Q: I adore Nicky, my 4-year-old ex-street cat, but I am very worried about him. A few weeks ago, he started pulling his fur out along his legs and stomach. He also frantically and obsessively licks his legs. The veterinarian saw him a few weeks before the problem started and gave him a clean bill of health. He thinks that this is a behavior problem and recommends medication and behavioral therapy.
There have been a couple of changes lately in his life, including my son (who Nicky loves) moving out. I converted his bedroom into a crafts room. I am wondering if those changes could be causing the problem. What can I do to help Nicky?
A: Most likely, the recent changes in Nicky’s life are the triggers for his over-grooming behaviors. The combination of losing his friend and the remodeling is stressful for him. As indicated by your veterinarian, these types of situations often respond best to a combination of medication and behavior modification along with some simple changes to the environment.
Help Nicky feel secure so that he stops his self-destructive repetitive stress behaviors by providing him a consistent environment and schedule. Activities and exercise that he enjoys will also help eliminate the stress and stop the behavior.
Consistency is important. Feed Nicky, play with him, do all of the activities he enjoys at the same times every day. Plan the activities to correspond with his natural circadian rhythms. Play with Nicky in the mornings and evenings since those are the times that cats are usually the most active. If Nicky enjoys being groomed, than choose a quiet time to groom him. Feed him frequent, small meals at the same times every day. His environment needs to be consistent, as well. If possible, stop the remodeling project until he has adjusted to the recent makeover. You can help him become accustomed to the changes in your son’s old room by gently petting his cheek with a soft sock and then rubbing the sock on the corners of the new furniture. This will transfer his pheromones onto the new furniture. Nicky will recognize his own scent, helping him feel a little more secure.
Interactive toys, high places to climb and explore, as well as places to hide will help enrich Nicky’s environment and focus him away from over-grooming. Place cat trees, perches and shelves throughout the house. The household furniture can also become part of the vertical territory solution. At least one of the cat trees should be located next to a secure window with entertaining views.
Give Nicky a job; make him work for some of his meals with puzzle toys, treat balls and treasure hunts. In addition to working for some of his food, treasure hunts will give Nicky some exercise. Hide treats or his regular food in toys, on cat trees and shelves and in his bed. Nicky will have to run, climb and forage in order to get the rewards: his treats.
Clicker training is also another activity that can help eliminate the behavior by reducing stress, stimulating his mind, and by building and strengthening the bonds between him and you. Clicker training is also challenging for the cat and it’s fun for everyone, cat and teacher alike. Nicky needs to be clicker trained on a consistent schedule every day. The best times to clicker train is before meals when he is hungry.
Talk to your veterinarian about the option of medicating Nicky in combination with behavior modification.