Common Cat Skin Conditions

Published: January 28, 2021
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A cat’s skin acts as a barrier between their body and the outside world. If a cat has a skin condition, that barrier can be impaired. It weakens their body’s defenses, and in many cases, generates a severe amount of discomfort.

Since a cat’s skin is one of the few organs we can see pretty easily with the naked eye, cat skin disease is easy to spot. However, there are hundreds of causes of skin disease in cats, so the only way to know for sure is by taking your cat to the vet.

This guide will discuss the most common cat skin conditions.

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Cat Skin Conditions: Signs and Possible Causes

A bump, a rash, a scab, a patch—there are almost as many words to describe cat skin disorders as there are skin issues themselves. Unfortunately, the way a particular skin disease shows up does not neatly align with the underlying cause. That’s why it’s not usually possible for a vet to make a diagnosis based on just a picture of your cat’s skin.

And to further complicate things, there’s usually more than one symptom present at a time. Microscopic and laboratory testing are usually recommended to determine the underlying cause of cat skin disease.

However, it’s still a good idea to take pictures of the problem, especially over time. These pictures can be useful in at least narrowing down the underlying cause of your cat’s skin condition.

Although achieving a diagnosis can often be time-consuming, it is ideal to figure out the cause of your cat’s symptoms so that the treatments can be targeted toward that cause.

Here are some of the most common cat skin conditions, signs to look for, and possible causes.

Hair Loss

One of the most common and most obvious signs of feline skin disease is hair loss. Pet parents are quick to notice when their cat is developing a bald patch or two.

Hair loss can be divided into two distinct symptoms: alopecia and barbering.

Alopecia

Alopecia refers to a thinning or total loss of hair at the level of the hair follicle. With alopecia, if you run your hand over the area of hair loss, it will usually feel smooth because the remaining hair is normal.

Alopecia can be the result of almost any cat skin disease—allergies, infections, parasite infestations, nutritional disorders, endocrine disease, and even certain cancers.

Barbering

Barbering is a self-induced thinning of the hair that occurs when a cat bites the hair shafts in two. With barbering, if you run your hand over the area of hair loss, it will feel prickly because of the sharp, bitten ends of the hair shafts.

Barbering is a trickier symptom to evaluate. When cats overgroom and barber their fur, it can be caused by itchiness, pain, or stress. If the cause of barbering is itchiness, the list of possible causes very similar to the causes of alopecia.

It is not uncommon, however, for owners to bring their cat to the vet for hair loss on the belly, expecting a diagnosis of skin disease, only to discover that the cat has a painful UTI. Pain in the abdominal cavity from pancreatitis, foreign body obstruction, tumors, or UTIs will often cause cats to groom and barber their undersides in a futile attempt to reduce the pain. Barbering along the back can be caused by spinal pain.

Barbering can also be psychogenic, meaning that neither pain nor itchiness are the cause of your cat’s overgrooming. Instead, stress can cause cats to exhibit all sorts of behavioral changes, including barbering their fur. What’s stressful to a cat can be much milder than what a person would consider stressful.

There’s at least one case report of a cat developing a stress-induced UTI after all the curtains in the house were changed. So if you bring your cat into the vet for barbered fur, it’s important to mention any potentially stressful changes at home, such as new pets or roommates, nearby construction, or any other changes to the typical sights and sounds your cat encounters at home.

Itchy Skin (Pruritus)

A symptom that is often related to hair loss is itchy skin. Itchiness, which veterinarians call pruritus, occurs when skin irritation creates inflammatory molecules that send signals to the brain, inducing the sensation of itch. Although many pet parents will change their cat’s food to minimize the itching, food allergies account for only one in five cases of itchy cats. That’s why it’s best to go to the vet for a correct diagnosis.

Letting your veterinarian know whether your cat’s skin condition seems to be itchy or not itchy can help narrow down the list of possible causes. Although the most common skin diseases in cats are generally itchy, non-itchy skin diseases include certain types of bacterial and fungal infections, autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, and endocrine diseases. As with fur barbering, it can be difficult to tell whether a cat’s licking and scratching is due to itchiness or pain.

Miliary Dermatitis

Miliary dermatitis is a common class of feline skin disease in which numerous small, grainy bumps appear on the surface of the cat’s skin. Miliary dermatitis, named for the way the texture of the skin resembles millet seeds, is considered a symptom, not a specific disease.

