Skin problems in cats

Skin problems are common in cats and can range from minor irritations, that usually clear up on their own, to long-term conditions which can be hard to treat.

It’s often harder to recognise skin problems in cats than in dogs, because cats don’t tend to scratch the irritation. Instead they prefer to excessively lick the area, which might seem to be just part of their normal grooming routine.

Some common symptoms of skin problems in cats are:

  • Excessive licking
  • Hair loss
  • Redness / irritated skin
  • Scabbing
  • Dry / flaky skin
  • Swelling and lumps
  • Nibbling
  • Cat seems shy and doesn’t want to be looked at or touched

There are lots of possible causes of skin irritation in cats, so if you’re worried you should always seek veterinary advice, and not attempt to diagnose the condition yourself. Here’s a list of some of the most common causes of skin problems in cats:

What is ringworm?

Ringworm is fungal infection that is highly contagious so can easily be passed from pet to pet. It causes skin irritation in the form of redness, scaly patches, scabs and hair loss, usually on the head, ears and paws. If you suspect ringworm it’s important to visit the veterinarian straight away so that it isn’t passed to any other pets (or humans!) in your household.

How to treat ringworm

If you suspect that your cat has ringworm, the first thing to do should be to quarantine your cat until your veterinarian has examined her. If ringworm is confirmed, the veterinarian will prescribe medication in the form of shampoos, ointments or oral medication, which you will need to give to your cat over a period of a few months.

How to prevent ringworm

It’s easy for a cat to contract ringworm through contact with an infected animal or environment (such as bedding). If any animal in the house has ringworm it’s important to thoroughly clean all fabrics that they could have come in contact with, as the chance of another pet catching the infection is incredibly high. If your cat is an outdoors cat, check him for lesions regularly to ensure he hasn’t picked up ringworm outside. Your veterinarian can also recommend an antifungal shampoo to add an extra layer of protection for your cat.

What are fleas?

Fleas are small parasites that live in the fur of your cat, feeding on blood. Whilst they are small, they are well designed for survival, so can be very difficult to get rid of once an infestation has set in. To check for fleas, run a fine tooth comb through the fur to gather any possible fleas and faecal matter (which looks like black dots on the skin) and wipe anything that comes out on a damp paper towel. If the paper turns red it is likely fleas, as their diet is mostly blood.

How to treat fleas

Fleas on your cat can be effectively killed with special shampoo, which can be prescribed by your veterinarian. The difficult part then is eradicating all fleas from your home, as fleas can wait dormant with no food for months in cushions and furnishings. Find out more about how to clean your house to get rid of fleas in our article Fleas and your cat.

How to prevent fleas

There are plenty of preventative flea treatments that your veterinarian can prescribe and as long as you keep your cat up to date (usually one treatment per month) they are unlikely to pick up fleas. Most of these treatments also work for other parasites such as ear mites. You can also buy special collars called flea collars which emit the same chemicals as the treatment to keep fleas away. The collars may be a more cost effective option but they can also irritate your cat’s skin when worn for extended periods of time.

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a catch-all term for a skin irritation caused by something on your cat’s skin. There are two types of contact dermatitis – allergic and irritant, the difference being that allergic reactions vary from cat to cat, but irritants would affect all cats similarly. The visible skin irritation will normally appear on areas with less hair (such as paws, stomach and face) to prevent the skin getting in contact with the irritant.

How to treat contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis will go away on its own once the allergen or irritant has been removed. It’s therefore important to figure out what is causing the reaction quickly so that you can remove it from the house. If your cat is allowed outdoors and you think he may have come into contact with something outside, like poison ivy for example, keep him indoors for a few days to make sure his condition improves.

How to prevent contact dermatitis

There is no way to prevent irritant contact dermatitis, but if allergies are suspected then the cause can usually be identified with some help from your veterinarian. From that point it is just a matter of removing the allergens and being conscious of using anti allergen food bowls and bedding for your cat.

