Feline Acne – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment



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Feline acne

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.


  • Plastic food bowls
  • Improper grooming
  • Over-active sebaceous glands
  • Hormones
  • Stress
  • Allergies
  • Immunosuppression
  • Excessive chin rubbing

Symptoms: Can range from mild to severe and include blackheads (comedones), redness, swelling, pustules (pus-filled bumps), inflammation and in severe cases secondary infection.

Diagnosis: Thorough physical examination along with 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?

Mild 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

Stress Stress triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol which trigger the sebaceous glands to produce 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. The very first image is the same cat (Norman) as the second image. As you can see, the acne in the first photo is much worse. Norman has always had mild acne, but this became more severe when he started eating more canned food. He was not cleaning himself very well.
Overactive sebaceous glands  Sebum is an oily secretion which lubricates the skin. Some cats produce excessive amounts of sebum which block pores.
Hormonal imbalances
Allergies Allergies in cats typically present as skin disorders, atopic dermatitis is an allergy to inhaled allergens such as pollen. Food allergies are the third most common allergy in cats.
Immunosuppression Cats whose immune system is suppressed due to feline immunodeficiency virus or feline leukemia virus which can cause a proliferation of demodex mites.
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.

Mild feline acne, treat at home:

If the condition is mild and the cat only has asymptomatic comedones, no treatment is necessary.It helps if you apply a warm, damp cloth to the chin for 2-3 minutes, this allows for better penetration of medications.

Clean the area:  Add diluted chlorhexidine (HiBiScrub), iodine (Betadine) or witch hazel to a clean gauze and gently wipe the area.
Topical antiseborrheic medications: Clean the skin with an ointment or gel containing benzoyl peroxide 2.5 to 5% (such as OxyDex), 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.Watch 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.
Omega fatty acids: Omega 3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation in the body (including the skin). It is added to your cat’s food. Always speak to a veterinarian before adding supplements to the diet.
Feliway: This synthetic pheromone mimics your cat’s own facial pheromones and can help to reduce chin rubbing by applying the object to vertical objects as well as induce a feeling of calm in your cat.

Veterinary treatment:

If the area is red, inflamed, oozing or contains open sores, it will be necessary to see your veterinarian for stronger treatments.

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.

Treatment may be lifelong for some cats.


  • Switch from plastic to stainless steel bowls as plastic can exasperate acne.
  • Wash food and water bowls in hot soapy water once a day, rinse well and dry.
  • If your cat is prone to acne, gently wash the chin with warm water after a meal.


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. If they develop, seek veterinary advice.

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.

Please add your comments below.


  1. Hi,

    I have a cat who that almost all of these symptoms – unfortunately I am in a country with very few up-to-date veterinarians. The one thing that I have been unable to find with much data is how much of a cat’s body can be affected. Can it progress anywhere including legs, between foot pads, on the back, and base of tail?

    My cat is 7, male orange tabby, neutered, never vaccinated with boosters, has an enlarged heart. He has a history of skin infections, and what appears to be acne has been around for the last two years.


  2. Hi Barnabas,

    I’ve not heard of it progressing to the legs, feet and back. Miliary dermatitis is a common skin condition which can affect the neck and back area (close to the tail). The cat develops millet-like lumps which are itchy, self trauma can develop due to constant scratching. The most common cause of miliary dermatitis is allergies to fleas.


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