Cat Stress Can Result in Self-Destructive Behavior

In the presence of the bouncy, non-stop energy little kitten recovering from a broken leg my 18-year-old female was showing stress behavior. While stress behaviors often show themselves as fight or flight, hers did not. Instead, her stress presented itself as licking: displacement behavior. In other words, excessive grooming.

As you can imagine, grooming can be calming and reassuring to your cat. But when stress is involved, this behavior may go to extremes. What is usually a normal behavior can become repetitive, prolonged, and ultimately be self-destructive. Squeaky was licking herself bald on her tummy and back legs. Were she to continue to lick these specific spots, she could break down the skin and cause an infection (not to mention create a hair ball problem in her gut).

What I’ve had to do is provide her with her own space for part of the day. This is a room that is quiet and away from the other elderly cat, the kitten, and any other cat. I’ve been using the guest bathroom.

During that time she may be alone for a while to enjoy the peace and quiet (of course, she has all her basics available there: litter pan, water, food, and a bed). But mostly I’m there providing her with my undivided attention.

First we play. I use toys that she does not associate with other cats – making them hers alone. The “toy” could be something as simple as a box or paper bag or long piece of sisal. Our time together is both stimulating and distracting. After each 20-minute play therapy session, I calm her down with brushing and petting.

By the time she returns to the master bedroom with the other elderly cat and the kitten, she is calmer, feeling that she (1) is getting the special attention she deserves and (2) has a “panic room” to which she can escape during these kitten-induced stressful times.

When you have no other place to take your cat with excessive licking issues, you can look for ways to give her or him extra tender loving care in their current environment. This may be a bit tricky because you do not want to make the other elderly cat jealous or ignored.

Remember: While you are addressing your cat’s stress behavior, you also need to determine what is causing the stress. It may or may not be obvious. Either way, you will want to remove or moderate it in order to help alleviate your cat’s distress reaction. I see employing medication as a very last resort once you’ve tried behavioral methods. Also, patience and persistence are absolutely necessary. It took your cat awhile to get to that stressful behavior and will take awhile to replace the negative habit with a positive one.