Excessive grooming and licking: All too common in dogs and cats
flickr photo courtesy of Karin Dalziel
As one who spends a lot of time with both dogs and cats, I see a lot of different behaviors. Most are quite normal — but one that we experience in our house and that my clients note most frequently and is cause for concern, is excessive grooming and/or licking.
Sometimes it's just an annoyance to pet owners, but more obsessive behavior can be detrimental and very hard to curb.
Fortunately, there are tips to help your pet.
Both cats and dogs can exhibit these behaviors and, in some ways, they may present with them for the same reasons. But because they are different species, the underlying causes can differ greatly as well.
It's important to note that your pets' discomfort may be caused by a medical problem. A visit to your vet is integral to help properly diagnose any medical causes, like thyroid or kidney problems, dermatitis, food allergy, fleas, parasites or fungal infection.
Grooming in an excessive manner can be a stress-related disorder. Some veterinary professionals classify it as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Behavior appears out of context, and inhibits the pet from functioning normally. Psychogenic Alopecia is a term typically associated with cats. You'll notice excessive licking or pulling out tufts of fur. More females than males are affected.
Licking that starts as a way to deal with physical discomfort due to pain or itching can lead to obsessive grooming or licking.
Trauma early in life, abuse, stress and boredom are some reasons behind the licking or even pulling out of fur. Many of you have rescue dogs, strays or are a second owner to a pet. Honestly, in most cases we have no real knowledge of the life they had before us.
Whatever the underlying cause, keeping in mind that your pet is very uncomfortable and, in many cases, is attempting to self-soothe, is crucial. Establishing a sense of positivity is very helpful in helping to give your pet the tools to curb the behavior, exercise self-control and be well adjusted.
While you can't take away negative and traumatic experiences that happened before you entered the picture, you can provide a stable and nurturing environment. Avoid the emotional bag-carrying that we sometimes want to do. Just project a sense of calmness and move forward!
Aside from earlier life trauma, there are other experiential causes lurking behind it all. Keeping a journal can be very helpful in pinpointing what triggers the negative behavior. This means writing down everything that's going on — not just with your pet, but you. Your energy can sometimes affect your pets' actions.
In some cases, pets lick more when their owners are around.
At times pets are simply under stress just as we are, when experiencing environmental changes. A move from one home to another, a new baby or new pet, thunderstorms and rain, illness, surgery, even the death of another pet can trigger a shift in behavior.
Some pets are simply left alone too long: imagine sitting alone with little stimulation or contact. Pets are social creatures. Both dogs and cats need to blow off steam; lack of physical activity, playtime and interaction inhibit mental fitness.
Specifically, some dogs are hard-wired to hunt, retrieve or herd. Understanding your dogs' breed is integral to helping them mentally fit. Keeping your dog occupied with healthy activities that make use of their hard-wired skills can help curb obsessive behaviors.
Labrador retrievers are prone to licking behaviors.
Pointers that I've implemented with our pets, and things that clients do that you might find helpful:
- Routine is imperative. Establish one and stick to it.
- Activity and stimulation are important. Dogs and cats alike love to play, run, goof off and be constructive. Go for a walk or leisurely bike ride with your dog. There is tons of stuff for them to sniff, hear, see and feel... the world is a stimulating place. Dogs need to run, regardless of their breed. Maybe go for a ride in the car with your dog. Cats love to play games like hide and seek. Our cat likes to hide behind the shower curtain in the mornings and peek out while I'm putting on my makeup. It's our little ritual. Although pets do better with a routine, there is nothing wrong with doing something spontaneous within it now and then. Animals love to experience new things — try a new game, walk in a new area or even take a walk at an unexpected time! Talk to your pets; engage them. Remember — you get to go out to work all day and see different things. Your pet gets to see in most cases, four walls all day.
- Toys are essential! What is your pets' personality like? My two dogs, Gretchen and Bruiser couldn't be more different. Bruiser is incredibly athletic — he'll chase a ball and sit outdoors for hours. Gretchen on the other hand loves puzzley toys and to hide her toys in piles of snow or leaves, then dig them out. Both like to play physically with us; tickling, wrestling, chase, fetch. Cats love shiny, noisy, crinkley toys, small balls. Try dangling a shoelace in the air and letting your cat swipe at it. Catnip is a wonderful treat for cats.
- Distract and redirect them. When your pet starts to lick, calmly get his attention. Redirect him by quickly give him a toy or positive activity instead to focus on. Remember, your dogs or cats may not even realize that they are doing it. Consistency with your positive reinforcement is the key. Playtime and such are integral, but when independent time is needed for dogs — I highly recommend using a rubber Kong toy stuffed with treats, mashed banana or canned food. Freeze canned dog food inside the cavity of the Kong. It keeps them busy and is satisfying. This has worked very well for us. For cats, there are tons of toys on the market to encourage independent play. Again, catnip is a fun thing for cats and in itself a great distraction.
- If you decide that an Elizabethan collar, or e-collar as they are commonly referred to, is necessary for your pet, I recommend using a soft one. They are just as effective and much less cumbersome for your pet to get around.
Medication is an option, but it's really something that you need to discuss with your vet. In my experience, behavior modification and being consistent with your input is the most effective way to reinforce a healthy state of mind in your pet. There are going to really bad days when nothing seems to work. It's okay. Your pet is going to have those once in awhile.