Cut to the chase: main reasons why your cat’s skin is itchy

It is disturbing for me, almost shocking, to read about cats suffering from itchy skin. There is so much of it. Books on cats have whole sections on itchy skin. It is clearly a major health issue – the most common reason why cats are taken to vets – and my mind was drawn to it again thanks to a sad story of a RSPCA rescue dog, Daisy, who was neglected by her owner to the extent that she was starving to death while being covered from head to foot with a ‘skin condition’. These skin conditions are after often caused by ectoparasites living on and in the skin causing a huge amount of discomfort. Animals make things worse because they instinctively scratch the itch which damages the skin causing infection and hair loss.

Cat flea
The cat flea, the single cause of most vet visits. Image: MikeB from Wikipedia image by Andrei Savitsky.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Itchiness in cats can be reduced most of the time to a few main reasons. Cat owners should sensibly focus on these causes and prioritise resolving them before looking at other possibilities.

Most skin problems involve itchiness and most of the time fleas are the cause. Fleas are probably the single biggest health issue for the domestic cat bar none. Some vets will say that fleas are behind most visits to see a veterinarian, which is a sad admission that cat caretaking is often substandard as all cat owners can successfully eliminate fleas. It is doable. It just takes common sense and commitment.

The other compounding causes for itchy skin are food and environmental allergies which combine with a flea allergy to create what vets call ‘eosinophilic granuloma complex’. Big words and a bit off-putting for cat owners.

Flea allergy

They call this ‘miliary dermatitis‘. The cat becomes allergic to the flea bite, specifically flea saliva. Their immune system overreacts and causes inflammation. It is pretty horrible because one flea bite can trigger it. The flea bite allergy is the most common allergy in domestic cats. It mainly occurs in the warmer months.

As mentioned, the cat’s instinctive response is to lick the itch and/or scratch it. This damages their skin causing crusts, scabs and hair loss often on the accessible belly area and between the hind legs. You’ll see pictures on the internet of these bald areas.

Chronic bacterial infections can develop and sometimes yeast infections. They smell.

There is an overlap with itchy skin caused by food allergies. The scab pattern can help to diagnose the cause.

  • Allergy to fleas – scabs around the neck and along the ‘midline of the back’ (Dr Fogle);
  • Allergy to food – scabs over the head and around the tail region. Circular sores may be present on the shoulders, neck and head.

Other symptoms of a flea allergy might include hair loss over the rump (hind part of the cat) extending along the midline of the back to the neck. The skin may be thicker and darker than normal. Another tip from Dr Fogle: “Food allergies don’t usually cause diarrhoea in cats”.

The treatment is both obvious and difficult (for some households): complete elimination of fleas from cat and home. Once achieved with commitment, if the skin itchiness persists the cause is likely to be a food allergy. Tip: try to avoid toxic insecticides. There are too many cases of cats being killed by flea treatments. You just have to be switched on to the dangers of flea treatments. Go steadily and read instructions if you use these treatments. I don’t.

Food allergy

After fleas, food intolerance is probably the next most common cause of itchy skin in cats.

You can try a hypoallergenic food to cure a food allergy. At least change the diet entirely. A homemade raw food might do the trick, but it needs to be made, handled and stored with skill and knowledge.

Eosinophilic granuloma complex (EGC)

This describes the reaction of the cat’s immune system in sending white blood cells to a particular spot of skin causing inflammation in that area and as the white cells hang around for a long-time, they cause inflammation and a lump. The lump is called a ‘granuloma’.

There are three types of EGC: eosinophilic ulcer, eosinophilic plaque and eosinophilic granuloma. The first is shown in what vets call a ‘rodent ulcer’ on the lip to confuse things as rodents are not involved. Eosinophilic plaques can be seen on the cat’s stomach and inner thighs, made worse by self-grooming the area.

EGC is often caused by an unknown allergen. It can be difficult to find the specific cause. Often when cats with EGC are hospitalised their condition subsides indicating that their home environment is unhealthy.

Other causes of itchy skin

Allergies to: dust mites, fungal spores, pollen, ear mites (another horrible and highly discomforting ectoparasite), cheyletiella (another mite), can trigger an itchy skin. Treatment: see a vet.

Ringworm is also a big issue. And it can be given to humans very easily. If your cat has given you ringworm use a handheld UVB light to treat it effectively.

Topical antibiotic ointment

A topical antibiotic treatment might cure an itchy skin. But clearly you have to deal with the underlying cause first. This treatment would deal with a skin bacterial infection secondary to the allergy.

I have deliberately summarised and simplified. Please consult with your vet for details.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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