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Cat Dandruff - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Dandruff is a common condition characterised by the presence of small, white flakes of skin in the fur. The skin is constantly renewing itself, with the top layer sloughing off, this is completely normal. In most cases it is not enough to be noticed by the pet owner, it is only when it becomes excessive that is picked up.

Dandruff is usually easier to see in dark coloured cats.

Dandruff is a symptom rather than a disease in itself and can be caused by external factors (such as seborrhea) or internal factors (such as diabetes). In most cases it is harmless,  however, if you notice an excessive amount of dandruff and/or other symptoms, it is important to have it checked out by your veterinarian.

There are many possible causes of dandruff in cats including:

  • Diabetes - A metabolic disease in which the cat's body doesn't respond adequately to insulin, which prevents glucose entering the cells.
  • Hyperthyroidism - A common metabolic disease caused by a benign tumour of the thyroid gland which produces excess hormones.
  • Seborrhea - A skin condition caused by the overproduction of sebum an oily substance which is produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin.
  • Demodicosis - A skin disease caused by the Demodex mite.
  • Cheyletiellosis (walking dandruff). This isn't actually dandruff but is caused by the Cheyletiellosis mite which gives the appearance of dandruff in the coat.
  • Poor grooming. This is often caused by elderly cats who are often arthritic and find grooming painful or obese cats who are no longer able to groom properly.
  • Poor diet, particularly one which is low in fat.
  • Contact dermatitis - An allergic skin reaction caused by your cat coming into contact with an allergen or irritant such as soaps, solvents, chemicals, plants etc.
  • Old age - As the cat ages, the skin tends to become dryer and more prone to flaking.
  • Dry conditions, usually during winter when there is less humidity in the air.
  • Grooming products such as shampoos can cause dermatitis or overly dry the skin.
  • Ringworm - A yeast characterised by circular, flaky patches of skin and hair loss.
  • Malassezia - Another type of fungal infection, which results in crusty, flaky areas of skin,
  • Sunburn.

What are the symptoms of dandruff in cats:

Dry, itchy, flaky skin are the most common symptoms of dandruff, it is usually most commonly found along the back and the base of the tail but any part of the body can be affected. Other symptoms of cat dandruff vary depending on the underlying cause but may include:

How is cat dandruff diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you. He will want to know how long you have noticed dandruff, if he has any other symptoms, what is his diet? Accompanying symptoms along with your cat's age may give your veterinarian a clue as to the underlying cause. In some cases, he will want to perform some diagnostic tests to get a definite diagnosis. These may include:

  • Complete blood count, urinalysis, and biochemical profile to evaluate the overall health of your cat.
  • Skin scraping test to evaluate for mites or ringworm infection. A small patch of skin will be gently scraped from your cat, placed on a slide and looked at under a microscope.
  • Tape test to evaluate for skin parasites. A small amount of tape is placed onto the cat's skin and then evaluated under a microscope.
  • T3 and T4 tests to check thyroid hormone levels in the blood.
  • Blood tests to check glucose levels in the blood.
  • If an allergy is suspected, a skin prick test will be given. This involves pricking the skin with multiple needles containing a small amount of common allergens (pollen, dust etc), to try and determine the particular allergen involved.

How is dandruff in cats treated?

If you notice dandruff in your cat's coat, you should seek veterinary attention as there could be an underlying medical cause requiring medical treatment. This may include:

  • Medicated shampoos to treat seborrhea.
  • Diabetes is treated with a combination of dietary changes and/or daily insulin injections.
  • If sunburn is the cause, topical or oral steroid cream may be prescribed in severe cases.
  • Anti parasitic medications to kill mites. If your cat has mites, all pets in the household will need to be treated and bedding washed thoroughly.
  • Medications and/or lime sulfur dips to treat ringworm. As with mites, if your cat has ringworm, all cats should be treated and the environment thoroughly cleaned as fungal spores can spread to surfaces, furnishings etc.
  • Medicated shampoos to treat malassezia.
  • Avoiding the source of allergies, if possible. If not possible, hyposensitisation may be recommended to try to reduce the allergic response.
  • Corticosteroids and/or antihistamines may be recommended to control itching.
  • If food allergy is the cause, switching your cat to a low allergenic diet.
  • Arthritis is treated with NSAIDS, glucosamine and chondroitin and providing warmth. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
  • Hyperthyroidism can be treated either with radioactive iodine, which targets and kills the tumour cells, or surgical removal of the tumour.

Home treatment for cat dandruff:

Getting moisture to the skin both inside and out is the cornerstone to treating dandruff. There are many ways to do this.

  • Adding humidifiers around the house in the winter months to help moisten the air.
  • Adding omega 3 fatty acids to your cat's food (never give your cats supplements without veterinary supervision).
  • Feed your cat a premium quality cat food diet.
  • Your veterinarian may recommend a moisturising shampoo to use in order to treat the dandruff.
  • In severe cases, an anti-dandruff shampoo for cats will be recommended. Don't use human anti-dandruff shampoo on your cat, this is way too harsh and will damage his skin.
  • Speak to your veterinarian about skin and coat moisturisers which can safely be used on cats.
  • Cats who have difficulty grooming themselves due to weight or old age (and soreness) will need to be groomed regularly by you. Five minutes a day is all it takes in most cats.

Also see:

Cat symptoms   Poor coat condition in cats