Q: My cat constantly rips out the hair on her sides to the point that she has bald spots in those areas. Is this an allergy or skin disease and what can I do to stop her behavior?

A: Hair pulling in cats can be due to a multitude of conditions that include medical and behavioral issues. It is important to take the rest of the cat into consideration to try to determine the underlying problem, so a thorough physical exam is vital for proper diagnosis and treatment.

A close examination of the skin will help rule out skin issues such as fleas, bacterial infections, fungal infections and other skin diseases. After a thorough skin examination, a full pain assessment exam is next to try and determine if there is pain associated with the areas or near the areas. Pain can cause strange behavioral changes such as hair plucking, skin chewing, and skin licking, as well as other behavioral issues such as hiding.

Older cats should get x-rays to rule out any spinal arthritis or other areas of discomfort that might be the underlying issue causing the hair pulling. Next, performing full blood work with a urinalysis is recommended to rule out urinary issues and other metabolic issues.

If everything is normal and an underlying medical issue cannot be associated with the hair pulling then there are two other conditions that need to be considered.

In some cats, food allergies and environmental allergies can cause hair plucking behavior and most of the time the skin looks completely normal. Unfortunately, allergies are difficult to diagnose and sometimes we must try medical management with food changes and medications to treat these issues.

If all is normal and allergy medications do not stop the behavior then this likely is a behavioral issue. At this point, I recommend looking at your cat’s environment and “stress” level to determine if there anything that you can do to make sure your cat has special private spaces to be alone and can get away from any dogs or other cats that might be causing issues in the household. There are also behavioral medications that can be used temporarily in stressful situations to help with behavioral issues.

Q: My grand-daughter is 10 years old and wants to become a veterinarian. What are the steps she must take to accomplish this goal?

A: It is a worthy goal to want to become a veterinarian and there are many paths a person can take, so taking the “right” path should not be the focus. The focus while in school should be to get good grades and try to enjoy all topics, not just science.

Although it’s natural to look first at the medical side of veterinarian medicine, which is very important, it is also vital that veterinarians have excellent communication skills to effectively communicate with their clients. Learning a foreign language would also be a great tool as would working in the public service industry or with people in general, not just animals.

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I recommend participating in after school activities to broaden your skills and to pursue foreign travel as much as possible to fully expose yourself to other cultures and differing animal welfare issues.

Above all else, I recommend getting exposure to veterinarian medicine by volunteering, working with, or shadowing multiple veterinarians and practices so that you are clear about what it takes to be a veterinarian.

Experience in multiple practices with multiple veterinarians can help you experience the reality of the profession. It also allows you to gain the perspective of different veterinarians and get information about their paths to the profession as well as help you with relationships that can be used to get important recommendations for future applications.

Veterinary medicine can be a very fulfilling career but takes dedication and commitment to reach the goal. Good luck!

Dr. Julianne Miller is a Flagstaff veterinarian. She can be reached at drmiller@canyonpet.com.

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