Cats are vulnerable to a number of skin disorders, but for your cat’s wellbeing you need to keep their skin healthy. Don’t forget your cat’s skin is one of the biggest organs in its body and includes parts you can’t see (like inside the ears) and parts you may not think of as skin, such as pads and claws.
If you have any concerns about your cat’s skin talk to your vet.
What are causes of skin disease?
There are many causes, both infectious and non-infectious, and sometimes they can be affected by more than condition at a time.
Some causes include:
Flea infestations are a top cause of skin disease in cats. Frequently they can lead to the cat becoming allergic to flea saliva (called flea allergic dermatitis or FAD). This causes distressing levels of itching, leading to over-grooming, the forming of crusts and scabs, scratching and hair loss. However, surprisingly, many cats can also be affected with fleas and not show any signs of scratching. Fleas can spread disease and are so common in cats that it is really important to have a regular flea prevention routine for your cat.
- Depending on your individual cat’s age, lifestyle and where you live, there are a variety of other parasites which can cause problems and may need effective control. These include ticks, ear mites and harvest mites.
- Bacterial – a really common reason for skin problems. While bacteria can be a primary cause of skin disease more often than not a bacterial infection will come about through the cat’s skin being damaged or diseased from other causes. The most common bacterial infections come from puncture wounds as a result of a cat fight.
- Fungal – The most common form of fungal skin disease is known as ringworm. Here, the fungus that causes a ringworm infection (it is not actually a worm!) is spread by spores. These are transmitted by contact with infected cats, using contaminated brushes or bedding. They can even survive on the shed hairs of an affected animal and be blown by the wind so a cat can pick up infection not only by contact with another cat but also from their environment.
- Viral – Cowpox virus infection is an uncommon skin condition, usually affecting cats which enjoy hunting small rodents.
Allergies or intolerances: as well as flea allergy (see parasites above) cats can become abnormally reactive (hypersensitive) to other foreign substances
- in atopic dermatitis, environmental exposure to substances such as dust mite allergens or pollens may be the trigger
- In dietary intolerances sensitivity to diet constituents may develop
- In contact dermatitis the cause may be an abnormal reactivity to skin exposure to specific chemicals such as dyes
- Feline eosinophilic granuloma complex is a skin disorder that can develop into a number of forms – it is thought that most if not all, cases may relate to an underlying allergy. This condition may present with itchiness, localised skin thickening, self-inflicted damage or lip ulcers
Underlying disease problems. Sometimes another health issue a cat has may appear as a skin problem. For example:
- If your cat is unable to groom themselves properly this can lead to a poor coat, fur matting and dandruff. This may happen if they are obese, suffer with arthritis or have dental problems.
- In inactive cats or debilitated cats (weak in some way), the claws may also become so long they cut into the cat’s footpads causing pain, infection and lameness
- In cases where there is an underlying metabolic disease or hormone disorder such as an overactive thyroid, the coat is often in very poor condition
- Cancer – there are a variety of cancers that can appear as skin problems, some more serious than others
- Sun burn: just like in people, beware of too much sun as it can damage your cat’s skin, especially white cats or cats with light coloured fur. The parts that are most susceptible are ears, noses and around the eyes. Sometimes as with people sun burn can lead to cancers
- Stress may also lead to or aggravate underlying skin problems - when your cat is stressed, they may not groom themselves properly, or may overgroom and cause alopecia (baldness)
How can I tell if my cat has a skin problem?
Your cat may be showing one or more these signs, depending on the condition and cause. As the same signs can indicate more than one potential problem, if you have any concerns about your cat, it’s important to get a veterinary diagnosis so they can advise on the correct treatment. Some causes such as ringworm and of course fleas can affect the human family members too, so it’s very important to get a skin problem checked out promptly and thoroughly.
