Visit Your Vet: Why is my cat itching?

Signs of Skin Problems in Cats

Cats that are experiencing itchy skin problems often attempt to reduce their discomfort by increasing their self-grooming. This can lead to reddened and irritated skin and patches of hair loss. Commonly affected areas of the body are around the cat’s neck, face and feet. You may also notice that your cat’s skin “twitches” when you pet her, or you may see darkened skin, small bumps or scabs and stained fur in areas that she licks excessively.

What Causes the Itch?

Cats may develop itchy and irritated skin for a variety of reasons. The most common causes include:

  • Environmental allergies. Inhalant or environmental allergies (atopy) are a common cause of itchy skin problems in cats. These often begin as a seasonal problem in the spring and/or fall. Over time, the signs usually get worse and may occur throughout the entire year. Indoor allergens (such as dust mites) can cause year-round problems. Contact allergies are less common in cats but can be caused by an allergic reaction to shampoos, houseplants, clothing or bed fibers, and even plastic or rubber food dishes.
  • Parasites. The most common skin parasites in cats are fleas and mites. Cats infested with fleas will scratch around the base of the tail and hindquarters. The presence of adult fleas or small black and white specks (flea feces and eggs) confirms a flea infestation. The severity of itchiness (pruritus) and skin irritation can be extreme in cats that develop an allergy to fleas (flea allergy dermatitis). The most common type of mite in cats is the ear mite, which leads to severe itchiness around the ears, head shaking, and the presence of a dark, dry and crumbly discharge from the ears. Other external parasites that may cause skin problems in cats include mange mites and lice.
  • Cutaneous adverse food reactions (CAFR). Commonly called “food allergies” the term “adverse food reaction” is a more accurate description because the underlying cause of the reaction may be a food intolerance rather than a true allergy. (Note: Food intolerances differ from food allergies in that the immune system is not involved in the former.) Cats that have an adverse food reaction typically show pruritus that is non-seasonal (i.e., occurs throughout the year), and the itchiness is most severe around the head, face and under the chin. A small number of cats with adverse food reactions develop vomiting and diarrhea. Some of the most common ingredients involved with adverse food reactions in cats are fish, beef, eggs and milk. Adverse food reactions are responsible for itchy skin problems in only a small number of cases.
Management–When to See Your Veterinarian

  • Diagnosis. Veterinary attention is needed for most itchy cats because correct identification of the cause is needed for effective treatment. Your veterinarian will conduct a thorough physical examination that includes checking for the presence of parasites and infections and a complete review of your cat’s living conditions and diet. If needed, additional blood tests and urinalysis may be used to rule out other underlying disorders.
  • Treatment. Effective treatment depends on the underlying cause:
  • If fleas or mites are the cause, treatment involves the complete elimination of parasites from both the cat and from the cat’s living environment. A regular flea-control program is then started to prevent recurrent infestations.
  • When environmental allergies are determined to be the cause, management includes eliminating or reducing the cat’s exposure to the allergen. While it may be impossible to completely eliminate all of the offending agents, providing medications or allergy shots may help to reduce signs.
  • If an adverse food reaction is suspected, a feeding trial must be conducted to confirm this. Treatment involves feeding an appropriate, nutritionally balanced cat food. Your veterinarian my recommend a limited ingredient or a hydrolyzed protein diet.
  • Medications are used in many cases to reduce the cat’s allergic response and when necessary to treat secondary bacterial infections.