A case of dry skin isn't usually serious, but it can make your cat super uncomfortable! Here's how to nix the itch.

By Kate Eldredge Basedow, LVT
February 11, 2021
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Just like us, cats can sometimes suffer from dry skin. This often occurs during the winter, when the cold air outside and increased heating use inside dries out the air, but it can happen other times too. The good news is, occasional mild itchiness and dandruff due to dry skin is nothing to worry about. But if your cat has persistent dry skin or is also showing other symptoms of a skin problem or illness, she should be seen by your veterinarian.

Common Causes of a Cat's Dry Skin

Dry Air

Your cat's skin requires a certain amount of moisture to maintain its elasticity and resilience. A low-humidity environment can cause the skin to dry out. This most often happens in the winter when the air is colder and we are turning our heat on more (forced-air heat in particular can really dry out your home). Arid climates also have very low humidity.

Use a humidifier to help increase the humidity in your home to keep your cat's skin happy. (When using a humidifier, use caution if incorporating essential oils, as they can be dangerous for cats!)

Grooming Challenges

Regular grooming is an important part of your cat's skin and coat health. If she is unable to groom normally, the oils that her skin secretes will build up and dead hair won't be removed. This causes greasy hair and can lead to mats.

Obesity and arthritis are two of the most common reasons for a cat to not groom herself adequately. Overweight cats are physically unable to bend to reach their entire bodies, and arthritic cats may experience pain when doing so. Even young adult cats will stop grooming if they are sick and don't feel well.

Help your cat by assisting with grooming until she is able to do it on her own again. Brush your cat once a day, especially in hard-to-reach areas like her back end, belly, and behind her ears. Many cats enjoy being brushed and it is a nice bonding activity. Occasional baths may also be needed to help keep your cat's hair and skin at its best.

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Nutritional Needs

Your cat's diet plays a role in maintaining skin health. Feeding a low-quality or imbalanced diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies that may lead to dry skin and other health problems. Make sure that your cat's diet has an AAFCO Statement on the label ensuring that it has the right nutrients for your cat. If you are feeding a home-cooked diet, work with a veterinary nutritionist to make sure that you are providing everything your cat needs.

Diets with a higher fat and protein content can be beneficial for skin health. You can also add a fatty acid supplement with omega-3s and omega-6s to your cat's food to help keep her skin supple and coat shiny. Be cautious when choosing a supplement, as supplements are not subject to the same regulations and oversight as medications. Choose a supplement that has been approved by the National Animal Supplement Council or is recommended by your veterinarian.

Improper Bathing

Thanks to their natural grooming tendencies, most cats only need to be bathed on rare occasions. Bathing too frequently, using a shampoo that was not formulated for cats, or using water that is too warm can all dry out your cat's skin. 

For the best results, use an oatmeal-based shampoo that will combat any dryness, use water that is warm but not hot, and rinse thoroughly to remove all shampoo residue. If you find yourself bathing your cat frequently, consult with your veterinarian to make sure a more serious skin condition isn't the cause.

Parasites and Illnesses

More serious conditions can cause your cat to have dry skin, including parasites like fleas and mites, ringworm, allergies, fungal and bacterial infections, over grooming (an obsessive-compulsive behavior), hyperthyroidism, and diabetes. All of these conditions will have other symptoms present in addition to dry skin. 

If your cat is experiencing moderate to severe itchiness, red inflamed skin, pustules, crusts, open sores, chronic ear infections, hair loss, weight loss, lethargy, increased drinking and urination, or an abnormal appetite, it is time to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Treatment will depend on the condition(s) and symptoms present.

Home Remedy Treatments for Skin Dryness on Cats

Thankfully, for cases of dry skin with just mild itchiness and skin flaking, there are several treatments you can try at home to help your cat feel more comfortable again.

  • Use a humidifier to increase the humidity in your home.
  • Feed your cat a high-quality, vet-recommended diet with high fat and protein levels.
  • Add a fatty acid supplement. Remember that not all supplements are created equal, so choose a product that has the National Animal Supplement Council Quality Seal or is recommended by your veterinarian.
  • Brush your cat regularly to help distribute the oils from her skin throughout her coat and to remove dead hair.
  • If you have to bathe your cat, be sure to use a cat-safe product. Oatmeal shampoos are a great choice for soothing dry or sensitive skin.

If your cat's dry skin persists or becomes chronic, make sure to consult your cat's veterinarian for next steps toward a solution.