Feline Acne – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

What is feline acne?   Causes   Symptoms   Diagnosis   Treatment   Prevention   Aftercare


Feline acne at a glance

About: Feline acne is a skin disorder affecting the chin of cats where hair follicles plug with oil and dead skin cells, to form blackheads.

Causes: It has many causes including plastic food bowls, improper grooming, over-active sebaceous glands, hormones, and stress.


  • Blackheads (comedones)
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Pustules (pus-filled bump)
  • Inflammation 
  • Secondary infection

Diagnosis: Presenting symptoms, skin cytology and culture to rule out other diseases.

Treatment: Medications to clean the area, changing food bowls, manage underlying causes if any are found.

What is feline acne?

Acne is a common multifactorial skin disorder in cats that is characterised by blackheads (comedones) and inflammation on the chin and lips. It can affect cats of any age, sex or breed.

Sebaceous glands secrete oils (sebum) which lubricate the skin, preventing dryness and irritation. The sebaceous glands are mostly found in dorsal, eyelids, chin, the surface of the base of the tail, lips, scrotum, and prepuce and are connected to the hair follicles. These glands also play a role in territorial marking and any observant cat owner will have seen their cat rubbing his face and chin along objects, over time this rubbing will leave greasy patches.


Feline acne

Image © Dianne, Flickr

There are several possible causes of feline acne, which include:

  • Stress – Stress triggers the release of various hormones which can lead to the sebaceous glands producing more sebum.
  • Plastic food bowls – This type of food bowl discouraged, particularly in cats with feline acne. Plastic bowls are porous and over time can develop scratches both of which trap bacteria. The bacteria are transferred to the cat’s chin when he eats, which can cause swelling, inflammation, and infection. It has also been suggested that an allergic reaction to the plastic food bowl may also be a cause.
  • Poor grooming – The chin is a difficult area for cats to clean, senior and arthritic cats can find it painful to groom.
  • Overactive sebaceous glands or abnormal sebum production.
  • Hormonal imbalances.
  • Atopic dermatitis and food allergies.
  • Immunosuppression – Such as cats with feline immunodeficiency virus or feline leukemia virus can be predisposed to feline acne.
  • Upper respiratory viral infections – Feline calicivirus may be responsible for feline acne where entire multi-cat households are affected.
  • Excessive chin rubbing – This can be a causative factor, particularly in multi-cat households. Cats have scent glands on their lips and chin, which they will often rub on vertical objects such as chairs and doors, this is your cat’s way of marking his territory.



Cats with feline acne develop follicles which become blocked with a black sebaceous material, which over time oxidise resulting in characteristic blackheads. Hair follicles may become irritated, swollen and infected, leading to the development of pustules. Keratinisation (hardening of the skin) and hyperplasia (enlargement) of the sebaceous glands may occur over time. Acne may be mild, moderate or severe.

Symptoms may be sporadic, coming and going or persistent and may include:

  • Blackheads (comedones) on the chin which has the appearance of dirt. There may be some redness of the affected area. Hair loss may also occur in the affected area. Some cats may remain at this stage.
  • Papules, pustules, itching, and swelling develop as the condition progresses.
  • Firm painful nodules with draining lesions with severe acne. Over time, scarring and thickening of the skin can develop.
  • Secondary infection can develop, with the most common microorganisms including gram-positive Streptococcus spp, Staphylococcus spp, Pasteurella bacteria and Malassezia yeast.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Loss of appetite may develop in severe cases due to pain.


Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and obtain a medical history from you. He may make a tentative diagnosis based on presenting symptoms.

There are a number of conditions with similar symptoms which your veterinarian will need to rule out. These include eosinophilic granuloma complex, demodicosis (mites), Malassezia (fungi),  neoplasia and ringworm.

  • Skin scrapings: To look for the presence of demodicosis (mites).
  • Fungal culture: To look for ringworm or Malassezia.
  • Bacterial culture: If bacteria are present, this will allow your veterinarian to determine the most effective antibiotic for treatment.
  • Skin cytology: A sample from the affected area with sticky tape, directly applying a glass slide, or a mild skin scraping, applying a dye and examining the sample under a microscope to look for high numbers of Malassezia yeast.
  • Biopsy and histopathology (microscopic examination of the biopsy sample): To rule out other conditions, evaluate for neoplasia.
  • Food elimination trial, flea elimination trial or skin allergy testing: If your veterinarian suspects an allergy is a causative factor.

Anesthesia is usually required for skin scrapings and biopsy due to the amount of pain experienced in cats with severe acne.


feline acne
Treatment of feline acne depends on the severity of the condition. Products to inhibit the formation of blackheads, remove excess sebum and flush the hair follicles as well as treating secondary infections and eliminating the underlying cause if found.

If the condition is mild and the cat only has asymptomatic comedones, no treatment will be necessary. If the caregiver prefers, gentle cleansing with chlorhexidine, iodine (Betadine), witch hazel or Epsom salts may be of benefit to the cat. Severe cases may necessitate clipping of the area by your veterinarian prior to treatment.

Topical antiseborrheic medications:

Cleaning the skin with an ointment or gel containing benzoyl peroxide 2.5 to 5% (such as OxyDex) which is a broad-spectrum antibacterial product that also has anti-itching properties.  Some cats may experience irritation with this product. Salicylic acid is another topical medication which can be used topically, brands include Stri-dex and Clearasil.

Topical antibiotic ointment:

Administer 2% mupirocin, clindamycin or tetracycline containing products when furuncles (boils) and draining tracts are present.

Topical glucocorticoids:

To reduce inflammation or oral glucocorticoids such as prednisone for severe inflammation and swelling.

Topical antifungals:

To treat Malassezia, these may include miconazole, chlorhexidine or ketoconazole.

Oral antifungals:

Itraconazole or fluconazole for severe Malassezia.

Oral synthetic retinoids:

For cats who are unable to tolerate topical treatment or whose acne isn’t responding to the above treatments. These demonstrate anti-keratinization and anti-inflammatory properties.

Omega fatty acids:

To reduce inflammation.


To help cats suspected of excessive chin rubbing. This synthetic pheromone mimics your cat’s own feel-good pheromones which are produced by the glands on the chin, cheeks, and lips.

Home care:

It helps if you apply a warm, damp cloth to the chin for 30 seconds prior to applying treatments, this allows the medications to penetrate the skin more thoroughly.

Look out for signs of redness or inflammation when treating your cat with topical products. Consult your veterinarian if your cat does show signs of irritation as he will be able to recommend a more suitable product, or a varied skin treatment schedule. As the condition improves, your veterinarian will recommend you taper treatment.

Treatment may be lifelong for some cats. 


Switch from plastic to glass, ceramic or metal food bowls as plastic can exasperate acne.

Wash food and water bowls in hot soapy water daily, rinse well and dry thoroughly.

If your cat is prone to acne, gently wash his chin after eating with warm water.


Administer medications as prescribed by your veterinarian. Always finish the entire course of oral antibiotics, even if symptoms have resolved.

Watch for signs of reaction to topical products such as redness, swelling and discomfort. 

Your veterinarian may recommend ongoing maintenance cleansing even if the acne resolves.


The prognosis is good, however, pet owners must be aware that lifelong symptomatic treatment may be necessary.

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