At a glance:
About: 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).
Symptoms: The most obvious symptoms are flecks of white skin in the fur on the face and along the back. It is more obvious in cats with dark coats. Other symptoms will vary depending on the underlying cause.
Diagnosis: Complete physical examination and baseline tests to evaluate the overall health of your cat. Additional diagnostic tests will be necessary to determine the cause.
Treatment: Treat the underlying cause, increase hydration, omega 3 fatty acids and moisturising shampoos can all help 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).
Most cases of dandruff are 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 easier to see dandruff on dark coloured cats than it is on lighter coats.
The cause of dandruff can be divided into the following:
- Contact dermatitis – An allergic skin reaction caused by your cat coming into contact with an allergen or irritant such as soaps, shampoos, solvents, chemicals, plants etc.
- Grooming products such as shampoos which can 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) – Infection with the Cheyletiellosis mite can give the appearance of dandruff in the coat.
- 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 and a strong odour.
Endocrine disorders (endocrinopathies):
- Diabetes – A metabolic disease in which the cat’s body doesn’t respond adequately to insulin, which prevents glucose from entering the cells.
- Hypothyroidism – A rare endocrine disorder where the thyroid gland doesn’t produce adequate amounts of thyroid hormone.
- Dry winter air is low in humidity which can dry out the skin.
- 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 – When cat ages, the skin becomes drier due to a decline in sebaceous gland activity which moisturises the skin. Reduced blood flow to the skin can compound the problem.
- Sunburn which causes damage to the skin, causing it to peel off.
Is there a difference between cat dandruff and dander?
Yes, there is. Dandruff is small, flaky pieces of skin in your cat’s fur which typically has a medical cause. The skin is constantly renewing itself and dander consists of minute particles of skin and saliva which are shed from the skin.
Image Rachael Moore, Flickr
Dry, itchy, flaky skin are the most common symptoms of dandruff, it is usually most commonly found on the face, along the back and the base of the tail, however, 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 can include:
- Red and inflamed skin
- Greasy skin
- Thickened, scaly patches on the skin
- Poor coat condition
- Skin odour
A cat with dandruff should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Dandruff itself is not life-threatening, but the underlying cause can be.
Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you. This will include:
- How long has the dandruff been present?
- Have you noticed any other symptoms?
- What is the cat eating?
- Does the cat have any allergies?
- Is dandruff present all the time or does it come and go?
- Is the cat up-to-date on flea control?
Accompanying symptoms along with your cat’s age may give your veterinarian a clue as to the underlying cause. Diagnostic tests will be necessary to reach a diagnosis.
- Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis – These tests evaluate the overall health of your cat including hydration levels, inflammation, infection, organ function, and electrolytes.
- Skin scraping test – To check for mites or ringworm infection. A small patch of skin will be gently scraped from your cat, placed on a slide and evaluated under a microscope.
- Tape test – To evaluate for skin parasites. A piece of tape is placed onto the cat’s skin, removed and evaluated under a microscope.
- T3 and T4 test – To measure thyroid hormone levels in the blood.
- Skin prick test – This involves pricking the skin with multiple needles containing a small number of common allergens (pollen, dust etc), to try and determine the particular allergen involved.
The goal of treatment is to manage the underlying cause as well as increase moisture to the cat’s skin.
Treat the underlying cause
- Medicated shampoos – Applied every three days until the condition is under control. There are different types of shampoo depending on which form of seborrhea the cat has.
- Diabetes – Diet alone can manage mild cases. If the cat is not ill and has no ketones, it may be possible to manage diabetes without the use of insulin. Commercial diets suitable for diabetic cats include Hills M/D, Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Diabetic and Purina DM. These are available in canned or dry, canned is always preferable.
- Hypothyroidism – Treatment will depend on the underlying cause. Most cases of hypothyroidism are due to treatment for hyperthyroidism (increased levels of thyroid hormones due to a benign tumour of the thyroid gland). This includes reaction to radioactive iodine treatment, low iodine diet, thyroid gland removal and side effects of taking methimazole. In some cases, the hypothyroidism will reverse in time, or medications can be revised. If the cat has had his thyroid gland removed, supplemental thyroid hormones will be necessary.
- External parasites – Anti-parasitic shampoos, dips or topical treatments to kill the parasites. Wash or discard all bedding. Treat all cats in the household at once to prevent re-infestation.
- Ringworm – Medications, anti-fungal shampoos and/or lime sulfur dips. Treat all cats in the household as well as the environment as fungal spores can spread to surfaces and furniture.
- Malassezia – Anti-fungal shampoos for mild cases, or oral oral Itraconazole or fluconazole for more widespread malassezia.
- Allergic cats – Avoid the source of allergies if possible. Some cats may require steroids and/or antihistamines to relieve symptoms. Your veterinarian may recommend hyposensitization to reduce the allergic response.
- Arthritis – Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as glucosamine, and chondroitin. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
- Add humidifiers – These can help to moisten the air in the home, especially during winter when it is dryer.
- Omega 3 fatty acids – Add to your cat’s food.
- Dietary – Feed a premium quality diet, preferably raw or canned.
- Moisturising shampoos – The veterinarian or pet store can recommend a suitable product which is safe for cats.
- Anti-dandruff shampoo – To treat severe dandruff. Always use pet specific anti-dandruff shampoo, and not one for people.
- Groom your cat – Some cats have difficulty grooming themselves due to old age or obesity and need help. Five minutes a day is all it takes in most cats, grooming will help to distribute the cat’s natural oils in the coat.
- Moisturise your cat’s skin – Use 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 – Switch to a wet diet and encourage your cat to drink more water. Switch to a water fountain type bowl which aerates the water or flavour the water with tuna juice. Change the water once a day and wash the bowl as unwashed water bowls can form a layer of biofilm which affect the taste of water.
Your cat ingests anything put onto the skin so only ever use products which are non-toxic. If in doubt, check with your veterinarian.
Do not use human shampoo to treat cats, always use a medicated shampoo specifically for cats.