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Common Skin Conditions in Cats

by Lauren Samet

Cats are well known for their precious grooming behaviours – and the odd furball or two - but what happens when your pet’s coat starts looking less than “purrfect”?

Signs & Symptoms of Skin Problems

There are several signs that can indicate your cat has a skin complaint:

Itchiness – If your cat is scratching itself more than usual, it's worth checking them all over to investigate the possible cause. This behaviour indicates an irritation that may or may not be visible to the human eye, however persistent scratching can lead to sore spots, skin damage and eventual fur loss. The cause may be parasitic such as fleas, allergy or neoplastic if a growth or a tumour is stretching the skin and causing it to tighten and itch.

Hair Loss – this may be the result of a physical behaviour such as the example above, allergy, ringworm (fungal) or it may occur seemingly without any cause. Get into the habit of checking your pet all over regularly as an initial bald spot may not be visible instantly or appear in a more hidden area, for example, on their stomach

Flaky skin/dander – dry skin can cause flakes to appear in your cat’s coat but grease and hormonal imbalance can also lead to excess oil and scurf build up. Some cats are more prone to dry skin than others. Speak to your vet if your pet seems to have an issue with this; it could be a sign of bacterial infection but their diet too may be worth investigating.

Dull Coat – short haired cats are well known for being smooth and silky. Sometimes a dull or listless coat can be a sign that your pet is feeling unwell, on the incorrect diet, under the weather, suffering from stress or is facing an immune challenge that is compromising their overall condition. If your cat is overweight you may notice a dull coat over its back as it may not be able to reach this area to groom.  If you notice this type of occurrence in your feline friend then look for any other signs or symptoms that something is wrong. If you have recently changed their diet ensure it is meeting their needs nutritionally to provide the building blocks for health and vitality. Proteins and amino acids such as taurine and arginine are of particular importance in feline diets as are essential fatty acids. If a cat is overweight think about reducing the energy content of its diet to assist weight loss so it is able to carry out normal grooming behaviours unassisted. 

Lumps and Bumps – also sometimes known as neoplasia but possibly also from past traumas or inflammation. Once again these may go unnoticed without regularly checking your cat over thoroughly.

Lesions – these may be cuts and scrapes or secondary to a primary condition such as hyperthyroidism. Lesions can be painful and lead to infection so if commonly found on your cat or noticed at multiple sites its worth visiting your vet who can check for root causes and clean thoroughly to avoid infection. Similarly, if the cut is close to the eyes or other sensitive areas it is better to seek professional advice for treatment.

Inflammation & Redness – sometimes felt as a bump and a patch of heat; causes can range from trauma to allergy. As with any animal, inflammation can cause a lot of pain.

Grooming frequently especially with focus in one area – this is one example of a possible psychogenic condition. Overgrooming can lead to sores and hotspots or indicate that an irritation should be given attention.

Behavioural changes e.g. seeming agitated. Just like us, pain, soreness or discomfort can lead to your pet feeling low, which for a cat may mean they hide, avoid fuss or attention, or perhaps are vocalising much more frequently than usual, or are less active than normal.

Twitching of superficial back muscles – a sign your cat’s skin is feeling more sensitive than usual or there is an issue with the dermis.

Anaemia – pale/white gums or inner eyelids can be a sign your pet is not in optimum health. It can often be associated with reduced activity, disease or illness

Hot spots – mentioned above. Appearing as a red open patch of skin that may be weeping. They are often sore and the cause may be one of several things but they can be made worse by the animal overgrooming the area due to the soreness they cause.

Blood or pus discharge – an obvious sign of infection or lesions that requires treatment.

Common Skin Disorders in Cats


Perhaps surprisingly from its namesake Ringworm (also known as dermatophytosis) is a skin fungus caused most commonly in cats by Microsporum canis. It is fairly harmless to cats, generally remaining in a localised area and causing them little bother, however, is highly contagious to humans and dogs and of course can spread to other cats. It tends to be more often seen in long-haired cats than short-haired and is often obtained from contact with other infected animals, which might include prey animals such as mice and voles. Symptoms include a circular or oval plaque on skin that may cause the cat to itch or lead to hair loss in that area. Diagnosis is made via a skin scraping and microscopy to identify the cause. Most treatments involve an antifungal agent applied topically.

Demodectic Mange (a.k.a. demodicosis)

Demodex mites cause this inflammatory skin disease, often when the animal is stressed, ill or when its immune response is low. The condition is more common in dogs than cats but symptoms if present in felines can be seen via symptoms such as hair loss around the eyes, head and neck, and lesions/dry skin in other areas. Skin scrapings with microscopic examination can diagnose the disease then a vet can prescribe treatment however it is not uncommon for the disease to spontaneously clear up of its own accord. As the condition is rare in cats, the best prevention is to keep them in good health with a balanced diet to ensure the immune system's defences are strong. Some breeds such as Burmese and Siamese cats tend to be more susceptible to this skin disease than others.

Skin Allergies

There are several possible allergens that cats are known to occasionally suffer from. These include flea allergies (see below), food allergies, and environmental allergies.

