Your cat’s skin condition can be a good indication of their overall health. In fact, skin problems are one of the most common reasons cats require veterinary care. When a skin problem exists, your cat may respond by excessively scratching, chewing and licking itself. Skin problems have a wide range of causes – from external parasites, allergies, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune conditions, stress or any combination of these.
Some common causes of skin problems include:
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. Some flea collars, for example, may cause redness and irritation around the neck.
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.
Abscesses: A painful collection of pus at the site of a bite or puncture wound. Abscesses form a firm swelling that becomes soft with time and can rupture and spill out purulent discharge. Although most fight-related abscesses are found on a cat’s forequarters or abdomen, they can sometimes appear near the tail if a cat is bitten while trying to flee. The best way to prevent abscesses is to keep your
Food Allergy Dermatitis: Some cats are very sensitive to certain ingredients or preservatives in their food. This sensitivity can result in severe itching over the head, neck and back, and swelling of the eyelids. It is often complicated by hair loss and oozing sores from constant scratching and biting. Treatment for this condition typically involves an elimination diet to see what ingredient(s) the cat is reacting to. Some vets may give steroid shots to ease the swelling and itching and give the skin a chance to heal from any damage.
Feline Acne: In this condition, comedones (also known as blackheads) form on the underside of the chin and edges of the lips. This condition may be associated with plastic or rubber food and water dishes. In severe cases, anti-seborrheic shampoos, such as those containing benzoyl peroxide (at a concentration of 3% or less), or benzoyl peroxide gels are used to break down the excess oils. Supplementation with Omega-3 or Omega-6 fatty acids may be beneficial, but check with your vet first.
Contact Dermatitis: Symptoms of this condition include red, itchy bumps and inflamed skin at the site of contact with a chemical or other irritant. It can also be caused by rubber or plastic food dishes. The best way to prevent contact dermatitis is to keep cats away from areas where chemicals are being used and to feed your cats with glass, stainless steel, or lead-free ceramic dishes.
Stud Tail: This is caused by glands near the tail that excrete excessive oils. The result is a greasy, rancid-smelling waxy brown material at the top of the tail near the base. This condition is most often found in un-neutered toms, but fixed males and females can get it, too. Treatment involves neutering if needed, and twice-daily washes with an anti-seborrheic shampoo to break down excess oils.
Psychogenic Alopecia: is the thinning of the fur in a stripe down the back or on the abdomen caused by compulsive self-grooming due to stress. Compulsive grooming behavior is often caused by stress, so treatment involves minimizing the affected cat’s stress level through use of feline pheromone diffusers, creating a calm environment, and redirecting the cat’s nervous energy through play. In severe cases, vets may recommend a short course of anti-anxiety medication.
Sunburn: Cats with light-colored fur and hairless breeds such as the Sphynx are very prone to sunburn and should be kept out of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to reduce the risk of sunburn and minimize the long-term risk of developing skin cancers such as melanoma.
Additional skin problems affecting cats:
Grooming products: Some shampoos and grooming products can irritate your cat’s skin
Seasonal changes: Many cats, like people, get dry, flaky skin in the winter
Seasonal allergies: Your cat’s constant scratching may be due to her sensitivity to common allergens from trees, mold and grasses
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.
- Constant scratching, licking and chewing at the skin, especially around the head and neck
- Redness or inflammation
- Round, scaly patches on the face and paws
- Dry, flaky or otherwise irritated skin
- Hair loss, bald patches
- Swellings, lumps or skin discoloration
- Drainage of blood or pus
If your cat is experiencing any of the symptoms of skin problems see your veterinarian right away.
