Orange ginger tabby cat itching. Photography ©foaloce | Thinkstock.
Orange ginger tabby cat itching. Photography ©foaloce | Thinkstock.

What Is Cat Dermatitis and What Can You Do About It?

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Got an itchy cat or noticing scabs on your cat? If you’ve noticed that your cat has been scratching a lot lately or obsessively licking and grooming herself more than usual, you might have a case of cat dermatitis on your hands. Dermatitis is a general term that refers to inflammation of the skin. This inflammation is usually caused by allergies and is very itchy.

How can you tell if your kitty has cat dermatitis?  

A gray and white cat scratching and itching.
Scratching and itching aren’t the only signals of cat dermatitis. Photography ©chendongshan | Thinkstock.

A cat with dermatitis might scratch, lick or chew on her skin, making the situation worse. You might see lesions, bumps, crusting, scabbing, redness and hair loss. Sometimes, a cat’s entire belly might become bald.

Most often, though, you might not see anything at all, especially if your cat has a lot of hair. “Inside the ears is one of the places where cats will scratch a lot where people may not necessarily notice, but there are some areas right in front of the ears where you might see some scratches,” notes Aimee Simpson, V.M.D., medical director of VCA Cat Hospital of Philadelphia. “You might notice that the cat seems kind of preoccupied, where every time she lies down she’s kind of chewing at herself.”

Most commonly, feline dermatitis is caused by an allergy to one of three things: fleas, food or environmental allergens like pollens and molds. To effectively treat your cat’s itchy skin, your vet first must determine the cause.

Let’s look at those three types of cat dermatitis: 

1. Flea-Allergy Dermatitis

“Flea-allergy dermatitis, from the saliva from flea bites, is very common,” Dr. Simpson says. “It tends to be more of a seasonal issue that’s worse in the warmer months, but depending on which area of the country you’re living in, that might vary. It’s definitely more of a concern for outdoor cats and indoor/outdoor cats.”

Luckily, flea-allergy dermatitis is pretty easy to solve — get rid of the fleas, and you’ll get rid of the itchiness. Any itchy cat, especially one with signs of a flea infestation, should be on year-round flea control. “We always recommend flea medications that are prescribed by a veterinarian, rather than the over-the-counter pesticide products,” Dr. Simpson advises. “The medications that we carry are just more effective and safer. It might take three to six months to get rid of fleas in the household, so that flea allergy might take just as long to resolve.”

2. Food-Allergy Dermatitis

A second common cause of cat dermatitis is food allergies. This type of skin reaction occurs when a cat is allergic to certain proteins in her food. It’s possible for a cat to develop food allergies at any point in life, even if she has been eating the same food for years with no issues.

“If we’ve ruled out flea allergy, we can also do a food allergy trial, which involves feeding a cat a special prescription diet,” Dr. Simpson explains. “We usually choose a hydrolyzed protein, which is basically whole proteins that are broken down into pieces that are too small to cause allergic reactions. If we feed only that diet for somewhere between four to 12 weeks, that will help us rule out a food allergy.”

To get accurate results, cats who are doing a food trial can only eat the special prescription diet for the duration of the trial. That means no other food, including treats, table food and flavored medications. If the cat’s skin improves on the diet, then a food allergy is usually the cause of the cat’s dermatitis, and keeping the cat on the prescription diet should manage the condition.

3. Atopic Dermatitis

The third most common type of feline dermatitis is atopic dermatitis, which means that the cat is reacting to an allergen in the environment, such as pollen, mold or grass.

“If we’ve ruled out fleas and we’ve ruled out food allergies, and if we still are left with an itchy cat with skin lesions, then we default to environmental allergy,” Dr. Simpson says. “It’s harder to diagnose in cats than it is in dogs or in people because we don’t do a lot of allergy skin testing in cats. They’re very reactive to everything, so it’s hard to determine exactly what might be the problem.”

This type of allergy is harder to manage since you usually can’t eliminate these things from the cat’s environment. In most cases, cats need to take daily medications for life. “That could be a steroid, which is a good anti-inflammatory medication,” Dr. Simpson says. “Certainly, there are side effects with chronic steroids, but they work very well in cats, and most cats tolerate them pretty well. There are also some other medications that we can add in, including certain antihistamines and a prescription medication called Atopica, which is cyclosporine, an immunomodulatory drug that also helps cats with these hypersensitivity reactions.”