What causes allergies in cats?

There are many things that can cause allergies in cats, so it’s good to have an awareness of the most common ones in case you need to figure out what is causing your cat to have a reaction.

Seasonal

Like humans, cats can suffer from pollen allergies during summer. Often pollen types and rates change every year, so it’s possible for your cat to have a pollen reaction seemingly out of the blue when they have never reacted before.

Food

Many cats have sensitive digestions and can react to any food, but there are also several foods that any cat will respond badly to. Take a look at our guidance on Toxic Foods for Cats to see a list of likely suspects.

Grooming products

Cats are very clean animals due to their regular self-grooming, so most do not need professional shampooing. When they do, there is always a risk of reacting to something in the shampoo. If you’re concerned, ask your groomer to perform a small patch test 24 hours before the grooming session.

How to treat allergies

The best way to treat allergies in cats is to remove the allergen, but this isn’t always possible especially in cases of seasonal allergies. Ask your veterinarian for help and to advise if antihistamines might be an option. Always take advice from your veterinarian before giving your cat any medication as there are antihistamines that could be harmful.

What is Epidermotropic Lymphoma?

Epidermotropic Lymphoma is a form of skin cancer involving a tumor which gets progressively worse over time. Its symptoms are mostly the same as other skin problems, but can also include lightening of the skin. It occurs at a higher rate within white cats, due to the fact that their fur offers less protection from the sun.

How to treat Epidermotropic Lymphoma

Sadly there is no definite cure for Epidermotropic Lymphoma, but cancer therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy can improve the quality of life for your cat. When possible, your veterinarian will perform an operation to remove the tumor but unfortunately it is a cancer that can be fatal. The earlier the cancer is found the higher the chance of successful removal.

How to prevent Epidermotropic Lymphoma

There is no proven way to prevent skin cancer in cats, but it will help to keep time spent in direct sunlight to a minimum, especially in the warmer parts of the country. Regularly check your cat’s skin and flag any irritation to your veterinarian as soon as possible so that if it is cancer it can be diagnosed quickly.

What are bacterial and yeast infections?

There are various types of bacterial infections that can affect your cat, especially if they have a weak immune system due to age or poor diet. Bacterial infections weaken the immune system further which can sometimes cause a yeast infection when the normally harmless yeast on your cat’s skin causes a reaction. Bacterial infections can be identified by the fact that they can also cause internal problems such as flu like symptoms.

How to treat bacterial and yeast infections

Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the best treatment for your cat based on the type of infection that they have. This could be a combination of antibiotics to fight the infection and ointments to address the symptoms.

How to prevent bacterial and yeast infections

Older cats are more prone to bacterial infections because of their weakened immune system, but you can help keep your cat’s immune system healthy for as long as possible by ensuring they get a healthy diet (see our page on healthy diets for cats) and taking them for regular check-ups at your veterinarian.

What is Psychogenic Alopecia

Psychogenic Alopecia, also known as over grooming, is a condition in which cats lose hair due to excessive licking of their skin. It’s believed to be a psychological problem rather than a physical one, similar to obsessive compulsive disorder in humans, so can be difficult to treat.

How to treat Psychogenic Alopecia

Treatment for Psychogenic Alopecia will be different for every cat, so talk to your vet about the best plan for you. You might consider spending more time interacting and playing with your cat, to reduce stress and boredom. There are also some feline pheromones available which can have a calming effect on cats.

How to prevent Psychogenic Alopecia

Psychogenic Alopecia can be caused by stress or boredom, so making sure they are comfortable and happy at home is a good first step. It can also be triggered by other skin problems such as allergies or fleas, so it’s important to deal with these as quickly as possible so that your cat doesn’t form a habit of over-grooming..

If you’re concerned that your cat may have a skin problem, if they have been licking and scratching excessively or you have noticed redness and lesions on the skin, it’s important to take them to see your veterinarian as soon as possible.