Lick Dermatitis

Lick Dermatitis
Cats lick to keep themselves clean, to rid themselves of varmints like fleas, to cool themselves, to absorb Vitamin D, and to release stress. If a cat's licking is the symptom of a health problem or if the licking is causing a health problem, then kitty must be taken to a veterinarian soon!

There are several medical reasons for excessive licking. It could be a neuropathy problem. For example, a nerve is receiving a signal which tells the cat to lick. It could be encephalitis, a brain perception disorder, a soft tissue or bone inflammation problem, or an allergic skin disease. A cat that licks odd things such as window panes, walls, or cement walks may be anemic which is a symptom of a disease such as feline leukemia. If you suspect a medical problem, see your veterinarian immediately.

Cats lick themselves when they are infested with parasites such as fleas. An occasional bath with a flea shampoo will kill the fleas, as well as remove dander (dried saliva) that causes human allergies. Regular grooming, however, with a flea comb is enough to control the flea problem.

An allergic reaction to inhaled allergens can also cause excessive licking.

It is estimated that thirty-five percent of all cats suffer from food allergies which can result in excessive licking. If diet is suspect, try one of the commercially prepared non-allergy cat foods. It is also thought, though not carefully researched, that a nutritional deficiency might cause excessive licking.

Psychogenic dermatitis is a disease of cats that involves intense licking of a local skin area. The cat's barbed, rough tongue causes severe irritation to the skin. This exposes sensitive nerve endings, stimulating the cat to lick even more and so produce further damage. The cause may be skin irritation or infection, ear or anal sac infections, or simply a nervous habit. Eventual hair loss and extensive skin damage result.

Psychogenic dermatitis is frequently due to an anxiety precipitated by a change in environment, such as a new pet or baby, new surroundings, boarding, loss of a companion pet or family member, or being threatened by a neighboring cat or insensitive family member. Siamese and Abyssinian cats are most likely to be affected.

In cats, wool sucking is observed more frequently in Oriental breeds. Excessive sucking and chewing, hunting and pouncing at unseen prey, running and chasing, paw shaking, freezing, excessive localization, self-directed aggression such as tail chasing or foot chewing, over-grooming or barbering of hair and possibly feline hyperaesthesia (see below) may all be manifestations of conflict, and may become compulsive disorders in time.

Dermatitis is a catchall term for the numerous inflammatory skin diseases that can affect cats and dogs. These may be transient or chronic, often affecting the overall health and sheen of the coat.

Licking of the hair and skin, nibbling, biting, facial rubbing of the forepaws, and scratching may all be observed in cats exhibiting normal grooming behavior. Although they regularly self-groom, specific times and percentages relative to other behaviors are unknown for household cats. Beyond such basic purposes as cleansing, removal of parasites, and thermoregulation, grooming in cats may occur as a displacement behavior (an activity that is performed out of context as a result of frustration) in response to social or environmental stressors. Displacement grooming may be rooted in anxiety and may serve to lower arousal, deflect aggression from other individuals, or provide some distraction for the cat.


Persistent scratching. The appearance of a red, painful-looking sore (hot spot), often overnight. Scaly, rough or oozing areas on the skin, usually accompanied by hair loss.

Hot spots are caused by bacteria that naturally inhabit the surface of the skin. They develop when incessant scratching and biting damage the skin enough to break down its barrier function (primary non-specific immunity). The bacteria then proliferate, causing more irritation. Hot spots frequently develop at the site of a flea bite but may result from allergic reactions, ear infections, and other irritants. They are more common in hot, humid weather

Flea allergy dermatitis

This condition is characterized by severe, unremitting itching. It is caused by a sensitivity to the saliva of fleas. Just one flea bite can cause intense misery to an affected animal. Even minimal or intermittent exposure to fleas can give rise to the condition. Cats may groom themselves excessively and may lose hair over their backs.

