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

Is your cat itching or obsessively grooming? Do you see scabs on your cat? Find out about three different types of cat dermatitis and how to handle each.

Written by: Jackie Brown

Last Updated on January 11, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

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

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

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.

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How can you tell if your cat has 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. 

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