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>Q: My 15-year-old cat has been grooming himself forever, pulling out his own hair and eating it. His fur has gotten so thin. The veterinarian calls this "barbering" but doesn't know why the cat is doing it. Any ideas?

-- D.T., Gloucester, Va.

A: "We conducted a study which demonstrated that for most cats who over-groom themselves, there's a medical explanation, at least in great part," says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg, of Thornhill, Ont. "It may be a flea allergy, inhalant allergy, food allergy, or a combination. Other possibilities include a hyperthyroid or a response to intestinal pain."

I will assume at this point that your cat has been examined for parasites and has had a thorough physical exam. Landsberg explains that cats with an allergy usually respond to steroids. However, placing a 15-year-old cat on a steroid might be problematic. Another option is to begin a novel food trial, feeding your cat only a prescription hypoallergenic diet for several months.

If your cat's "barbering" turns out to a behavioral problem, a sort of compulsion, ultimately it may make sense to see a veterinary behaviorist or AVSAB member veterinarian. For cats who lick themselves compulsively, an anti-anxiety drug may be recommended.

Increasing the indoor enrichment for your cat is one thing you can do that won't cost a penny. Offer a varying array of toys. For example, one day provide an empty box. The next day, cut a mouse hole in the box so your cat can poke through for a treat. The day after that, sprinkle catnip in the box. Instead of tossing out wine corks or plastic bottle caps, turn them into cat toys! Consider feeding your cat at least a portion (or even all) of his meals from food puzzles or food-dispensing toys scattered around the house, so he has to "hunt" for his food. Learn more about enrichment for cats from Ohio State University's College of Veterinary Medicine at http://indoorpet.osu.edu/.

e-mail to petworld@steve dale.tv.

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