Feline notoedric mange

Feline notoedric mange is similar to canine sarcoptic mange. Notoedres cati is a microscopic mite that infests the skin of cats. The mite gives rise to an itchy, frequently crusty skin condition that typically affects the ears, face, and neck.

Acral Lick Dermatitis/Granuloma

As with over-grooming in cats, ALD may also be associated with displacement grooming in response to social or environmental stressors. Compulsive behavior or states of anxiety may contribute to ALD in some patients. As with feline psychogenic alopecia, the occurrence and incidence of correlative behaviors to ALD in feral and wild canines is not known.

What is feline psychogenic alopecia?

Alopecia or hair loss can result when cats over-groom and remove fur. Over-grooming can take the form of excessive licking, or the pulling out of tufts of hair. The diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia as a compulsive disorder is reserved for those cases in which no underlying medical problem is evident. Most cats with alopecia have an underlying skin disorder such as fleas, flea bite hypersensitivity, inhalant allergies, food allergies, parasites, bacterial or mite infections or a dysfunction of the endocrine system. A 6 - 8 week food trial may often be recommended before considering the diagnosis to be purely behavioral Cats normally are fastidious groomers and as much as 30 - 50% of their time awake is spent performing some type of grooming behavior As with other compulsive disorders, feline psychogenic alopecia may begin as a result of anxiety or frustration, but might in time become compulsive.

Increasing environmental stimulation (cat activity centers, chew toys, food or catnip packed toys, kitty videos, increased interactive play) can help. The owner should keep toys out of the cat's reach until they are put out daily. They should be rotated every 1 - 3 days to provide different play items. When home the owner should provide periods of interactive play and perhaps even a short training session to keep the cat occupied and focused. Attention should never be given to the cat when the undesired behavior is exhibited. As soon as the undesirable behavior ceases, the owner should immediately engage the cat in an alternative acceptable behavior (e.g. play, chew toys). The owner should also try to identify environmental or social changes that may be contributing to anxiety and the behavior. Drug treatment might include antihistamines, anti-anxiety drugs, or antidepressants. The exact drug chosen will depend on the clinical impression of the veterinarian managing the case.

What is feline hyperaesthesia?

Feline hyperaesthesia is a poorly understood condition that has also been referred to as rippling skin syndrome, rolling skin syndrome, or twitchy skin syndrome. It may not be a true compulsive disorder. The normal response of many cats to having their back scratched can include rippling of the skin, an arched back and varying degrees of localization In hyperaesthesia, the affected cat may have a more exaggerated response to touching, rubbing or scratching of the back. This behavior may then become a stereotyped disorder as the frequency increases, the response becomes more intense and the signs begin to appear with little or no apparent stimuli. In addition to rolling skin, muscle spasms and localization, the cat may have dilated pupils, and may seem to startle, hallucinate and dash away. Some cats will defecate as they run away. There may also be some grooming or biting at the flank, tail, or back displayed along with the above behaviours.

Behavioral management requires the identification and control of the types of handling that lead to the behavior Avoiding or minimizing these types of handling, or desensitizing and counter-conditioning techniques, which allow the cat to learn to "tolerate" these stimuli, may be successful at reducing the cat's level of arousal. For some cats who appear to be having a seizure disorder, anti-epileptic therapy may be effective although these drugs may act by generally reducing the cat's level of arousal. Treatment with anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants, may also occasionally be successful.

Important Points in Treatment

1. If the cat's licking can be stopped, the sores heal quickly. In many cases, however, breaking the itch-lick cycle is very difficult and requires much patience from the owner.

2. Direct application of medication to the sores rarely helps, since the cat usually licks it off immediately.

3. Treatment consists of oral or injectable medications designed to stop the cat's licking. In some cases, barriers to licking, such as bandages or obstructing collars, are beneficial. Sedation may also help.

4. A thorough analysis of any recent environment changes may reveal the underlying cause, which may then be corrected.