Flea allergies often result from an allergy to flea bites and to flea saliva to be exact! Symptoms may include excessive scratching and inflammation and can result in hair loss around the back half of the cat. The allergy is more likely in warmer months when fleas are more prevalent and can result in pain and irritation. To prevent a reaction, regularly treat your pet for fleas with a spot-on flea treatment recommended by the vet. Flea collars are generally less popular in recent times as they seem to be less effective for susceptible individuals. Bacterial and yeast infections are commonly a secondary condition caused by the initial bites and inflammation, therefore, the best offence to this skin condition is a good defence; this may mean de-fleaing your home, outside shelters and other pets as well as your feline friend.

Food allergies can result from a cat being hypersensitive to a dietary component such as grain or a specific protein. It is sometimes confused with a food intolerance that may manifest itself as a gastrointestinal upset such as diarrhoea or vomiting. However, signs of an allergy are often manifested in skin irritation alongside gastrointestinal upset. Changing your cat’s diet to eliminate allergens should solve the issue (and don’t forget this includes their treats as well!). If diagnosis of the exact dietary component the cat has an allergy to is needed a vet will often suggest carrying out an elimination test.

Environmental allergies can include pollen, grass, perfumes, household cleaning products, prescription drugs and even some cat litters! Symptoms can be very similar to the others mentioned but may also include ear and eye irritation, sneezing, coughing, and sensitive paws or paw chewing. Once again elimination can be the best way to diagnose the cause - removing potential allergens and reintroducing them back into the home one by one to see which triggers the reaction. Medication may be necessary for severe reactions, so speak to your vet if you think your cat is suffering from an allergy.

Lumps & Bumps

If you find a lump or bump on your pet, then it may be due to a number of causes. A few of the possibilities are:

Skin Cysts – A cyst on your cat’s skin is a sac that fills will solids or fluids produced by the lining. The natural oils, secretions and dead cells of the skin usually work their way naturally into the coat, which the cat or yourself grooms away or through the coat. However, when a cyst forms or a sac begins to fill up (this can be from an enlarged pore or ingrown hair) these secretions and dead cells can become congested and build up inside producing a lump that you may notice on your pet. The physical pressure from this type of cyst can be uncomfortable for your cat and often bathing the area with warm salt water can assist with the material inside breaking down and loosening. If the cyst is very large, looks infected or appears painful to your pet it is best to get it checked by a vet to ensure there is not an underlying root cause such as a foreign body.

Abscesses – An abscess is different from a cyst in that it usually appears more “active” i.e. inflamed and often pus-filled which can be a sign of an infection.

Blackheads – just like us blocked and enlarged pores can lead to small bumps on the surface of your pets’ skin. Excess sebum production can be a cause so check your pet is receiving the correct balance of nutrients from its diet to rule this out as a cause.

Ticks or insect bites – ticks need removing and if you are not confident in how to do this speak to a veterinarian to ensure that the head of the tick is not left inside the skin (which can cause an infection). Insect bites may clear up by themselves in a day or two but keep an eye on them to check they do not become a problem to your pet.

Other lumps or bumps can be caused by warts or tumours. It is best to once again speak to a veterinary professional to get these checked out properly.

Ear Mites, Yeast Infections and Bacterial Infections

If you notice your cat is scratching its ears a lot, shaking its head often or has some hair loss, scabs or inflammation around the ear it may be that it is suffering from ear mites or a bacterial or yeast infection. It is best to take your pet to the vet as any of these conditions can lead to irritation and inflammation that require medical attention to clear up. Ear mites are much more common in cats than in dogs, and they can spread easily so it is best to seek veterinary advice as soon as you notice signs. Bacteria and yeast strains are commonly found on the skin of healthy cats. Unfortunately, if the cat is unwell, or its immune system is compromised for other reasons, these microscopic organisms can populate and become dominant causing hair loss and irritation.

Endocrine Imbalance

Just like us sometimes hormones are responsible for changes to a cat’s coat. Hyperthyroidism and Cushing’s disease are two examples of hormonal imbalance that have more serious implications than just hair thinning or loss. Hyperthyroidism is often accompanied by skin lesions.

Keeping Your Cat's Skin and Coat Healthy Every Day

A healthy balanced diet can ensure your cat’s coat and skin has the best chance of staying in top condition.

Omega 3 oils have long been known to help offer a variety of benefits. For example, they have been found to help support the water-proof function of the stratum corneum, reducing skin dryness, and to reduce inflammatory skin reactions. Interestingly, studies have also found that omega 3 oils may be beneficial in some feline skin complaints. One study, for example, found that providing cats with fish oil helped to decrease skin inflammations.

Treats do not necessarily provide cats with a balanced diet, so make sure the majority of your cats’ food comes from balanced complete meals. Remember too that fresh water should always be present to keep your cat hydrated, something which can be overlooked for skin health.

Although cats are generally very clean, grooming your pet should never be overlooked especially if your cat is a long-coated variety. Long coats in domestic cats have been bred into them and are not necessarily something your cat can manage to look after by itself. To avoid parasites, bacterial infections and check regularly for lumps and bumps keep their coats clean and manageable with regular (daily) brushing. This should also allow you to check the skin simultaneously and take a closer look in the ears and around any skin creases and folds for signs of problems. Make the routine enjoyable for both of you and use this calming time to bond with your cat and check its body condition. This is the time where treats can be useful or playing games with your cat once the grooming is over if they do not take kindly to the brushing.

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