Common Causes of Itching in Cats
And what you can do to help
This article is written by Pet Circle Veterinarian,
Lick, lick, lick... nibble-nibble... scritch, scratch... SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH! Is your beloved feline excessively grooming or tearing themselves to shreds, and you just can't figure out why?
Many cats suffer from ongoing itchy skin issues. The common causes of itchy skin in cats are fairly different to the common causes for dogs. While itchiness in dogs is often caused by allergies to environmental allergens such as grass, pollen, and insects, our feline friends tend to suffer from different maladies.
When to seek veterinary attention
You should seek veterinary attention if you see:
- Red, moist areas on their skin. These may be bacterial hotspots which require antibiotics
- Pink, scabbing, or hairless thumbprint or ring-shaped lesions, as this may be ringworm (which is contagious to humans)
- Swellings or discharging areas, as this may indicate an abscess
- Black residue or discharge in the ears, as this can indicate ear mites or a yeast infection
- Inappetence or reduced appetite
- Abnormal toileting such as urinating outside the litter tray
The main causes of itching in cats
Jump to a section:
1. Fleas, fleas, fleas!
Fleas are without a doubt the most common cause of itchiness in cats. In fact, veterinarians have a special saying: 'Itchy cats have fleas until proven otherwise.'
Fleas are wingless, ant-sized critters which bite your cat and feast on their blood. The itchiness caused by fleas is actually due to an allergy to flea saliva (known as flea allergy dermatitis) rather than the movements of the crawly bugs themselves.
But I don't see any fleas on my cat! Many pet owners refuse to believe their fur baby has fleas, because they simply can't see any. The truth is, you probably never will. Fleas are incredibly tricky. These critters are experts at hiding among fur, and often require a flea comb to be visualised.
How to tell if your cat has fleas: Have a look at the skin on your cat's chin. You might not be able to spot fleas even if your cat is infested with them, but what you will see is flea dirt. This is the digested blood faeces that fleas leave behind on your cat's skin. Flea dirt looks like small bits of black dirt, and can usually be seen on the tip of your cat's chin. (No, your cat isn't just dirty - it's flea poop!)
Can't clear the fleas? Here's some possible reasons why...
Are you still dealing with fleas despite using a preventative product? There are a few common reasons why fleas refuse to budge.
- You haven't done a full flea clean of your house. Unfortunately, treating your cat with a flea treatment is only part of the process. Fleas lay their eggs in the environment, particularly on surfaces like carpet and bedding. Give your house a thorough, arm-workout vacuum, and wash all bedding on a very hot wash (or better yet - throw out and replace any cat bedding).
- Your cat is getting reinfected by another animal. Always treat every pet in the house, including dogs, and keep an eye out for any wildlife or stray cats that might be dropping fleas in the area!
- You might be using the wrong product. Some flea prevention products work by interrupting the flea breeding cycle, rather than actually killing live fleas. These products are suitable for preventing flea infestations in a flea-free house, but aren't great if you've got an active flea burden.
For a full guide, see our article How To Get Rid of Fleas on Cats.
Our top recommended flea products for cats
2. Food Allergies
Some cats are sensitive to ingredients in their diet. In fact, food allergies are actually a lot more common in cats than they are in dogs. A food allergy can manifest in severe itching around the head, neck, mouth, and eyelids, or over the belly, inner legs, and armpits.
What are the most common food allergies in cats? You might be surprised to hear that the most common food allergies in felines are to proteins such as fish, dairy products, chicken, and beef. Wheat and corn allergies are also occasionally seen.
How are food allergies diagnosed? To determine if your cat has a food allergy, an elimination trial should be performed. This involves feeding a special diet free from common allergens for 6-8 weeks. If an improvement is seen, you can then introduce a different ingredient each week and test for any reaction. The base diet used during the elimination trial should be either a veterinary hydrolysed diet, or a diet made with a novel protein. A novel protein is a meat your cat hasn't had exposure to before such as venison or rabbit.
Best diets for cats with food allergies
Great for diagnosing and managing food allergies, this diet must be prescribed by your vet.
With venison and green peas, this diet is free from grain, gluten, soy, and common meat allergens.
This natural dry food uses rabbit and chickpeas to deliver a wholesome meal free from common allergens.
