Why your pet over-grooms

Does your dog or cat spend hours nibbling, chewing or licking their paws or fur? While self-grooming is a form of hygiene which owners welcome, when performed excessively, it can also be a sign that something is wrong in your pet’s world. Here are some reasons why pets may overgroom and what you can do about it…


Reasons for over-grooming

Skin conditions causing over-grooming

Many pets suffer from skin conditions and allergies and their excessive grooming, licking or chewing behaviour may be an attempt to relieve their itchiness. Common skin conditions include flea allergy, atopic dermatitis, food allergy dermatitis, mange and hotspots.

Consult your vet for diagnosis of skin conditions and allergies and treat your pet. Try products designed especially for itchy skin to help your pet cope.

Stress Grooming

Stress can cause many unwanted pet behaviours including excessive dog barking, hiding behaviour, inappropriate toileting and, in some pets, over-grooming. In cats, excessive grooming is known as psychogenic alopecia and cats will sometimes develop bald spots from their over-grooming.

Often, at some point, in the past, grooming or nibbling or chewing on their body has helped relieve some of your pet’s anxiety. This then becomes the behaviour they resort to whenever stressed.

It is important to remove the source of stress from your pet’s life, if possible. If they excessively groom when guests are present, for instance, you may need to conduct a program of gradual desensitisation with positive introductions to people. Consult an animal behaviourist if you need help with this.

You can also create a calming environment around your pet, especially where they are likely to over-groom. Calming, classical music may help, as can calming scents and dietary supplements.

The Grooming Habit

Over-grooming can just become a habit. Licking and nibbling has had a purpose and helped the animal in the past and now your pet just habitually grooms themselves. Often this habitual behaviour will be associated with a particular pattern of behaviour. It may be when you settle down in the evening to watch television. The grooming starts!

Prevention here is better than cure. When you know the behaviour is likely to start, have something else on hand to distract your pet, prior to the grooming starting.

If you give them a toy or chew treat when they are grooming, it will be a reward for grooming! Instead, we need to step in prior to the behaviour starting.

Attention-seeking grooming

Some animals like our attention and will do whatever they can to get it. If you have given your pet attention for grooming in the past, such as trying to stop them or speaking to them as they groom, this will actually encourage their behaviour.
if you need to interrupt their behaviour, the interruption should not be seen to come from you. Make a noise to distract your pet, then step in with your alternative toy or treat.

Other physical issues

Some animals may use their mouths to nibble on themselves or other items when they have pain. Toothache, mouth pain, even stomach and digestive issues can result in your dog or cat using their mouth excessively. Your vet needs to examine your pet.


What else can owners do?

In addition to consulting your vet, reducing your pet’s anxiety levels and giving them mouth occupiers, you can also examine your own behaviour. Stop giving unwanted over-grooming behaviour attention. Instead, talk to your pet when they are not grooming.

Take over the grooming role yourself. This will help you inspect your pet’s skin and fur. It will also remove dead hair and make hairballs less of an issue for your pet. Make grooming sessions a positive interactive time between you. 

About the author:
Dr Jo Righetti is an animal behaviourist helping people understand their pet’s behaviour and improving the human-animal relationship. Jo lives with a dog and 4 cats.

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Dog stress
Pet licking behaviour
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