Make it part of your fun routine with your cat to carry out a regular all-over check. This is a great idea to do when you groom them. Look out for:
- Excessive grooming or scratching
- Skin wounds, sores and ulcers
- Skin redness or spots
- Head shaking, ear scratching, odour, wax or discharge
- Scabs or crusts
- Excessive dandruff or greasiness in the coat
- Lumps and nodules
- Baldness (alopecia)
- Colour changes to skin or fur
- Matting of fur
- Limping – skin disorders can affect their feet too
How can skin disease be diagnosed?
For a proper diagnosis, you will need to consult your vet. To help your vet diagnose a skin problem they will need to know about any signs you may have seen, how long they have been there and if any changes to your cat’s lifestyle have occurred. They will examine the cat and bear in mind all the signs you have noticed: this will help the vet select suitable tests that may be needed to identify the possible cause(s).
Your vet may carry out one or more of the following tests to aid their diagnosis:
- Coat inspection and brushing
- Examination of fur/skin samples under the microscope
- Culture of samples for fungi and bacteria
- Analysis of biopsies of the skin or scabs
- Blood tests
How can my cat’s skin problem be treated?
When your vet has made a diagnosis, they may prescribe a treatment or combination of treatments to manage the primary cause, together with something to help relieve itchiness and discomfort. In some cases, skin disorders cannot be cured but may be controlled via treatment. Your vet will advise on what is best for your cat. It is always essential that you follow the instructions given and finish the course of treatment given even though your cat may start to look better.
Once you have been given your cat’s diagnosis, if it’s a problem that you can prevent in the future or will need to manage in the longer term (whether it be the actual skin condition or the underlying cause), it may be that any medicines you need are available for you to purchase from a number of outlets, including your vet, pet shop, country store or pharmacy. But don’t forget to contact your vet if you have any concerns so they can make sure your cat’s skin remains healthy.
How can I help prevent skin disease in my cat?
Whilst not all skin diseases can be prevented there are a number of things you can do to prevent some causes of skin problems and make sure others are nipped in the bud and managed to prevent them taking hold and causing discomfort.
- Make it a daily fun activity with your cat to check its skin thoroughly. Feel all over for lumps and bumps, and matts in the fur. Build in grooming into your regular pet care routine, for instance a good time may be when your cat chooses to honour you with its presence relaxing in front of the TV! Spotting a skin problem early often makes effective treatment much easier.
- Have your cat neutered– as well as having a number of other health benefits for your cat, this will help reduce the likelihood of cat fights that are a really common cause of skin injury and infections.
- Prevent fleas with regular flea treatments throughout the year - not just with your cat, but any other susceptible pets you may have in the home will need to be treated, including the dog, for control to be effective. Talk to your vet or pet care specialist about what product(s) may be suitable to use and how to use them effectively. Use regularly, in accordance with the label recommendations, and don’t forget to make sure your home is flea-free too – fleas spend a lot of their life cycle living off the host so in many cases a house treatment may also be needed. NEVER use a dog flea product for your cat – some dog flea treatments can be very harmful to cats.
- Provide a balanced diet for your cat, to ensure your cat gets all the nutrients it needs, and feed a specific diet, herbal or nutritional supplement if recommended by your vet because your cat has a particular requirement or intolerance (difficult if your cat is a hunter, or a ‘Six Dinner Sid’ type that snacks in your neighbour’s houses!)
- Worm your cat regularly using licensed worming products as directed. Talk to your vet or pet care specialist about what product(s) or regime would best suit your cat. You can buy licensed worming medicines from a number of different outlets, including your vet, pet shop, country store or pharmacy.
- Stress can cause and aggravate a variety of health problems so it is valuable to create an environment which is as stress free for your cat as possible. Cats need to feel safe and secure in the home, often needing their own space so they can separate themselves from sources of stress such as children, people, other cats and dogs. They need to be able to sleep, feed and toilet in areas away from noise and disturbance and prefer not to have their food and water bowls near to a litter tray. There are also some times of year which may be fun for us but particularly stressful for cats, such as fireworks season and Christmas. Speak to your vet or pet behaviourist if you feel stress may be a factor that needs attention in your cat, they can recommend how to help prevent problems.
For more information from Cats Protection, click here.