Print What Is Really Causing Your Cat to Itch?

While allergies or fleas can often be the reason for an itchy coat, inflamed skin and hair loss can also be signs of other conditions.

John McCoy of East Petersburg, Pennsylvania, turned to a professional groomer at Salty Dog Salon when he saw his cat, Charlie, scratching and licking himself bald in spots. Now, at age 10, Charlie gets relief with the help of an anti-itch shampoo bath every eight weeks.

What the Experts Say About Itchy Skin of Cats

"Any cat who doesn't feel well will stop grooming, and his coat may become dry, dull, and dandruffy," says William Miller, Jr., VDM, dermatologist and medical director of the Companion Animal Hospital at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Irritated skin is also a common sign of bacterial or fungal infections, he says.

The itch response arises when mast cells, most prevalent in the skin, including the lining of the ears and nasal passages, become irritated. This itching may be a histamine response triggered by allergens or inflammatory agents, causing further inflammation and itching.

"We've learned that many different diseases can cause the same skin lesions in the cat," Dr. Miller says, "including flea allergy, ringworm, bacterial infection, and autoimmune skin disease."

How to Help Ease Itching for Your Cat

A humidifier can remedy dry environments, which sometimes aggravate the itch response. Avoiding specific allergens or giving your cat allergy shots can work well when the allergy source is known.

But the basic treatments for itchy skin in an otherwise healthy cat are steroids, antihistamines, antibiotics, and dietary changes. "Cats have higher protein (and) fatty acid requirements than other animals," Dr. Miller says. A protein deficiency, for example, could cause dry, brittle hair and flaky skin.

As most cat owners know, some scratching is normal. But if it seems excessive, it's always best to consult your veterinarian.

5 Tips on Grooming

  • Brush your cat one to three times weekly (once daily for longhaired cats) to remove dead skin, hair, dirt, and pollen. Plus, it's a great way to bond with your cat.
  • Watch for trouble signs such as sores, rashes, lumps, dark bumps, or a thinning coat. "If you find something strange, take your cat to the veterinarian," says Charlotte Reed, columnist and owner of Two Dogs & A Goat Inc., a pet care company in New York City.
  • Get the right tools—small, slicker brushes and wide-tooth combs for hairs and soft-bristle brushes or grooming gloves for cats with shorter coats.
  • Bathe your cat every two to four months. A veterinarian may recommend an anti-itch or bacterial shampoo.
  • Give special attention to older or arthritic cats, checking them often for trouble signs in their skin or on their coat.
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