We humans understand the importance of incorporating nutritious food in our diet. Good nutrition means that the body is getting everything it needs — vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, proteins and essential fatty acids — to function well.
A cat’s diet isn’t any different.
“The foundation of health is nutrition,” says Ernie Ward, DVM, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention and chief veterinary officer of Wild Earth Inc., a company that makes plant-based protein pet food in Berkeley, California.
So, if good nutrition leads to better overall health, then the solution to helping a cat with skin problems is finding that perfect pet food, right? Not really.
“There is no ‘right’ food for skin problems in cats, just like there’s no ‘right’ food for people,” says Heather Loenser, DVM, senior veterinary officer of the American Animal Hospital Association. “Instead of focusing on choosing the ‘right’ food, focus on making the ‘right’ choice by speaking to your vet.”
Skin problems can present as dry, flaky skin; bumps, redness and rash; and/or bald patches, to name a few. This can leave a cat scratching and grooming excessively. The likely culprit: a skin infection (fungal or bacterial) or allergies.
The causes of allergies can be broken into three main categories:
“Insect bites lead the pack [in causes], followed closely by atopy with food coming in as a distant third,” Dr. Ward says.
Despite common belief, food allergies are not prevalent in cats. In fact, food allergies affect just 0.1 percent of cats, according to 2018 Banfield Pet Hospital State of Pet Health Report. This means that although food allergies are possible, it’s more likely that a cat’s skin condition has a different cause.
“Food allergies in cats are quite rare so before going through the time, expense and risk potential stomach upset of switching foods, pet owners should seek veterinary care,” Dr. Loenser says.
If a food allergy is suspected, a veterinarian will conduct a dietary elimination trial.
The most commonly identified allergens for cats are:
But, may also include pork, dairy products or eggs, according to the clinical nutrition service at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University. However, cats can also become allergic to exotic meats such as venison, duck, bison or kangaroo. This means that feeding less-common proteins does not necessarily prevent food allergies from developing, the clinical nutrition service further noted.
When it comes to addressing skin problems, Dr. Ward’s first line of defense is omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
“If I have a feline patient that has any type of dermatological disorder, I’m reaching for omega-3 fatty acids,” Dr. Ward says. “In its truest form, [these essential fatty acids] act as anti-
inflammatory agents. They help reduce some of the itching associated with any type of allergies.”
More importantly, omega-3 fatty acids boost the immune system and aid in skin healing, he adds.
“The skin is the largest organ on a cat’s body, so we want to keep that barrier healthy so it can prevent other problems,” Dr. Ward says.
Unfortunately, dry kibble does not have enough omega-3 fatty acids for optimal feline health, which is why Dr. Ward turns to supplementation.
“These are highly volatile fatty acids,” he says. “Open the bag and they go rancid.”
Canned cat food has higher levels, but unless it’s a therapeutic diet designed for skin problems, it’s still not going to contain enough, he adds.
Omega-6 fatty acids (found in corn, grains and other sources) are another important component to feline skin health. However, it shouldn’t exceed omega-3 levels, a common problem since most commercial pet food contains more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, according to Dr. Ward.
“In the wild, cats consume more omega-3 fatty acids through meat than omega-6 fatty acids,” Dr. Ward says. “[Commercial cat food] flips this natural ratio. Suddenly there’s an excess of omega-6 fatty acids, which can then become pro-inflammatory. [Supplementing with] omega-3 fatty acids help bring the ratio back.”
Your veterinarian can help decide what particular brand and dosage, if needed, is best for your cat.
Antioxidants, which can protect against excessive free radicals produced in cases of chronic inflammation, and proteins also have important roles in maintaining skin and coat health. In most cases, though, a nutritionally complete and balanced pet food will already have the optimal levels of each, according to Cailin Heinze, VMD, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University.
When choosing a cat food, don’t focus on marketing, such as flashy websites or in-store advertisements, online rating systems or reviews from other pet owners, because typically they are not based on science, Dr. Heinze says.
“Expense also doesn’t add up to the most quality cat food,” she says. “The best food isn’t the most expensive, and the worst food isn’t the cheapest. It’s certainly not a linear relationship.”
One of the challenges about selecting cat food is deciphering what’s not on the label, according to Dr. Heinze. Questions to consider: How long has the company been around? Who is designing the diet? Do they have a lot of experience? Where is the research being done? Is the company using ingredients that are tried-and-true or is it using ingredients that are trendy?
Also not on the label are specifics about the quality of a product and information about who actually makes the cat food, Dr. Heinze points out. For instance, if the label says XYZ Co. Cat Food, is it made by XYZ Co.? Does the company have its own factory and make its own food, or does it pay someone else to make it?
“That can make a difference,” she says. “You can certainly have high-quality private label products, but you can also have private label products where there is not much transparency.”
A cat owner’s best bet is having a conversation with his/her veterinarian, according to Dr. Heinze.
In the end, it’s important for cat owners not to lose momentum in the healing journey.
“Skin problems due to allergies can’t be cured,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s a life-long condition. Don’t let the skin problem backslide into a problem.”
Marissa Heflin has been a writer/editor in the pet and veterinary industry for 15 years, and publishing as a whole for nearly 20. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two very active boys. Their family is rounded out by a loving, gentle German Shepherd Dog and a sneaky yet adorable Boston Terrier mix. While Marissa would love to add a feline family member, the two dogs have currently nixed the idea.