Pet Care

Skin Problems

Cat sitting with cage in background

The condition of your cat’s skin is an indication of her overall health. When a skin problem occurs, your cat may respond with excessive scratching, chewing and/or licking. A wide range of causes—from external parasites and allergies to seasonal changes and stress, or a combination of these—may be affecting your cat’s skin and should be investigated. Skin problems are one of the most common reasons pet parents seek veterinary care.

What Are Some Symptoms of Skin Problems in Cats?

  • Constant scratching, licking and chewing at the skin, especially around the head and neck.
  • Scabs
  • Redness or inflammation.
  • Round, scaly patches on the face and paws
  • Dry, flaky or otherwise irritated skin
  • Hair loss, bald patches
  • Rashes
  • Swellings, lumps or skin discoloration
  • Drainage of blood or pus

What Might Cause a Cat to Have Skin Problems?

One of the following may be causing an abnormality with your cat’s skin and should be investigated:

  • Ringworm: This highly contagious fungal infection can result in inflammation, scaly patches and hair loss. Lesions are most commonly seen on the head, ears and paws, but sometimes no signs are seen. You’ll want to have your veterinarian treat it immediately to prevent other pets and people in the household from becoming infected.
  • Fleas: Not only do fleas irritate the skin, cats can have an allergic response when exposed to them. Symptoms commonly include excessive scratching, thinning of hair above the base of the tail, crusts and red, raised skin lesions. Some cats may also be sensitive to flea-treatment products; certain flea collars, for example, may cause redness and irritation around the neck.
  • Other external parasites: Ear mites usually cause itching and redness around the ears, and a dark, coffee ground-like material can be seen in the ear canals. Lice can produce intense itching, and mange mites can cause severe flaking and scaling.
  • Seasonal allergies: Your cat’s constant scratching may be due to her sensitivity to common allergens from trees, mold and grasses.
  • Food allergies: Many foods (such as beef, milk, poultry and corn), fillers and colorings can be seen as foreign by your cat’s immune system and can lead to itching and rashes.
  • Grooming products: Certain shampoos and grooming products can irritate your cat’s skin.
  • Seasonal changes: Many cats, like people, get dry, flaky skin in the winter.
  • Environmental factors: Contact with certain chemicals or fabrics can cause skin irritation, as can exposure to the sun or excessive cold.
  • Bacterial or yeast infections: These infections most commonly follow the onset of another skin disorder.
  • Tumors: A variety of benign and malignant skin growths can develop in cats.
  • Stress: Anxiety may cause cats to excessively lick and chew, causing hair loss.

When Is it Time to See the Vet?

You should visit your vet for an exam as soon as you notice any abnormality in your pet’s skin, such as excessive hair loss, flaking and scaling, redness and bald patches, or if your pet begins to excessively scratch, lick and/or bite areas on his fur.

How Are Skin Problems Diagnosed?

After obtaining a history and performing a thorough physical examination of your cat, your vet may perform some of the following diagnostic tests in order to find the cause of your cat’s symptoms:

  • Skin scraping with findings evaluated under a microscope to check for mites
  • ‘Tape test’ to check for parasites
  • Individual hair examination under a microscope
  • Bacterial culture and sensitivity tests
  • Skin biopsy
  • Food and other allergy testing
  • Blood tests to assess your cat’s overall health
  • Microscopic evaluation of cells to establish if bacteria or yeast are present

Which Cats Are Prone to Skin Problems?

Because of the wide ranges of causes, cats of all ages and breeds are susceptible to issues involving skin. Young, elderly, immunocompromised and cats living in overcrowded, stressful environments may be more susceptible to skin problems than others.

How Can Skin Problems Be Prevented?

  • Use natural, hypoallergenic soaps and shampoos recommended for use in cats.
  • Brush your cat regularly to prevent matting of hair.
  • Feed your cat a healthy, balanced food without fillers or artificial ingredients.
  • Implement a flea-treatment program recommended by your veterinarian.
  • Thoroughly clean and vacuum your home (and remember to always throw away the bag).
  • Provide calm living conditions for your cat.
  • Your vet may prescribe skin creams and/or oral medications to prevent skin problems.

How Can Skin Problems Be Treated?

Ask your vet about the following treatments:

  • Topical products, including shampoos, dips and sprays, to prevent and treat parasites
  • A balanced diet to help maintain healthy skin and coat
  • Antibiotic or antifungal medications
  • A dietary supplement containing essential fatty acids
  • Corticosteroids and antihistamines may be prescribed to control itching.
  • Hypoallergenic diet for food allergies