A Thin Line: Normal Shedding vs. Feline Alopecia

As any cat owner who has tried to wear a black shirt knows…well, shedding is a normal aspect of cat ownership. However, there are times when the hair just keeps coming and an owner may become concerned that their pet’s hair loss is abnormal and indicative of a larger issue.

A cat licking its paw; feline alopeciaDr. Alison Diesel, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says that cat owners can differentiate normal shedding from feline alopecia, or hair loss, if the hair coat is noted to be thin or has the absence of hair in areas.

“The biggest difference between normal shedding and alopecia in cats is that with normal shedding, there is not appreciable hair loss on the animal,” said Diesel. “While the owner may see tufts of fur and hairballs around the home, the cat looks to have a normal haircoat in regard to thickness, length, and density.”

Feline alopecia can have many causes, according to Diesel, ranging from parasites, such as fleas or mites, to infections, such as dermatophytosis, or ringworm.

“We can also see it with underlying allergies including to things like fleas, food, or the environment,” she said. “Genetics can also be a ‘cause’ of alopecia; this is normal in certain breeds of cats, such as the Sphinx. Lastly, there are some normal variants in cats that appear as alopecia. Examples include hair loss on the ear flaps of aging Siamese cats and sparsely haired skin in the preauricular region (top of the head in front of the ears) on cats of any breed.”

If an owner notices their cat is losing an abnormal amount of hair, they should also keep an eye out for accompanying symptoms that may point towards a larger problem.

“The most important thing to look for is whether the cat is also itchy. This can be shown by certain behaviors include scratching, biting, licking, chewing, pulling out hair, over grooming, and/or increased hairballs. Additionally, owners should monitor if there are any sores on the skin along with the hair loss,” she said. “Lastly, if anything has obviously changed with the overall health of the cat–signs of internal illness such as vomiting, change in appetite, or energy levels—owners should seek veterinary care.”

Pets experiencing unusual hair loss should be evaluated by their primary care veterinarian or a veterinary dermatologist to help determine the reason for hair loss. They may conduct diagnostic tests and/or suggest a treatment plan tailored to your pet’s specific case.

While overgrooming most commonly has an underlying medical reason, typically related to itch or possibly pain, there are some cats where stress and behavioral contributions can play into the excessive grooming observed. Owners concerned that their pet is overgrooming may also wish to modify their pet’s environment in addition to bringing them in for a check-up. Ensure your pet has plenty of enrichment, which can include toys, window access, and hands-on playtime, in addition to areas where the cat can retreat and relax alone.

Hair loss may be reversible depending on the cause; Diesel said, “you can’t all of a sudden make a Sphinx grow hair, but hair can grow back following resolution of ringworm as an example.”

Although the line between normal shedding and feline alopecia may at times seem thin, prudent monitoring and prompt care can help owners keep their feline friend as happy, healthy, and fluffy as possible.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.