Just like humans, cats can be prone to dry skin; this can have an impact on the overall condition of not only the skin but the fur as well. The skin contains thousands of sebaceous glands which secrete an oil (known as sebum) to keep the skin lubricated and moist.
There are many causes of dry skin on cats which may be due to systemic disease, dietery or parasitic or external factors.
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland, usually caused by a benign tumour)
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
- Kidney disease
- Food allergy
- Food intolerance
- Poor diet (low in omega-3 fatty acids)
- Dry air (this is more common in the winter months)
- Poor grooming (this is common in sick cats or the elderly)
- Frequent bathing and using harsh shampoos
- Patches of dry, flaky skin.
- Itching and scratching.
- If your cat has ringworm, you will notice circular, raised patches with hair loss.
Itching is one symptom of dry skin; however, an itchy cat doesn’t necessarily have dry skin. There are several reasons your cat may be itchy which you can read about here. Sometimes the two conditions do in fact overlap, and the dry skin and itching are due to an underlying medical condition. This is why it is important to see your veterinarian determine if your cat has dry skin, and why, or if he is itchy for another reason, such as parasites etc.
As you can see, there are several conditions which can cause dry skin in cats. You veterinarian will check your cat thoroughly and obtain a medical history from you. The age of your cat, accompanying symptoms (if any), and a history of diet can all give your veterinarian a clue as to the cause. Dry skin in older cats, especially if accompanied by weight loss can be indicative of kidney disease or hyperthyroidism (which is quite common in middle-aged and older cats). Older cats are more prone to arthritis and general loss of mobility and may experience difficulty grooming themselves. If your cat is itchy, he may have a food allergy.
Your veterinarian may wish to perform some medical tests to assess the overall health of your cat & check for underlying medical conditions, which may include:
- Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis – To evaluate the overall health of your cat and check organ functionality and imbalances.
- Allergy testing – If he suspects your cat is suffering from an allergy he may wish to perform an intradermal skin test. An area of fur is shaved, and your veterinarian will inject a minute amount of common allergens to the skin to see how the cat responds.
- If a food allergy is suspected, he may choose to put your cat on a novel diet (such as duck) for several weeks to see if the dry skin and other symptoms subside. Your cat will then be re-introduced to his usual diet, and if the symptoms return, it is suggestive that the cat is allergic to something in his diet.
- T4 testing to evaluate for hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
- Skin scraping test to check for parasites.
The goal of treatment is to manage the underlying issue and also, support the skin.
- Hyperthyroidism: Radioactive iodine, surgery or prescription diet.
- Hypothyroidism: Hormone replacements.
- Kidney disease: Prescription diet and supportive care.
- Food allergies or intolerances: Avoid the ingredient and change to a hypoallergenic diet.
- Allergies: Removal of the allergen if possible.
- Malnutrition/poor quality food: Switch to a premium brand of food.
- Parasites: Medicated shapoos or dips to treat ringworm. Wash all bedding and decontaminate the environment.
Treating the dry skin:
- If your cat is elderly or has trouble grooming himself, daily grooming can help to improve the condition of his skin and coat. Grooming increases blood supply to the skin.
- Don’t bathe your cat as often and if you must bathe him (I have found this unnecessary in all the short-haired cats I’ve had), use a shampoo formulated for cats with sensitive skin. Never use human shampoos or soaps on cats.
- Increase humidity in the home, especially during winter when air can become very dry.
- Your veterinarian may recommend supplementing the diet with omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish oils.
Your cat’s coat can paint an overall picture of his health. Cats are fastidious groomers, so if and when you notice the condition of your cat’s coat deteriorating, it can be a warning that something is wrong.
There are several causes of a poor coat in cats, some of which include:
- Dietary – Poor diet, malnutrition, vitamin A toxicosis and food allergies.
- Systemic diseases – Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland), cancer, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland), diabetes, kidney disease.
- Infection – FIV, Feline Leukemia, Feline Panleukopenia, pneumonia.
- Parasites – Worms, fleas, ringworm.
- Environmental – Over shampooing, over-grooming and dry air, which is common in the winter months.
- Inability to groom – This is common in senior cats who have less mobility, often due to arthritis. Obese cats may also have difficulty grooming harder to reach spots due to their size.
Groom cats with long hair weekly to keep their coat mat free. Many veterinarians and shelters can attest to the fact that a cat with long hair can quickly become matted. This is extremely uncomfortable for your cat and requires the help of a veterinarian or a professional groomer to sort out.
If and when you notice your cat’s coat is losing condition the first step to take is to see your veterinarian. He will examine the cat and obtain a medical history from you including any accompanying symptoms, medical conditions and your cat’s diet.
- Flaky skin/dandruff
- Dull appearance
- Patches of missing hair
- Thinning hair
- Lumps and bumps
- Other symptoms related to systemic disease such as increased/decreased thirst and appetite, lethargy, weight loss.
- Other symptoms related to infection such as weight loss, loss of appetite, nasal/eye discharge, vomiting, diarrhea
- Pain and discomfort including a reluctance to put weight on a leg (in the case of arthritis)
Your veterinarian may wish to perform some medical tests to get to a cause; this may include complete blood count, urinalysis, and biochemical profile all of which can paint a picture of your cat’s overall health and evaluate the organ functions.
He may take blood samples to test for FIV, FeLV or other possible infections. If he suspects arthritis, he may wish to take x-rays to evaluate the joints. Stool samples may also be taken to check for parasites such as worms.
Treatment is aimed at addressing the underlying cause and may include:
- Feeding a high-quality diet.
- Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids if he thinks it is necessary.
- Switching your cat to a low allergenic diet.
- Surgery or radioactive iodine to treat hyperthyroidism.
- Hormone replacements to treat hypothyroidism.
- Insulin, diet and where necessary, certain medications to control diabetes.
- Diet and where necessary, medications to manage kidney disease.
- Where available, antivirals for viral infections, but in most cases, supportive care is provided while the cat’s immune system fights the infection, this can include fluids to treat dehydration and nutritional support.
- Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed to treat secondary infections.
- Anti-parasitic drugs, pastes, and topical applications to control fleas and worms.
- Anti-anxiety drugs to treat overgrooming and stress.
If your cat is old and arthritic, you can help by grooming him regularly. Most cats will appreciate this as it is a nice way to spend time with him. While you are grooming him, take some time to check him for lumps and bumps as well.