Common Skin Conditions in Cats & How to Recognize Them
Is your cat itching, licking, or biting herself like crazy? That’s a red flag your cat may have a skin condition. Your cat’s skin can become irritated for a number of different reasons, from parasites to allergies to dry skin. Here’s how to spot some of the most common cat skin conditions.
If your cat starts scratching in summer, you might have a flea problem. These tiny, blood-sucking bugs live on furry animals like your cat and are widespread in warmer weather.
Fleas typically bite your cat in areas hardest for your kitty to groom—the head, neck, back, and base of the tail. It’s difficult to see fleas because they’re tiny and move fast. But you might find flea “dirt” (their waste) in light-colored fur.
Your vet can prescribe medications to kill and prevent fleas. Some are topical flea treatments that you apply to your cat’s skin, while others are given orally (by mouth). Also, to completely get rid of the fleas it’s important to thoroughly clean items that flea eggs like to hide in, like bedding, clothing, and furniture.
Allergic Dermatitis (Cat Allergies)
Allergies in cats are a common cause of itchiness. A cat with allergic dermatitis becomes obsessed with grooming. They may also develop small scabs and hair loss.
According to Aimee Simpson, VMD, medical director of VCA Cat Hospital of Philadelphia, cat allergies are typically related to food, fleas, or substances in the air such as pollen, dust, and mold. She notes that there’s no cure for allergies, but there are a few ways to help manage them.
Cats often become more sensitive to ingredients over time. While it may seem weird that your cat is suddenly having problems with her food, Simpson says that’s normal when it comes to food allergies. Fixing the problem may be as simple as putting your kitty on a prescription diet.
Additionally, overreactions to saliva from flea bites and substances in the environment can also cause skin irritation. Treatments range from drugs like antihistamines and steroids that can help control symptoms, to flea medications, and even using an air filter to eliminate allergens.
Yeast and Bacterial Infections
Yeast and bacterial infections in cats are caused by other health problems. Yeast lives on the skin of all cats, but may overgrow and become troublesome in those with medical conditions such as diabetes or allergic dermatitis. Certain breeds, like Devon rex and Himalayan, are prone to yeast infections too.
The ears are one of the top places for yeast overgrowth in cats, while bacterial infections often happen around clogged hair follicles (which is also known as feline acne). Bacterial infections can also be caused by cats who bite or scratch their skin.
With a yeast or bacterial infection, your cat’s skin may become red and irritated or develop a brownish, scaly appearance. You might also see discharge or notice a bad smell.
It’s important to talk to your vet about how to appropriately diagnose and treat your cat’s yeast and/or bacterial infection. The vet may prescribe an anti-fungal medication or antibiotic to help clear up the infection. But it’s also possible that the infection is caused by an underlying illness, like feline leukemia, FIV, diabetes mellitus, or neoplasia. If that’s the case, your vet will also try to treat the underlying disease in addition to the skin condition.
It may sound crazy, but it’s possible for cats to suffer from acne just like people do. Pimples and blackheads tend to pop up on a cat’s chin and around the lips, and will often look like a dirty chin on cats who have pale fur.
The exact cause of feline acne is unknown, Simpson says. But diagnosing it is relatively easy once you’ve ruled out mites and ringworm. Usually, a specially formulated ointment, wipes, or shampoo will do the trick to heal your cat’s acne and prevent new outbreaks. But your kitty may need an antibiotic if the area has become infected.
A fatty acid supplement (omega 3 fatty acids) may help cats with acne, but you should check with your vet before changing your cat’s diet. Your vet may also recommend switching your cat’s food and water dishes from plastic to stainless steel or glass to help clear up their chin acne, since those surfaces are nonporous and therefore less likely to harbor bacteria.
If your cat keeps shaking her head or scratching her ears, mites may be to blame. Mites are microscopic bugs that wreak havoc on your cat’s skin, causing swelling and irritation. They’re easily spread among animals and can also be passed to people, and kittens and outdoor cats are more likely to get mites than indoor cats or healthy adults.
