The skin is one of the largest organs of a cat’s body but is largely ignored until something goes wrong with it. The skin of an animal carries out some essential functions including providing a physical barrier to infection, temperature regulation and production of secretions.
There are a number of skin disorders that cats can suffer from and one is feline (cat) dermatitis. Dermatitis is a general term used by doctors and vets to describe an inflammation of the skin. It can have many causes and finding out exactly what is triggering your cat’s dermatitis is important. Here is some useful information about this troublesome feline condition.
Feline Miliary Dermatitis – Appearance and Symptoms
The most common type of dermatitis in cats is called Feline Miliary Dermatitis. It is typically found around the head and neck but can extend down the back. It could also be localised to just one single spot. You may hear it referred to as ‘miliary eczema’, ‘papulocrusting dermatitis’ or even ‘scabby cat disease’! It looks like tiny seeds on the surface of the skin and is usually red in colour.
The symptoms that you can see may include:
- Very small lumps which are red and crusty.
- Signs of hair loss and bald patches.
- Dark skin, which is a sign that the skin is thickened in this area.
- Multiple grazes caused by persistent scratching.
- Larger circular sores – possibly caused by skin infections which can develop into ulcers.
- Obvious irritation and inflammation – red and swollen skin.
- Hot spots of intense irritation that are very red and sore.
- Scabbing, crusting or flaking of the affected area.
- Excessive oil production.
- Patches of matted hair.
- Abnormal changes to the claws, nail beds or paw pads.
- Secondary infections of the ear with a foul-smelling discharge.
You may also notice changes in your pus’s behaviour. Dermatitis will make them feel very uncomfortable and is intensely irritating for them but they cannot tell you! However, you may notice that they are grooming excessively, scratching frantically and even biting themselves a lot. You may see them pawing at the affected areas or shaking their head. On the other hand, some cats can be very secretive about this and you may notice the physical changes on the skin but never catch them scratching. You must remember that cats can be very sneaky and just because you don’t see it happen, does not mean that they aren’t doing it!
Causes of Cat Dermatitis
When a cat’s skin develops dermatitis, it is reacting to something. Most of the time, this is an allergic reaction. One obvious source of the irritant is an infection or infestation. Dermatitis can be triggered by an infestation of fleas, ear mites or lice and this is the most common single cause of cat dermatitis. ‘Flea allergy dermatitis’ is a recognized feline skin condition. It could also be a reaction to a bacterial infection or to a fungal infection (e.g. ringworm). Some viral infections, including cowpox, can cause dermatitis in cats too.
However, there are also plenty of non-infectious sources. Foods can trigger allergies which cause dermatitis as can other environmental chemicals including household chemicals and medication.
Several medical conditions can manifest as a type of dermatitis so it is important to rule out immune system disorders particularly feline eosinophilic granuloma complex which causes an over-production of eosinophils (a type of blood cell) and causes itching and damage to the skin. General dermatitis could also be caused by hyperthyroidism, liver disease, diabetes or FIV and FeLV. Whereas, tumours including squamous cell carcinomas and sarcomas at injections can cause localised dermatitis.
In some cats, the dermatitis is linked to the way in which they groom themselves. If they are not able to groom naturally, perhaps because of obesity, dental health issues or arthritis, it can trigger dermatitis. Conversely, over-grooming as a reaction to stress or to a urinary tract problems can also lead to irritation and dermatitis.
Dermatitis could be a reaction to damage caused by over-exposure to the sun but this is most often seen in white cats and kittens and is most often seen on the ears, eyelids or nose. Any form of trauma caused in a fight or accident or from a poorly fitting collar or foreign body can also set off dermatitis.
Getting a Diagnosis of Cat Dermatitis
Identifying your kitty’s skin condition as dermatitis is fairly straightforward but establishing the cause that is at the root of the problem can take some time. It will involve you and your vet working closely together.
The first step is to visit your vet as soon as you realise there is a problem. They will make a thorough physical examination and ask you a lot of questions. During the physical examination, your vet will be looking for obvious causes such as a flea or mite infestation. There may be some physical tests that will give more information about a suspected cause. Your vet may conduct a microscopic examination of a faecal (poop) sample or swab inside the ear to check for mites. They may also take skin scrapings to look for skin parasites or look at the area with a Wood’s lamp to check for ringworm. Various blood tests can be used to diagnose underlying systemic diseases such as autoimmune disease.
They will also ask you about your kitty’s diet and lifestyle and will want to know more about the symptoms. This stage of the diagnosis is often a process of elimination and eventually, the potential cause that has not been ruled out is the one that is the underlying issue!
