Cat Dandruff – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What is cat dandruff?   Causes of dandruff in cats   Difference between dander and dandruff   Symptoms of dandruff in cats   How is the cause of dandruff diagnosed?   How is dandruff treated in cats?

Cat dandruff

What is cat dandruff?

Dandruff is a common condition characterised by small, white flakes of skin in the fur. It 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. It is generally easier to see dandruff on dark coloured cats.

Causes of dandruff in cats

Dandruff in cats

There are many possible causes of dandruff which can be loosely divided into nutrition, allergies, parasites, disease and other.


  • Poor diet, particularly one which is low in fat. Omega-3 oils are essential fats which cats can’t synthesise themselves. These fats reduce inflammation as well as helping the skin stay healthy.


  • 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.
  • Food allergies – Cats can develop allergies to any kind of protein or grain in the diet. Unlike humans, food allergies in cats tend to manifest as skin irritation. Itching, scratching, scaling, dandruff can all be symptoms, which untreated can progress to open areas of sores and infection.
  • Grooming products such as shampoos can cause dermatitis or overly dry the skin.


  • Demodicosis – A skin disease caused by the Demodex mite. There are two species to affect cats, Demodex cati lives in the hair follicles, and Demodex gatoi lives in the surface layers of the skin. Demodicosis is rare in cats and is seen most frequently in cats who are immunocompromised or malnourished.
  • Cheyletiellosis (walking dandruff) – This isn’t actually dandruff but is caused by the Cheyletiellosis mite which gives the appearance of dandruff in the coat.
  • Cat fleas – This common parasite lives in the fur of the cat, feeding on your cat’s blood. As the flea feeds, saliva is injected into the skin which can cause a localised reaction resulting in itching, scratching and dandruff.

Fungal infections:

  • 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.


  • Diabetes – A metabolic disease in which the cat’s body doesn’t respond adequately to insulin, which prevents glucose entering the cells. This disease affects middle aged to older cats most often.
  • Hyperthyroidism – A common metabolic disease which is seen in middle aged to senior cats that is usually caused by a hormone-secreting benign tumour of the thyroid gland. As with diabetes, hyperthyroidism is seen more often in middle aged to senior cats.


  • Seborrhea – A skin condition caused by the overproduction of sebum an oily substance which is produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin. This skin disorder has a number of possible causes from including diseases, poor diet and parasites.
  • 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.
  • Old age – As the cat ages, the skin tends to become dryer and more prone to flaking. As the cat ages, sebaceous gland activity declines, meaning there is less sebum to keep the skin oily. Blood flow to the skin is also reduced, compounding the problem.
  • Low humidity, usually during winter when there is less humidity in the air.
  • Sunburn which causes damage to the skin, causing it to peel off.

AnchorIs there a difference between cat dandruff and dander?

Yes there is. As we have said, dandruff is small, flaky pieces of skin in your cat’s fur which generally has a medical cause. The skin is constantly renewing. Dander consists of minute particles of skin and saliva which are constantly being shed from the cat. 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.

AnchorWhat are the symptoms of dandruff in cats?

Dandruff in cats
Image Rachael Moore, Flickr

Dry, itchy, flaky skin are the most common symptoms of dandruff, it is usually most commonly found on the face and along the back and the base of the tail but any part of the body can be affected. Dandruff can be hard to see on lighter coloured cats.

Other symptoms of cat dandruff vary depending on the underlying cause but may include:

AnchorHow is the cause of 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.
  • If a food allergy is suspected, your veterinarian will put your cat on a food trial. This involves switching your cat to a novel diet for several weeks, meaning one he hasn’t tried before such as duck or kangaroo. No other type of food or treats should be given to your cat during this time. If symptoms improve, he will be switched back to his normal diet to see if symptoms return.

AnchorHow is dandruff treated in cats?

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.
  • Sunburn is treated with topical or oral steroid cream in severe cases.
  • Anti-parasitic medications to kill mites and cat fleas. 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.
  • Allergic cats should avoid the source of allergies if possible. Some cats may require steroids and/or antihistamines to relieve symptoms.  Hyposensitisation may be recommended to try to reduce the allergic response.
  • Food allergies are treated by 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,  surgical removal of the tumour or a prescription diet which is low in iodene.

In addition to treating the underlying causes of dandruff in your cat, ways to control dandruff include 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.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids which are added to your cat’s food (never give your cats supplements without veterinary supervision).
  • Dietary. Feed your cat a premium quality cat food diet, preferably one which is wet (raw or canned).
  • Moisturising shampoos may be used. Your veterinarian or pet store can recommend a suitable product which is safe for cats.
  • Anti-dandruff shampoo for cats will be recommended to treat severe cases. Don’t use human anti-dandruff shampoo on your cat, this is way too harsh and will damage his skin.
  • Groom your cat: 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. Most cats love to be groomed. Grooming helps to distribute the cat’s natural oils in the coat.
  • Moisturise your cat’s skin with a good quality, natural, unscented product. Most online or pet stores stock moisturisers designed for cats and dogs. Look for moisturisers which contain oatmeal. Apply a small amount to your own hands and stroke it into your cat’s coat.
  • Encourage fluid intake by switching to a wet diet and encouraging your cat to drink more water. This may be by switching to a water fountain type bowl which aerates the water. You can also flavour the water with tuna juice.

Remember, anything you put onto your cat’s skin can and will be licked off. So only ever use products which are non-toxic. If in doubt, check with your veterinarian.

Can I use products such as Head and Shoulders on my cat?

I can’t find any definitive answer to this. Generally speaking, I avoid using products designed for humans on a cat’s skin as their skin is more sensitive than ours, plus anything that goes on their coat is going to be ingested to some degree due to their fastidious cleaning routine. To treat dandruff in cats, it is always safer to use a medicated shampoo designed for cats.

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