This high-meat wet food contains 90% rabbit and lamb meat and is known for being highly palatable.
Despite the name, Ringworm is not actually a 'worm', but a fungus. (Perhaps a more fitting name would be 'Ringus'!). This fungal infection usually produces red, ring-like lesions with a scabby or bald centre, or thumbprint-shaped scabby lesions. However ringworm can also sometimes present as generalised, dry, scaly skin.
Ringworm is transmissible between pets and humans. In fact, many cats are actually infected by children in the household, who commonly pick up the infection at school or day care. (And unfortunately, often the cat gets blamed for passing it to the child, rather than the other way around!)
How To Get Rid of Ringowrm in Cats: Ringworm can persist in your home environment for months. Getting rid of it requires extensive sterilisiation and cleaning of your home and all bedding.
To clear up the infection on your cat, ringworm requires topical treatments. Ringworm can be killed by repeatedly soaking the area with iodine-based products such as Betadine - however Betadine should be diluted 1:5 with water before applying to your cat's skin. Ringworm can also be treated with an antifungal cream (such as Fungafite) and 2-3 weeks of daily washing with an antifungal shampoo such as Malaseb.
4. Ear mites
Photo source: Joelmills via Wikimedia Commons
Ear mites are teeny, tiny parasites that live deep in the ear canal and cause intense itching. They are most commonly seen in kittens or immunocompromised cats. If your cat is scratching at their ears or head, ear mites may be the cause.
Ear mites need to be diagnosed with a proper otoscopic examination by your vet, and they often require treatment with medicated ear drops. Some common flea treatment products can help prevent ear mites, such as Revolution, Advocate, or Bravecto.
5. Environmental or Contact Allergies
While not as common as in dogs, environmental or contact allergies may be the cause of itching in some sensitive kitties. Contact allergies in cats may occur to dust, perfumes, fabrics, cleaning products, or even to certain types of plastic food bowls. Contact allergies may cause an irritation around the mouth as well as feline acne.
Contact allergies are best treated by limiting exposure to the causal allergen - for example, by removing plastic bowls and replacing with ceramic alternatives. If limiting exposure is not possible, your cat may require ongoing treatment with corticosteroids or antihistamines.
6. Psychogenic Alopecia and Stress
Sometimes the cause of over-grooming is not itchiness at all, but a psychogenic issue as stress. Compulsive over-grooming due to stress can often present as alopecia (hair loss) down the back or over the abdomen. Similar to nail-biting in humans, stressed cats will groom themselves excessively in response to an associated endorphin release. In times of stress, the cat will repeatedly seek out this 'high' in an effort to self-soothe.
Psychogenic Alopecia may require medication in conjunction with some stress relieving changes at home.
How To Decrease Stress in Psychogenic Alopecic Cats
- 1. Try Feliway. This pheromone-diffusing spray is very effective at reducing stress in anxious cats. Completely odourless to humans, the Feliway wall diffuser can be plugged in and left to disperse feline calming pheromone throughout your home.
- 2. Provide plenty of perches and hiding places. If there's anything at home causing stress for your kitty such as a child or another pet, it's important that your cat feels they have a safe space to escape to. Why not try a tall cat tree which provides extra high perches and hiding boxes in one.
- 3. Ensure enough litter trays. This is particularly important for multi-cat households. If your cat doesn't have a toilet all to themselves, they can become stressed and act out by spraying, showing aggression, or over-grooming.
- 4. Anti-anxiety medication. This should be the last resort if you can't find an improvement with non-medicated treatments. Medications such as Clomicalm or Valium may be required to calm cats with severe anxiety.
The Feliway diffuser continuously releases the Feliway pheromone into your cat's environment to help reduce their stress levels.
Cat furniture can easily provide hidey holes as well as multi-level perches.
Always make sure your cat has enough litter trays in the house.
This natural chew contains Tryptophan and B group vitamins to maintain an ideal emotional balance.
There are a few significant causes of itchiness in cats, and you can rule out many of them at home. By giving a reliable flea treatment, considering a diet swap to a hypoallergenic or novel protein diet, and by taking steps to help reduce stress, you can easily rule out some of the most common causes. In any case of persistent itching, ensure you contact your vet and seek proper treatment.