If everything else has been ruled out, it is likely that you are dealing with a hypersensitivity reaction to something in the environment or in your cat’s diet. This is just a scientific way of saying that they have an allergy.
Food intolerance is one of the most common causes of allergic dermatitis in cats. You will need to work with your vet to sort this issue out.
Treating Cat Dermatitis
There are some treatments that can help with the irritation of dermatitis but it is vital to find the cause before an effective treatment can be introduced. Any infestations of infections need to be tackled with the appropriate treatment and the underlying conditions treated with the correct medication.
In the meantime, there is plenty that can be done to make your poor kitty feel more comfortable. Your vet can provide you with several medications that may help. These include:
- Corticosteroids – to reduce inflammation.
- Antihistamines – to control allergic reactions.
- Antibiotics – to treat secondary bacterial skin infections.
- Fatty acid supplements (skin oil replacements) – Omega-3 fatty acids are great for reducing inflammation anywhere on the body including the skin. You can increase your cat’s dietary intake of omega-3 by adding krill oil, tuna oil, salmon oil, anchovy oil or sardine oil to their diet.
- Topical ointments – to soothe and reduce irritation.
- Special shampoo to stop inflammation and itching – follow the instructions for medicated shampoo and do not use if it will cause stress to your cat.
It may be necessary to prevent your cat from licking an area of skin that is particularly inflamed as excessive licking can interfere with the healing process. Some vets may recommend a collar that physically prevents your cat from getting at the damaged skin. This is often sufficient to break the itch-scratch cycle. Other owners find that a non-stick bandage or even the new liquid bandages that are now available can help. There are a few owners that have successfully used a child’s T-shirt but this will not be tolerated by all cats!
It is essential that the area is kept clean especially if there are any secondary infections in the form of skin ulcers. Some owners have found that Betadine (povidone-iodine) is a good product to use to achieve this. If possible, bathe the area twice a day.
There are various natural topical treatments and remedies that may or may not work but it is vital that you discuss them with your vet before trying them out. Some owners have had a lot of success with natural products such as Manuka honey, colloidal silver or Willard Water which promote healing and help to prevent secondary infections thanks to a mild natural antiseptic effect. Others have used essential calendula cream, oil of lavender with added coconut oil or Hypericum. It is essential that your cat does not lick the area when these are applied to a collar is essential. If another cat in the house is likely to lick it, you will need to separate them until the dermatitis is healed.
Cat Dermatitis and Diet
If your vet has concluded that your cat’s dermatitis is caused by an allergen in their diet, they may recommend that you start on an elimination diet to find out what is causing the problem. It is important that you get veterinary advice whilst you are doing this because you do not want your cat to become deficient in any particular food group.
As a starting point, your vet may recommend that your kitty starts on a grain-free diet as the grains in commercially canned cat food are often the culprit. Any diet that is high in carbohydrates, tends to worsen dermatitis so you may be recommended to try a low-carb diet for your kitty.
Other vets may recommend that you start your cat on a commercial hydrolysed veterinary prescription diet. This will involve you buying a cat food in which the proteins have been “hydrolysed” which means that they have been broken down into tiny fragments. The fragments are so small that they cannot trigger an immune response.
When you are trying out the new diet, you must make the switch to the new food gradually. It should take around two weeks to complete the transition. During that time, gradually replace a bigger and bigger portion of the old food with the new food. Your cat may need to be on the new diet for 12 weeks before a change in the condition of their skin can be detected.
During this time, it is essential that your kitty does not get food from anywhere else! The last thing you want is your neighbour giving them some other type of food. So, you will need to confine them inside your house whilst you are trying out the new diet. Also, remember that you cannot give them scraps from the table, treats or even flavoured worming or flea treatments. In a multi-cat household, the simplest option is to put them all on the same diet!
What Happens Next?
When cat owners and vets work together, the prognosis for cat dermatitis is very good. There is every chance that your kitty will be completely cured and will soon feel a lot more comfortable. However, this does not mean that it cannot come back!
To keep it at bay, you will need to keep up with whatever diet is working for them and this can be expensive. You may decide that making your own fresh meals for your cat is more financially viable. Get some advice (and recipe ideas) from your vet first. If you have had to eliminate other substances from the home environment (e.g. flea collars), remember that re-introducing them is likely to trigger another bout of dermatitis.
Soon your cat’s skin will heal and will look healthy and you can expect the fur to grow back. You must be vigilant for future flea and mite infestations. Your pus may need future corticosteroid treatments if there are further flare-ups.
This is something that you will need to keep an eye on as your kitty gets older because allergies tend to get worse in cats as they age.