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Common Cat Skin Problems & How To Recognize Them

While skin diseases are a common cause for veterinary visits, they can be frustrating for humans and felines alike. Itchy skin, rashes, infections, and other skin conditions in cats can be uncomfortable and interfere with daily activities like playtime and catnaps.

Fortunately, your vet can help determine what’s causing the skin issue and work with you to develop the best treatment or management plan for your furkid. Here are some important things to know if you suspect your kitty may have a skin issue... 

Causes of Skin Problems in Cats

There are many possible causes of skin conditions in cats. Many of them cause similar symptoms. So, while the location and appearance of a skin lesion can give clues to the underlying cause, further testing is usually needed for an accurate diagnosis. 

With that in mind, here are some of the most common causes of skin conditions in cats…

  • Allergies, or allergic dermatitis (skin irritation or infection caused by allergies). Most commonly, this includes environmental/seasonal allergies, also known as atopy. Food allergies or contact allergies (from plastic food bowls or laundry detergent scents, for example) can also occur, but are less common. Depending on what a cat is allergic to, a pet parent might notice additional symptoms such as respiratory issues, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Fleas and other skin parasites such as mites/mange, ticks, or lice. Flea bites can cause flea allergy dermatitis, an allergic reaction to flea bites that causes severe itchiness and often leads to skin infections. Since cats are fastidious groomers, they may groom away evidence of fleas before you can spot them — so fleas (or other parasites) may still be present even if you’re not seeing them on your cat.
  • Ear problems including ear mites, or bacterial or yeast infections. The outer ear is an extension of the skin, so it can also be affected by allergies, parasites, and other skin problems.
  • Ringworm, a fungal infection of the skin that causes patches of fur loss or crusty lesions. Ringworm is highly contagious between cats. Humans and dogs in the home may catch it as well.
  • Feline acne, a condition that causes blackheads, pustules (pimples), and hair loss on the chin. 
  • Overgrooming, in which a cat grooms so much that they create bald patches or even skin lesions. This may be caused by stress, boredom, or an underlying medical issue that causes pain. For example, arthritic cats may obsessively groom painful areas, and a cat with a urinary tract infection may overgroom their stomach. Kitties that overgroom may also experience an increase in hairballs.
  • Being overweight or otherwise unable to groom themselves.
  • Abscesses, which are swollen areas (accumulations of pus and fluids under the skin) that often occur after a bite from another cat and the resultant infection. The swelling may be soft or taut, and the contents may drain when the abscess ruptures. Affected kitties may also have a fever or feel ill.
  • Skin masses. Skin growths are much less common in cats than in dogs, so all growths should be checked out by a vet. Many are benign, but cancers may occur, and early treatment is best.
  • Sunburn. Cats with white fur who like to spend time outside are especially prone to this. The ear tips and other thinly furred areas are common spots. It can cause irritation and scabs, and may eventually lead to skin cancer.
  • Eosinophilic granuloma complex. This is a condition in which certain immune system cells (eosinophils) release inflammatory substances as an overreaction to something (flea or insect bites, allergens in the environment or food, etc.). This condition may present as raised bumps or ulcerated skin, commonly on the abdomen, hindlimbs, or face. It may also present as an “indolent ulcer,” or sores on a cat’s upper lip.
  • Bacterial infections or yeast infections. These opportunistic infections often occur secondary to the original condition, when the protective skin barrier is compromised.
  • Underlying medical conditions such as hormonal imbalances, autoimmune diseases, or other health issues.

SEE ALSO: Aural Hematomas in Cats

Symptoms of a Skin Problem in Cats

Cat rashes and other skin issues may present in a number of different ways. Your kitty probably won’t show all of these symptoms at the same time, but you might notice one or more of the following:

  • Redness of the skin. 
  • Itchiness.
  • Hair loss or bald patches.
  • Dandruff.
  • Skin bumps, scabs, crusts, or wounds.
  • Head shaking (for ear infections).

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Diagnosing Cat Skin Conditions

To provide the most appropriate treatment, it’s important to figure out what caused the skin issue in the first place. 

In addition to doing a full physical exam and talking to you about possible allergens or exposures, a veterinarian may recommend diagnostic tests. Common examples include a scrape or swab of the affected areas, a food trial to evaluate for food allergies, allergy testing (blood or skin testing) for environmental allergies, or additional diagnostics (bloodwork, x-rays, etc.) if an underlying health condition is suspected. A skin biopsy may be required to diagnose certain conditions, although this is usually not a first step unless there’s a mass that needs to be removed.

Usually, diagnostic testing is done in a stepwise manner. More advanced or invasive tests are recommended if a kitty doesn’t improve with standard treatment, or when initial testing doesn’t provide an answer as to what is causing the skin issue.

