Cats are known to be fastidious creatures, and regular grooming alongside the odd scratch is perfectly usual for our feline companions. However, excessive scratching and itchy skin is not, and can be very uncomfortable for our pets. Itching is a symptom, rather than a diagnosis. So some detective work may need to be undertaken by your vet to pinpoint the cause.
How do I tell if my cat is itchy?
There are a few key signs to look out for to tell if your cat has uncomfortable skin. The odd scratch is normal, but excessive scratching (every few minutes) is a sign something’s not quite right. Chewing and nibbling at their coat, which can progress to overgrooming where they actually pull out their fur leaving bald patches, is another obvious sign. Watch out for more hairballs than usual, as cats can overgroom in secret! Dry, flaky or red sore skin can also be a giveaway sign. Itching can be generalised to all over their body. However it can also be focused on very specific areas. So checking your cat all over regularly is a good habit to get into.
Why is itching a problem?
Itching is an uncomfortable and ongoing situation for your pet. They would feel much happier if the problem is resolved. Itching can also lead to lots of licking or scratching at the area, which will cause inflammation of the skin. Excessive licking can actually damage the skin, leaving open wounds prone to infection.
Top Causes of Itching
Pesky little ‘passengers’ such as fleas and mites are a common cause of itching in all pets, including cats. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there – even fleas! Cats can have a very dense haircoat and even if you comb through with a flea comb and don’t see any fleas or flea-dirt, they may still be lurking. You can recognise flea dirt as black spots of ‘gritty’ material which can often, but not always, be seen on the skin. Some mites even burrow under the skin and can only be found with the aid of a microscope.
Fleas are a common offender: in the U.K., fleas are by far and away the most common cause of cats presenting to their vet with itchy skin. Modern, heated homes mean that fleas can flourish all year round, so there is no longer an ‘off-season’. Cats can be horribly itchy with only a few fleas! Watch out for red, sore skin with patchy baldness, especially along the spine and around the base of the tail. These irritating parasites spend part of their lifecycle on the cat, but part in the environment. Therefore they they can be difficult to get rid of. Using certified products from your vet for all your pets, and your home, is the best way. Cats can be extremely sensitive to flea bites and have quite dramatic reactions and so preventative treatment is recommended.
Cats can be affected by a few different species of mite. Some can affect the whole body, but can also be localised, such as ear mites (Otodectes) which can cause violent scratching of the ears and are often accompanied by ear infections which might produce discharge and a smell around the ears. Harvest mites can also be a problem around late summer and autumn, these are bright orange and visible to the naked eye. They are mostly found between the toes and in the little flaps of skin along the side of the ear-tip (the Henry’s pocket).
Allergies are more common in cats than most people think! They can be caused by a wide range of things, with fleas being by far the most common cause. Cats can have severe reactions to the flea’s saliva when the bite, and so even one flea can cause a large skin reaction. Other potential causes include outdoor allergens such as pollens and grasses. Things inside such as dust mites and dander (skin particles). If your cat seems to vary in their itching across the year, or react particularly badly to certain areas of the garden, this can be a big clue. Your vet can perform tests on your cat to look for allergy reactions.
Cats can also be intolerant or allergic to various foodstuffs. This can present as itching, or can be more gastrointestinal (vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of weight) – or both! If you are suspicious that a change of diet has led to some skin problems, a ‘trial’ with a hypoallergenic or exclusion diet for a few weeks may be very informative. Chat to your vet for options.
Infections of the skin by bacteria, fungi or yeasts can cause itchiness in cats, usually alongside sore, red patches of skin. Bacterial skin infections in cats are not hugely common but can be secondary to other issues. If diagnosed by your vet, improvement will likely be seen with courses of antibiotics. Similarly, yeast infections are not often seen as a primary concern but may need medication to resolve. Fungal infections are not usually itchy.
4. Insect bites
Just as in people, wasp and bee stings can cause large painful welts on cats’ skin. Smaller insects such as midges, flies and mosquitoes can cause fairly dramatic itching. Sadly, cats can be very sensitive to the insect saliva injected as they bite. Insects often pick the non-hairy areas to bite, such as the bridge of the nose or the ear-tips. Watch out for small red lumps on non-haired areas, especially in the summertime.
5. Psychological factors
This is a tricky one to pin-point, but some cats overgroom themselves with no obvious ‘medical’ cause. Cats can groom themselves as a calming mechanism and overindulging in this can lead to sore patches of skin and bald patches – commonly on the tummy. Consider this option if you have had your cat checked by a vet and they cannot find any known medical cause, and if you have had any recent changes to your household such as a new pet or building work. It’s worth discussing with your vet if you feel any emotional factors may be playing a role in your cat’s skin problems as they may be able to suggest ways to help minimise anxiety and discuss supplements that may help.
Itchy skin can be an irritating and distressing symptom for your cat. Skin conditions can be challenging to diagnose and may require a few trips and tests at the vets for your pet. However, many of these conditions can be treated and managed to give well-needed relief for your cat and prevent problems in the future.