Your vet will obtain a history and perform a thorough physical examination of your cat. Additional diagnostic tests may include:
- Skin scrapings to check for mites
- A “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 for bacteria and/or yeast
- Keeping your cat indoors may eliminate exposure to many of the causes of skin problems
- Clean & vacuum your cat’s primary indoor environment frequently
- Implement a flea-treatment program in high risk areas of the country
- 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
- Certain nutritional supplements for the skin may be useful
- Topical products, including shampoos, dips and sprays, to treat parasites
- A balanced diet to help regain healthy skin and coat
- Antibiotic or antifungal medications
- A dietary supplement containing essential fatty acids and other skin & coat enhancing ingredients
- Corticosteroids and antihistamines may be prescribed to control itching
- A hypoallergenic diet for food allergies
Autoimmune Skin Diseases in Cats
An autoimmune disease is characterized by the presence of autoantibodies: antibodies that are produced by the system, but which act against the body’s healthy cells and tissues – just as white blood cells act against infection. In effect, the body is attacking itself.
Pemphigus is a general designation for a group of autoimmune skin diseases involving ulceration and crusting of the skin, as well as the formation of fluid-filled sacs and cysts (vesicles), and pus filled lesions (pustules).
Excessive sun exposure may cause or exacerbate the problem and certain breeds appear to have a hereditary predisposition to Pemphigus.
There are three primary types of pemphigus that can affect cats:
- Pemphigus foliaceus
- Pemphigus erythematosus
- Pemphigus vulgaris
With pemphigus foliaceus, the autoantibodies are deposited in the outermost layers of the epidermis, and blisters form on otherwise healthy skin. Pemphigus erythematosus is fairly common, and is a lot like pemphigus foliaceus, but less afflictive. Pemphigus vulgaris, on the other hand, has deeper and more severe ulcers, because the autoantibody is deposited deep in the skin.
Symptoms of Foliaceus
- Scales, crust, pustules, shallow ulcers, redness, and itching of the skin
- Footpad overgrowth and cracking
- Occasional vesicles: fluid-filled sacs/cysts in the skin
- The head, ears, and footpads are the most commonly affected; this often becomes generalized over the body
- Gums and lips may be affected
- It is common for the nipples and nail beds to be affected in cats
- Swollen lymph nodes, generalized swelling, depression, fever, and lameness (if footpads are involved); however, patients are often in otherwise good health
- Variable pain and itchy skin
- Secondary bacterial infection is possible because of cracked or ulcerated skin
Symptoms of Erythematosus
- Mainly the same as for pemphigus foliaceus
- Lesions are usually confined to the head, face, and footpads
- Loss of color in lips is more common than with other pemphigus forms
Symptoms of Vulgaris
- The most serious of the pemphigus types
- More severe than pemphigus foliaceus and erythematosus
- Ulcers, both shallow and deep, blisters, crusted skin
- Affects gums, lips, and skin; may become generalized over the body
- Mouth ulcers are frequent, may result in loss of appetite
- The underarm and groin areas are often involved
- Itchy skin and pain
- Anorexia, depression, fever
- Secondary bacterial infections are common
Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam on your cat, including a blood chemical profile, a complete blood count, a urinalysis and an electrolyte panel. Patients with pemphigus will often have normal bloodwork results. You will need to give a thorough history of your cat’s health, onset of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have precipitated this condition.
A skin exam is crucial. A skin tissue sample will be taken for examination (biopsy); and pustule and crust aspirates (fluid) will be wiped onto a slide to diagnose pemphigus. A positive diagnosis is achieved when acantholytic cells (separated cells) and neutrophils (white blood cells) are found. A bacterial culture of the skin may be used for identification and treatment of any secondary bacterial infections and antibiotics will be prescribed in the event that there is a secondary infection present.
Only severely affected patients need to be hospitalized for supportive care. Steroid therapy may be prescribed briefly to bring the condition under control. If corticosteroid and azathioprine therapy is prescribed, your cat will be switched to a low-fat diet, since these medications can dispose animals to pancreatitis.
The sun can worsen this condition, so it is important to protect your cat from excessive exposure.
This material is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. All specific treatment decisions must be made by you and your local, attending veterinarian.