Hair-raising query about cat fur - Dr. Marty Becker


Hair-raising query about cat fur

Thursday, Oct 15th, 2020 | By Dr. Marty Becker

scared cat in man's arms

Did you know stress can make your cat shed?

Q: Why do cats shed so much hair when they go to the vet?

A: That’s a fascinating phenomenon. They’re just sitting there on the exam table and you pet them and wads of fur come off in your hand. What’s up with that? Your cat’s fur, literally.

When cats get scared, they get goosebumps, just like us. But instead of manifesting as bumps on the skin, the feline physiological reaction is hair-raising, so to speak. Goosebumps occur in humans and apes as a result of stress and have the purpose of making them appear bigger and more frightening in the face of a threat. In cats, piloerection, as this vestigial reflex is known, results in raised fur to make the animal look more fearsome in the face of a stethoscope wielded by a strange veterinarian.

The phenomenon occurs when tiny muscles called arrector pili are stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system — responsible for the famous fight-or-flight response — causing them to contract. The arrector pili are located at the base of each hair — so there are a lot of them — and when they contract, the hairs are pulled erect. As an intimidation display, it works pretty well.

But then what happens? Lots of that raised fur comes out. That’s because certain of the hairs were already primed to be released. These telogen hairs are in the resting phase of the growth cycle, meaning they are about to be shed anyway. The anxiety caused by a vet visit or car ride or whatever has sent your cat into a tizzy simply accelerates the process, causing your cat to drop fur in an attempt to lighten his body’s load so he can make a run for it. Fortunately, the sudden hair loss isn’t harmful — in fact, it’s perfectly normal.

There’s more – including what to do about your dog’s shedding – in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.