears that she will be attacked during or after using it, is going to have box issues. I don't care what you might think of Amber. She deserves better.

Fourth, you are a very intelligent and curious cat who is likely not getting enough intellectual and physical stimulation. While I'm very glad you get the chance for safe, outdoor experience and that you have lots of perches, nothing you have told me suggests that your mind and body are getting the work out it may need. Ditto for Amber and even more so.

My Advice to You

1. Ease the separation anxiety from Herself

When Herself is away, build on your natural intelligence and curiousity to keep engaged in useful activities. In other words, you need environmental stimulation. It could include bringing home a box (one for Amber too) - just a used carton big enough to sit in, to experience new smells and textures. Use food puzzles by which you could get treats. Toys (like mice) that have microchips in them are handy because they react when you come into contact and encourage you to play. And so I'm going to refer you to a previous blog entry where I have described such a program in detail: "Three Black Cats . . . " posted on August 8, 2012. In fact, this entry has a lot of useful advice for you, so I'm going to urge you to read it. Not all of it is relevant so I'll tell you which bits are, as we progress through my advice.

Ask Herself that when she leaves, she turn on a radio tuned to a station with human voices, so you have a sense of people about. Alternatively listen to a recording of Herself (if she is able to make one. And if she does, ask her to speak slowly and softly and about things the two of you love and enjoy.)

Have Herself and you take the same flower remedy - one designed to loosen your connection to her stress such as a combination of  Bleeding Heart, Pink Yarrow and Morning Glory (FES Quintessentials). However since you may already by taking a flower remedy, I would NOT suggest that you take both at the same time.

2. Play more and better.

Readers of my column may think I'm a one-trick pony with the number of times I recommend this. But I do it for a reason: Interactive play (along with environmental stimulation) is without a doubt the finest way for a cat to reduce stress, keep fit, work her brain and generally fulfill her potential. I cannot think of a better thing for a cat to experience on a daily basis.

Most humans discount the importance of it or are inconsistent or don't play properly (to optimize the session for the feline) or just think it is a bother. Yet it is by far the best thing a purrson can do for a feline she loves. Again I'm going to refer you to that Black Cat blog entry for more information.

And I think Amber would benefit as well.

It would probably be too much for Herself to engage both of you at once. And since you and Amber aren't exactly the best of friends, I suggest she do something like put Amber in the backyard on her leash and play with you inside (and then reverse the roles), so she can give you each individual attention.

The best time for your workout would be when you are most active - after 5:00 p.m. Any time in the evening would be good. Suggest she start with a 10-minute session and work up from that - by, say, an additional minute every few days until you get to about 20 minutes (more if you can both stand it).

Don't worry if you power out before 20 minutes; that's fine. I don't want you panting! But I want you satisfied by a good workout.

3. Straighten out this business with Amber.

First guarding the litter box: I bet you have one litter box which you share. Or maybe there are two boxes but they are next to each other.

Here is what I propose: Keep one litter box where it always has been. Put one (and prefurrably two) litter boxes in other locations in the house. If there is more than one floor (including basement) it would be great if they were located on different floors. The reason this can work is simply this: You cannot guard litter boxes in different locations all at the same time. This gives Amber a safe choice.

And if you give me more details about Amber's box problems, I might be of more help.

Second, since we all know that you and Amber will fight if you groom her too much when she snuggles next to you in bed, Herself needs to intervene. She needs to tell you to stop. If you don't stop, then she needs to separate you - either by putting you temporarily in a cat crate (in the bedroom, if possible on the same level as the bed so you can see her) or outside the bedroom for up to 20 minutes. For this to work, she needs to do it immediately upon onset of the attempt. Waiting any longer will mean that you will not make the connection between the 'bad' behaviour - your not paying attention to her request that you stop grooming Amber - and the consequence, and thus will not learn. (There are related solutions but I'd have to know more about bed-size and room layout in order to propose them.)

Third, Herself needs to learn the signs that you are up to no good where Amber is concerned. Have her start with learning about cat talk so she knows what each of you are saying. She can read a book
(try your local library): 

Know Your Cat: An Owner’s Guide to Cat Behavior (by Bruce Fogel).
Understanding Cat Behavior (by Roger Tabor).
100 Ways to Better Understand Your Cat (by Roger Tabor).
She can consult entries from Amy Shojai's blog:

Once she had read that section, have her click on the other, related ones (meows, fur, eyes, tail).
Then have her act on that talk BEFORE things get out of hand. She can use a verbal, "no!", some other form of distraction (like throwing a toy away from the intended victim or dangling a fishing pole toy in front of the potential attacker to divert her), or using a Cat Separator (described in that entry, "Three Black Cats . . . " of August 14, 2012).

4. A further recommendation

You may need a calmative to help you and I wouldn't be surprised if the homeopathic and Bach flower remedies were selected for this. It would not surprise me if you are taking Red Chestnut (Bach Flower Remedies). If that doesn't work, you might consider Obsession Remedy by Spirit Essences (developed by Jason Galaxy, cat behaviourist with the "My Cat From Hell" TV series. I have not purrsonally used this line of essences so I cannot comment on its efficacy. I suggest it purely on the basis of the reputation of its maker.

At some point you might wish to consult your vet about the possibility of using an anxiety-reducing medication (pharmaceutical) suitable for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

And if you or your vet does not agree with a drug approach, there is always the possibility of trying intentional touch. In your case, I'd recommend Tellington T Touch (and clicking on this website provides information about what it entails as well as a directory of practitioners in your area). For what you need it would be easy to learn from said practitioner and thus could be maintained over your lifetime.

And finally, you could try a thundershirt for short periods of time.

I hope that my proposals and options will give you something to chew on - other than your fur. Molly, do let me know what you implement and how it goes.

Good luck,