Cat Dandruff – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


What is cat dandruff?   Causes   Symptoms   Diagnosis   Treatment

Cat dandruff

At a glance:

  • About: Dandruff is small white flakes of skin in the fur.
  • Causes: Systemic disease such as hyperthyroidism, poor nutrition, allergies, parasites, dehydration and low humidity.
  • Symptoms: Flakes of white skin in the fur on the face and along the back.
  • Diagnosis: Baseline bloodwork plus additional tests depending on your veterinarian’s index of suspicion.
  • Treatment: Treat the underlying cause, increase hydration, moisturising shampoos.

What is 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 easier to see dandruff on dark coloured cats than it is on lighter coats.

Causes:

Dandruff in cats

The cause of dandruff can be divided into nutrition, hydration, allergies, parasites, disease and other.

Nutrition:

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

Allergies:

  • 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. Food allergies in cats tend to manifest as skin irritation. Itching, scratching, scaling, dandruff are all symptoms of allergies. Left untreated allergies can progress to open areas of sores and infection due to trauma.
  • Grooming products such as shampoos can cause dermatitis or overly dry the skin.

Parasites:

  • 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.
  • Cat fleas – This common parasite lives in the fur of the cat, feeding on your cat’s blood. The flea injects saliva into the skin as it feeds which can cause a localised reaction.

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 and a strong odour.

Disease:

  • Diabetes – A metabolic disease in which the cat’s body doesn’t respond adequately to insulin, which prevents glucose from entering the cells.
  • Hyperthyroidism – A common metabolic disease which is common in middle-aged to senior cats. The cause is a hormone-secreting tumour on the thyroid gland.

Hydration:

Hydration is internal and environmental.

  • Dry food diets can cause chronic dehydration in cats as they don’t make up for the lack of moisture in their diet by drinking more.
  • Dry winter air can also have an effect on the hydration of your cat’s skin.

Other:

  • 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 a cat ages, the skin can become drier and more prone to flaking. This is due to a decline in sebaceous gland activity, leading to less sebum to keep the skin oily. Reduced blood flow to the skin can compound the problem.
  • Low humidity during winter can contribute to the skin drying out.
  • 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.

Symptoms:

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:

Diagnosis:

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 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 tests to check thyroid hormone levels in the blood.
  • Blood tests to check glucose levels in the blood.
  • Skin prick test – To evaluate the cat for allergies. 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.
  • Food trial – To evaluate for food allergies, 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.

Treatment:

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 –  Dietary changes for mild diabetes or daily insulin injections.
  • Mites or fleas – Anti-parasitic medications. Treat all cats in the home at the same time as well as the environment.
  • Ringworm – Medications 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 hyposensitasion to reduce the allergic response.
  • Food allergies – Low allergenic prescription diet or homemade.
  • Arthritis – Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as glucosamine, and chondroitin. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
  • Hyperthyroidism – Treatment may include radioactive iodine, which targets and kills the tumour cells,  surgical removal of the tumour or a prescription diet which is low in iodine.

Increase moisture:

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 of treating dandruff. There are many ways to do this.

  • Adding 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 – Your veterinarian or pet store can recommend a suitable product which is safe for cats.
  • Anti-dandruff shampoo – For 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 will need some help. Five minutes a day is all it takes in most cats, 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.

Your cat ingests anything put onto the skin 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?

Do not use human shampoo to treat cats, always use a medicated shampoo specifically for cats.

Download cat dandruff PDF

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