The Itchy Cat

PetMD Editorial
April 08, 2013
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There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing your pet scratching, knowing he’s uncomfortable, and feeling unable to do anything to help. So, let’s talk about some of the things that you and your veterinarian can do to help.

Itchiness is referred to in veterinary circles as pruritis. Other symptoms you might see in a pruritic cat include hair loss, scabs and inflammation of the skin, and even bleeding skin lesions. Skin problems like this can also make your cat irritable and some cats will lose their appetite.

There are many different things that can make a cat itchy. Allergies are a frequent cause of itchiness in cats. Allergy to fleas, commonly known as flea allergy dermatitis or FAD, is one of the most common causes of itchiness. Other allergies that can affect cats include food allergies and atopy (an allergy to an item or items in your cat’s environment). Other causes of itchiness in cats include parasites such as ear mites, demodectic mange mites, and other types of mites or other parasites.

Skin infections can be caused by bacteria or yeast organisms and occur because of trauma to the skin barrier caused by constant scratching. They are almost always secondary to another cause. However, these skin infections can add to the degree of itchiness your cat experiences once they become established.

One of the first things that must be done for an itchy cat is to institute effective flea control. Don’t assume that fleas are not an issue for your cat because you do not see live fleas. Particularly in cats that are grooming excessively, evidence of fleas can sometimes be difficult to find even when fleas are present. Consult your veterinarian to determine which type of flea control will be safest and most effective for your cat.

Your veterinarian may want to do a skin scraping and skin cytology for your itchy cat. These are specialized but reasonably simple tests that your veterinarian can perform to help determine if your cat is suffering from parasite, bacterial or yeast infections. If found these infections will need to be treated appropriately. Antibiotics are the normal treatment for bacterial skin infections. Antifungal medications treat yeast infections. Topical products such as selamectin are frequently used to treat mite infestations as well as flea infestations.

If your veterinarian suspects that your itchy cat is suffering from a food allergy, a food trial may be recommended. A food trial is much more complex than simply changing your cat’s diet. A diet that avoids ingredients that your cat has eaten previously must be chosen based on what your cat has eaten in the past. Once selected, this trial diet must be fed exclusively for 8-12 weeks. In some cases, it can take that long for improvement to occur. If symptoms do improve, the diagnosis is confirmed by a challenge, reintroducing the original food or ingredient and documenting return of symptoms.

A diagnosis of atopy is reached only after all other potential causes of your cat’s itchiness have been ruled out. Skin or blood testing can reveal the items to which your cat is allergic but this type of testing is really only recommended if you are planning to institute immunotherapy (i.e. “allergy shots”) for your cat.

Most veterinary dermatologists agree that food allergies cannot be diagnosed via skin or blood testing. A feeding trial as discussed previously is the diagnostic test of choice for making the diagnosis of food allergy.

Symptomatic treatment for an itchy cat may include shampoos (if your cat is amenable to bathing), ointments, lotions, and food supplements (fatty acids, etc.). Immunosuppressive medications such as corticosteroids are controversial and, if used, should be used sparingly. Antihistamines can provide relief for some cats but not for all.

Always consult your veterinarian before administering any medications, even those that are available over-the-counter, to your cat. Ideally, these medications are used to control your cat’s symptoms until the cause of the problem is identified and addressed.

Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: Simon_music / via Flickr