Itchy Cat? How to Identify and Resolve Skin Problems in Cats
By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Cats are known as secretive beings, and as any cat owner knows they can be very good at hiding the early signs of disease. But even the most stoic cat can have a hard time hiding what’s plainly visible to the naked eye: skin disease. Here are some of the most common cat skin problems, and what you can do about them.
Skin swelling represents almost a third of all the skin cases that present to veterinarians, according to one 2006 study. Masses and swellings are notoriously difficult to diagnose without diagnostic tests such as aspirates and biopsies, but it’s necessary in order to determine the cause.
Despite the constant fear of cat cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cause of skin swelling in cats is abscesses. A small bump or lesion on the outside can mask a large pocket of pus and debris under the skin. This can cause a disproportionate amount of pain compared to what looks like a small wound. If your cat is suddenly hiding, resisting your touch, or has any unusual behavior changes, he may be in pain. Have your veterinarian check out any strange lumps and bumps.
2. Sores on Face or Ears
Little red lesions may appear innocuous at first, but any persistent sore that doesn’t resolve on its own should be evaluated by your veterinarian. Sores on the upper lip may be what’s known as a rodent ulcer, an ulcerative skin disease often associated with allergies.
There are many other causes of persistent sores, and all require medical attention. Some examples are infectious diseases such as viruses, fungus, or bacteria; autoimmune disease, or even cancer. Be especially vigilant if you have a white cat; these felines have a higher incidence than others of squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer in cats, often noted on the tips of the ears, eyelids, and nose.
3. Hair Loss
Sudden cat hair loss can be dramatic and upsetting to owners. Ectoparasites such as fleas are one of the most common causes of cat hair loss, as are allergies. Cat hair loss can also be caused by infections such as ringworm or stress. In older cats, sudden hair loss may also be associated with a systemic disease such as adrenal disease or pancreatic tumors. As it can be very difficult to differentiate one cause from another without veterinary expertise, cats with sudden hair loss should be evaluated promptly by your veterinarian.
Just as in dogs, cats often suffer from three types of allergies: flea allergy, environmental allergy, and food allergy. Flea and environmental allergies are more common than food allergies in cats, but some unfortunate felines may experience more than one type of allergy concurrently.
Food allergies occur when a cat has a hypersensitivity reaction to a protein, often from a meat or plant source in the food. It’s important to distinguish food intolerance, which usually manifests in gastrointestinal signs such as diarrhea or vomiting, from a true food allergy, which usually manifests in the feline as a skin condition. Food allergies can be definitively diagnosed only through a strict elimination diet. If you suspect your cat has allergies, your vet can help you through the process of diagnosis.
5. Flaky Skin/Dull Coat
Sometimes a cat who is otherwise acting normal develops a less than perfect coat: dull, or greasy, or flaky. If the cat is overweight, sometimes they develop a patch of dull coat along their back because they’re unable to reach it to groom. Decreased grooming behavior may also be an early indicator that a cat is feeling unwell from another cause.
Skin and coat can also be affected by diet. Omega-3 fatty acids, often derived from fish sources, play a key role in moderating inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids, often derived from plant sources, are vital for maintaining the integrity of the cell membranes comprising the skin. Linoleic acid and arachidonic acid are both omega-6 essential fatty acids, meaning the cat cannot be synthesized by the cat and therefore must be present in the diet.
If you suspect your cat could benefit from a diet or supplement with additional fatty acids, ask your vet for their recommendation.
As one of the most common presenting complaints in veterinary medicine, skin issues are a problem most cat owners will come across at some point or another. The good news is, with proper care and attention, many cat skin problems respond very well to treatment.
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