SEE ALSO: Conjunctivitis in Cats

Treatment for Cat Skin Conditions

An accurate diagnosis is important when planning treatment. When symptoms alone are treated without addressing the underlying cause, the problem might come right back. 

Treatment for the underlying cause might mean parasite control, antifungal shampoo or medications for ringworm, antibiotics and surgical lancing and cleaning of an abscess, a special diet for food allergies, or other specific treatments as indicated.

For contagious conditions (such as a ringworm fungal infection or certain parasites), the vet team can offer advice on preventing the spread to people and other pets.

Regardless of the underlying cause, many of the following treatments are commonly used to provide relief and allow the skin to heal.

  • Treatment for bacterial or yeast infections. While these opportunistic infections may occur secondary to the original skin issue, their presence can cause discomfort and delay healing, so it’s important to treat them.
  • Medications to relieve itch and inflammation. Commonly, this includes steroidal medications (such as prednisolone) given as an injection, pill, or topical cream or ointment. Newer medications for itchy skin are also available at most veterinarians’ offices or by veterinary prescription.
  • Antihistamines such as Benadryl or Zyrtec. Antihistamines are most effective at preventing allergic reactions rather than healing symptoms, but they may still be useful in the treatment plan and for preventing future flare-ups.
  • Ear cleanings and ear medications for infections or ear mites.
  • An Elizabethan collar to prevent a cat from reaching the area if they are relentlessly licking or scratching. This gives the skin a chance to heal.
  • Medicated shampoos, creams, ointments, or sprays.
  • Skin health supplements, which may include omega fatty acids or other formulations.
  • Referral to a veterinary dermatologist may be recommended for cats with severe skin problems or skin issues that don’t respond well to standard treatments.

Check with your veterinarian before giving any medications to your cat, since many common home medications are toxic to kitties.

It’s also important to understand the nature of your cat’s condition and keep realistic goals. For example, allergies cannot be cured, so they usually don’t go away entirely. Instead, they can be managed so symptoms are minimized and a kitty has a great quality of life.

What’s the Best Diet for a Cat with Skin Problems?

This depends on what’s causing your furry friend’s symptoms. While food allergies do occur, they are not as common as many pet parents believe them to be. Without a proper diagnosis, it’s impossible to tell whether a cat’s symptoms are due to food allergies or one of many other possible causes.

A food trial is the best way to diagnose food allergies. Blood and skin based allergy testing is, unfortunately, not as accurate for how the body responds to food allergens in real life.

Cats can be allergic to ANY ingredient in their food. This may include healthy proteins such as chicken or fish. That means that, though allergies to grains are possible, grain-free diets or similar formulations are not a one-size-fits-all. They might not work for many cats, depending which specific ingredients they are allergic to.

A proper food trial can take 1-2 months, and it must be strictly followed (no unapproved treats or people food offered during the trial). Your vet can help you choose which food to try, based on your cat’s food intake history. Prescription diets are a common place to start, since their production is strictly controlled to avoid accidental exposure to other ingredients during production. 

Since every pet is unique, sometimes more than one trial must be performed before the best food for an individual cat is discovered. This might sound frustrating — but once the right food for your kitty is established, it’s well worth it because their symptoms will be much better controlled over the long-term. 

Cats who have non-allergic skin problems may benefit from a non-prescription but high quality cat food designed for skin health. These foods may include skin health supplements such as omega fatty acids in appropriate doses for cats.

It’s important to note that home-cooked meals are usually not a good option. If a pet parent would like to offer a home-cooked recipe, the recipe must be approved by a veterinary nutritionist. Otherwise, serious health problems could result from nutrient excesses or deficiencies. 

Preventing Skin Diseases in Cats

While not all skin conditions can be prevented, many can. The below suggestions can help pet parents avoid many common cat skin issues.

  • Keep your kitty indoors to reduce the risk of exposure to fleas and other parasites, biting insects like mosquitoes, cat fights, and allergens like pollen.
  • Use a parasite control product, as recommended by your vet based on the risks in your location.
  • Keep your cat at a healthy weight so they can effectively groom their entire body without difficulty.
  • If your cat has long fur, brush or groom them to avoid mats and tangles. Most short-haired cats don’t need regular bathing, and shampoo may actually irritate their skin.
  • Consider using a humidifier if you live in a dry climate.
  • Avoid stressful situations as much as possible (a change in the home or routine), or talk to your vet about how to keep your kitty relaxed during a potentially stressful situation.
  • Use a stainless steel or ceramic (rather than plastic) food and water bowl. This may prevent chin acne or irritation in cats who are sensitive.

Also, seek veterinary care as soon as possible for any skin issues. Though they are rarely an emergency, early treatment is best.

With monitoring and the right treatment and prevention plans created with the help of your veterinarian, even cats who are prone to long-term skin issues can have their symptoms minimized as much as possible and lead perfectly happy lives. 

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