The most common cause of miliary dermatitis in cats is a hypersensitivity to flea bites, even in indoor-only cats. However, bacterial infections, ringworm infections, other parasitic infestations, autoimmune disease, and certain cancers are also possible causes.

Other allergies such as adverse food reactions or atopy commonly cause this symptom as well.

Scabs

Scabs occur after something—usually trauma—opens the skin enough to cause bleeding. When the blood clots and closes the injury, a scab is formed. Veterinarians actually have two words for scabs: crusts and excoriations.

An excoriation is self-induced, usually from scratching at an itchy skin condition, whereas a crust can be caused by any condition that ruptures the protective layer.

Examining the cells or the fluid beneath a crust microscopically is sometimes useful for achieving a diagnosis. Otherwise, leaving crusts alone is usually recommended.

Sores

Skin injuries are often precursors to scabs. While defects in your cat’s skin might be quite obvious, distinguishing the types—abrasions, ulcers, lacerations, punctures, abscesses—is a job for your veterinarian.

Since open wounds create an ideal environment for bacteria and other infectious microbes, preventing access to the wound is ideal. Your veterinarian may close the wound if possible, although only fresh wounds can be stitched closed.

Covering the wound is sometimes useful, but more often, these types of skin conditions are left open to heal. Veterinarians will often recommend application of a product containing antibiotics, antifungals, and anti-inflammatories. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian before initiating treatment.

Rashes

"Rash” is another extremely broad term that can encompass everything from hives to pustules to fresh bruising.

In general, people use the term rash to describe cat skin conditions that are flat and red and encompass a medium to large area of skin. Rashes are typically associated with inflammation, which can either be a primary problem (like allergies) or a secondary problem (like infections).

As with sores, it is important for your veterinarian to visually inspect any rashes on your cat. Tests may also be necessary before a diagnosis and treatment recommendation can be made.

Red Spots

As with rashes, red spots are common in cats and not indicate a specific disease, but instead can be caused by a wide variety of conditions.

As always, testing and visual inspection by your veterinarian will likely be required to achieve a diagnosis if your cat has red spots.

Dry, Flaky Skin (Scale)

Since the treatment for human dandruff is often as simple as a shampoo change, you might assume that a medicated shampoo that promises to “moisturize the skin” is all that’s needed to correct a cat’s dry, flaky skin, or what veterinarians call “scale.”

Medicated shampoos can often help alleviate this symptom, but you should have your cat checked out to determine the cause. Let your veterinarian know of any other symptoms, even those not related to the skin, that your cat has exhibited.

While cat dandruff can be caused by primary skin conditions, especially infections, it can also be secondary to other problems like nutritional imbalances, obesity, or conditions that can cause your cat to feel too sick to groom.

Oily Skin/Fur

Like dandruff, oily fur is a condition that encourages pet parents to transfer their knowledge of human hair care onto that of cats. When our hair looks greasy, most of us would take a shower to wash away the excess oil in our hair.

Cats, however, should be able to self-maintain the appearance of their fur coat. When the fur becomes greasy or oily in appearance, some step in the process of oil production and removal has been disrupted.

Oily fur is commonly seen in cats with miliary dermatitis, but it can also be the sole symptom. As with dandruff, oily fur can be caused primarily by skin disease, or can be attributable to other problems, especially obesity and thyroid disorders.

In many cases, medicated shampoos can help, but testing is needed to get the right diagnosis to determine the best course of treatment.

Infections

Although microbial infections can’t be seen with the naked eye, the associated symptoms can often point to cat skin infections:

  • Miliary dermatitis (small, grainy bumps)

  • Pustules (small, fluid-filled bumps)

  • Epidermal collarettes (flaky skin encircling an area of reddened or darkened skin)

  • Yellow, green, or chunky discharge coming from your cat’s skin

  • Skin conditions with a strong smell

In many cases, however, feline skin that becomes infected does not look very abnormal at all. Itchiness, along with perhaps one or two of the symptoms mentioned above may be the only signs that a skin infection is present.

Your veterinarian may need to take a sample of the cells on the surface of the skin with a piece of clear tape to see whether bacteria or yeast are present in the skin cells. If no clear answer is identified, a biopsy may be needed to achieve a diagnosis.

In cats, skin biopsies are done with sedation or general anesthesia rather than using local anesthetic and allowing the cat to be awake while the sample is taken.

Treatment involves antibiotics and/or antifungal medications, given topically or by mouth, depending on the infection and the available products.