For severe cases of atopic dermatitis that don’t respond well to treatment, allergy injections, (called hyposensitization or allergen-specific immunotherapy) are another — albeit more expensive— option. If you wish to explore this option, a veterinary dermatologist is your best bet.

A final word on cat dermatitis:

Skin lesions might not always indicate cat dermatitis. “Other — sometimes more serious — things can look a lot like allergic dermatitis, including ringworm, mites (scabies), cutaneous lymphoma (cancer) and Pemphigus foliaceous (an immune-mediated disease), so it’s always best to have any cat skin issues checked by a veterinarian,” Dr. Simpson advises.

Thumbnail: Photography ©foaloce | Thinkstock. 

Read more about cat health on Catster.com:

25 thoughts on “What Is Cat Dermatitis and What Can You Do About It?”

  1. Pingback: Feline Dermatitis: What It Is And How To Treat It – Cattitude Daily

  2. We talk so much about cat allergies that it’s easy for a lot of people to forget/not realize that cats can have their own allergies. And atopic dermatitis is one of the most common ones I’ve seen over my many years of cat ownership and being a cat lover.

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  8. William Wayne Britt

    My cat Jasmine underneath her chin has red dots. Lice has been ruled out. Any suggestion of ointments? Starting Tom give her cat food made to treat her coat

    1. Hi there,
      We suggest asking your vet. These articles might provide some insight, too:
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/cat-acne-health-care
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/how-to-handle-feline-acne
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/what-causes-scabs-on-cats
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/cat-skin-problems

    2. If you are using a plastic feeding or water bowl your cat may be reacting. My cat did. She was fine once I switched the bowls

  9. My cat female , keeps having reacuring excema, loosing her fur
    She had injections from the vet , but the excema is coming back
    What shal I do ?

  10. My kitty has licked the base of his tail to the point of it being bare, and has little red bumps. Always, people say, take him to the vet. Well, not every cat owner has enough income to do that. It’s not a food allergy. Can I safely use vitamin E oil, or tea tree oil on the affected area? Maybe aloe vera? I don’t want to make him sick!

    1. Sorry we can’t answer your question, here is an article to read, sorry you have no money, here is an article to read, Real helpful huh?

      1. Hi there Chris,

        Here at Catster, we do our best to recommend helpful articles for our readers. When it is necessary for an animal to get checked by a professional, we suggest taking them to a veterinarian or behaviorist in order for them to get the best care possible. If you have any suggestions of how we can help our readers even more, please contact us through this link:

        Do you need to connect with Catster?

  11. Hey
    i have a cat who is one yr ,two months.
    I got her spayed about two months back,ever since then she is experiencing issues with her skin.It has been so long ,we are visiting docs and treating medication regularly.
    It’s just getting worse and i am feeling so helpless.She seems to have dermatitis ,her losing out hair on many areas on her scalp,face.near noce and eyes bruises,a patch or two like the same has started getting on her body too,i am so worried.

    If you have any clue please contact me.
    Would be grateful to have some support.
    Thanks.

    1. Hi there —
      We suggest continuing to work with your vet. These articles might provide some helpful insight as well:
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/cat-skin-problems
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/why-are-there-scabs-on-my-cats-back
      Hope your kitty feels better!

  12. Our CAT we still have since 2007 Has always been GREAT !! Yet recently has notice by feel / touch her back near tail … Small-like-Scabs & or bumps?!! Something new to us, & would Greatly appreciate any advice. Inside cat never outside, has no corral. Nor any other problems not sick Is in Very good Health, beside the scabs/bumps on her back. Please do HELP !! Many Thanks.

    1. Michaela Conlon

      Hi there,
      Thanks for reaching out. We suggest taking your cat to the vet ASAP for a checkup. Hope your cat feels better.

  13. I am so sorry to hear of your loss I have a cat who is a stray so we don’t know his age we have had him for 9 years and the reason we took him in was his skin was raw with the flea allergy since then with the help of the steroid injections and antibiotics we have kept him reasonable well however i do wish there was more we could do to help

  14. My dear tortie lady who sadly passed on this year had a flea allergy, despite being an indoor cat – she had a couple of very unpleasant bouts of allergic dermatitis, poor sweet. But oddly enough, she liked the medication!

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