There are various types of mites, but the most common kind that affects cats are ear mites. They live in the ear canal and can lead to yeast and bacterial infections. If your cat has ear mites, you may spot a black waxy substance in them or a stinky odor coming from your cat’s ears.
Although it’s tempting to try home remedies for a quick fix for your kitty, it’s important to get the proper diagnosis and treatment from a vet. Some medications can damage your cat’s hearing if the eardrum is torn.
Ringworm is a skin infection caused by fungus, not worms. You might not see your cat scratching. But you’ll definitely notice bald spots that expose circle-shaped, scaly sores on her skin.
It can take up to four weeks for your cat to develop symptoms after being exposed to ringworm, Simpson says. She warns that kittens and cats are likely to catch ringworm when they live in crowded spaces, such as animal shelters or in catteries (breeders).
If you suspect ringworm, it’s important to get to your vet ASAP since the fungal infection is easily spread to other animals and people. (Sorry Kitty, all scratches behind the ear are a no-no for now.) Once diagnosed, ringworm is treated with antifungal medications applied to the skin or given orally.
If your cat’s skin feels bumpy, it could be miliary dermatitis—an itchy skin rash that frequently occurs when cats have allergies, especially to fleabites. But it can also be a sign of a number of other health problems, including parasites like lice, mites, or ringworm.
Because miliary dermatitis is almost always a symptom of a bigger problem, treatment of the rash—which may or may not have scabs—depends on the root cause. See your vet to get to the bottom of what’s causing the bumps so you can treat it with the appropriate medication.
Sporotrichosis is a rare fungus that can infect both humans and animals, including cats. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that while no cases of sporotrichosis in cats have been detected in the United States, the disease has been increasingly spread among cats in Brazil and other countries in South America. It starts by entering an open cut or wound and then shows up as small hard bumps or open sores on a cat’s nose, tips of ears, and head.
According to the CDC, treatment with an oral antifungal drug takes months and sometimes doesn’t work. Sporotrichosis can be deadly. It’s also easily passed to other pets or people in your home. Keep your kitty isolated and wash your hands after contact until you see your vet.
Most often seen in older and long-haired cats, lice are tiny insects that cling to the hair of animals and humans. But don’t worry: The type of lice that live on cats don’t spread to people.
To identify whether your cat is scratching because of a lice infestation, start by parting your kitty’s fur to look for lice, much like you’d search for lice on a human head after getting a dreaded note from the school nurse. Whitish lice eggs will stick to hair roots, while adult lice look like specks of dirt. If your cat has lice, you need a shampoo designed to kill the parasite. Ask your vet for a recommendation, since some anti-lice treatments are toxic to cats. Be sure to clean your cat’s bedding, collar, and brushes and combs too in order to eliminate lice eggs.
Similar to skin cancer that affects people, skin cancer in cats is associated with sun exposure. White and light-haired cats are especially susceptible. But you won’t be able to tell whether a bump, sore, or scab is cancer or another skin condition with the naked eye.
If skin cancer is suspected, your veterinarian will first rule out other health problems and determine if your kitty needs a biopsy (removal of a small sample of skin to study under a microscope). If the diagnosis is confirmed and the cancer has not spread, your cat may just need to have the spot surgically removed. Cancer treatments for cats also include chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Other Skin Problems
Flaky, dry skin (dandruff) and hair loss (alopecia) are sometimes signs that a cat may have a health problem, especially when they’re scratching too. But these skin conditions can also be harmless.
You might see dandruff on your older cat’s lower back because they can’t reach that spot to groom anymore. On the other hand, your cat could be grooming too much out of stress, making themselves bald in spots. If you’re concerned about dry skin or hair loss, it’s best to have your vet check it out.
Skin conditions in cats run the gamut, from annoying-but-treatable conditions to deadly diseases. Make an appointment with your vet if you see signs that your cat doesn’t feel comfortable in his own skin.