Parasites

Parasites love cats. A flea’s idea of heaven is drinking your cat’s blood while she naps in a sunbeam. For cats and for us, however, the idea of unwelcome guests occupying our skin doesn’t sound quite so lovely. Mites, ticks and other ectoparasites can live on or in your cat’s skin, where they create discomfort, spread secondary diseases, generate allergic responses, and potentially infect the humans in the family.

Sometimes, you might see one of these parasites with the naked eye. In most cases, though, these infestations are surprisingly subtle; you may only notice your cat scratching intermittently, or perhaps a rash or bumps along your cat’s back.

Because many cats live indoors only, pet parents can be quite skeptical that a parasitic infection is the cause of their cat’s symptoms. You can imagine their surprise when I run a flea comb through their cat’s fur and show them the flea dirt.

Parasite infestations remain one of the most common causes of skin disease in cats, so it’s always a good idea to take your cat to the vet as soon as you suspect skin disease. Your veterinarian will be able to perform a more thorough visual inspection, in addition to other tests like skin scrapes.

Treatments for parasitic infections are generally straightforward, but keeping your cat on monthly preventatives is the surest way to minimize the risk.

Bumps, Lumps, Skin Tags, and Tumors

There are many words for abnormal growths on the skin, and their definitions are often interchangeable.

The good news for cat owners is that, unlike dogs, cats’ bodies do not typically turn into skin tumor factories after a certain age. While a geriatric dog is certain to be littered with skin tags, soft fatty tumors, and warts, a cat’s skin is just not as prone to developing growths in the same fashion. Therefore, when you notice a growth on your cat’s skin, it is highly recommended to have the growth evaluated by your veterinarian.

Microscopic testing is almost always recommended. Collecting cells from the growth with a fine needle aspirate (FNA) and examining them under the microscope (cytology) is an important first step in deciding whether a growth is concerning or not.

Sometimes, the growth will need to be removed and sent out for a biopsy, where a pathologist will see exactly what the cause of the growth is. Then they can determine which treatments are needed, if any. In older female cats, especially, firm lumps under the skin of the belly should be examined immediately to check for mammary tumors.

Questions Your Vet Will Ask About Your Cat’s Skin Condition

Giving your veterinarian a thorough history of your pet’s health will be critical in getting your cat’s skin back to normal. Here are a few questions you should be prepared to answer when you go to your veterinarian:

  • When did you first notice your cat’s skin condition?

  • Is the problem getting worse over time, or better, or is it about the same?

  • Does the skin issue keep coming back at a certain time each year?

  • Have you tried any treatments at home? (not recommended, but your vet will want to know)

  • Is your cat on a flea/tick preventative?

  • Is your cat on any medications?

  • What food is your cat eating?

  • Is your cat indoor/outdoor, indoor-only, or outdoor-only?

  • Has your cat ever been outdoors?

  • Are there any sources of stress in your cat’s environment (even a minor change in the home)?

  • Does your cat have any chronic medical conditions? (Even if you think it’s “in his file,” it never hurts to remind your veterinarian at the time of the appointment.)

  • Are any other cats in your house affected?

  • Are there any factors that seem to worsen your cat’s skin condition?

  • Has your cat traveled with you to other parts of the country or the world?

How to Prevent Cat Skin Conditions

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here are some ways you can help support your cat’s skin health.

Feed Them a High-Quality Cat Food

The first step in keeping your cat’s skin healthy is to ask your veterinarian to recommend a high-quality diet. Poor-quality diets often result in poor-quality skin and a dull hair coat.

Keep Your Cat at a Healthy Weight

Keeping your cat at an appropriate “body condition score,” meaning not underweight or overweight, will allow them to continue grooming for the duration of their life.

Use Flea and Tick Control

Flea and tick preventatives are very important, even in indoor cats.

I treat itchy New York City apartment cats on a near-daily basis. When I mention parasites as a contributing cause of itch, nearly all owners are in disbelief. I hear things like, “How can my cat get fleas if he hasn’t left the apartment in 3 years?” or “I haven’t seen any mites,” and yet the parasites are there, far more often than you’d think.

Manage Your Cat’s Stress Levels

Minimizing stress for your cat can minimize the risk of psychogenic skin issues like overgrooming. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations for stress-relieving products such as cat pheromone diffusers.

Assist With Grooming When Needed

Although “assisted grooming” can be an appropriate treatment in cats that have difficulty doing the job themselves, especially cats that are older or overweight, you should not bathe or groom your cat too much, as this can cause its own set of problems. You can help your cat groom by using tools such as a damp rag and a rubber grooming brush.