By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Many pet parents tend to think of cats as small dogs, because after all, they’re both furry and four-legged. But the truth is, felines are distinctly different from most other animals and actually have little in common with their canine counterparts.
That’s why it’s safest to assume nothing that applies to your dog automatically also applies to your cat. For example, a medication you give to your canine companion should never be given to your cat. The same goes for chemical flea and tick preventives. You should also avoid feeding dog food to your cat (or cat food to your dog) except in a pinch.
And while today’s dogs and cats tend to develop many of the same health problems, for example, dental disease and obesity-related conditions, often what causes a particular disorder in a dog is different than the underlying cause of the same disease in a kitty.
One condition in which this is often true is itchy skin (pruritus). Itchy skin in a dog can almost always be traced to an allergy to either something in his diet, or in the environment. Cats, like dogs, can develop allergies that make them itchy, but there are a number of other conditions that are just as likely to cause our feline pal to be itchy.
Skin Conditions That Can Make Your Cat Itchy
• Parasites. Bug pests, including fleas and mites, are a very common cause of itching in cats. If you have an itchy cat who goes outdoors at all, she could have a flea allergy even if you don’t find evidence of fleas or flea dirt. Believe it or not, some kitties are such excellent groomers they can remove all traces of fleas and their dirt before they have a reaction.
It’s safe to assume that if your cat is itchy, she’s sensitive to fleas. If she has flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), she’s super-sensitive, and the bite of just one flea can leave her itchy and miserable.
• Acne. Another itchy condition seen in cats is feline acne, also called chin acne or kitty acne. This is a condition characterized by blackheads that develop on the chin. Hair follicles become clogged with oil (sebum) from the sebaceous glands, which results in blackheads.
The blackheads can morph into red, itchy bumps that progress to pimples, which can lead to abscesses that rupture and become crusty. Once the condition has reached this advanced stage, it's called furunculosis. In severe cases of chin acne, swelling, hair loss and draining tracts can develop. The area can be very itchy, and cats can cause additional trauma by scratching. Secondary bacterial infections are also common with this condition.
• Ringworm. Another common reason for itching in cats is ringworm, which is actually a fungal infection called dermatophytosis that can affect the hair, skin or nails. Ringworm is the most common contagious skin infection in kitties. The classic appearance of ringworm is a small, round and hairless sore on the skin. The sore may have a scaly appearance at the center, and also small abscesses. Most often the sores appear on the cat’s head, ears and tail.
• Pemphigus foliaceus. If your cat has itchy feet, the underlying cause could be pemphigus foliaceus, which is an autoimmune skin disorder. In allergic dogs, itchy feet typically signal a condition called pododermatitis. Pemphigus foliaceus causes scaly, crusty skin, as well as pustules, mild ulceration and footpad overgrowth and cracking.
• Eosinophilic granuloma complex. This is a condition in which excessive numbers of eosinophils (a type of white blood cell) are produced. The disorder in cats is actually three different syndromes that cause inflammation of the skin:
○ Eosinophilic plaque, which features defined, raised, round or oval-shaped sores that are often ulcerated; these lesions are typically found on a cat’s abdomen or thighs, and contain eosinophils
○ Eosinophilic granuloma, which describes a mass or lumpy sore containing eosinophils, is usually found on the back of the thighs, the face or inside the mouth
○ Indolent ulcer, which is a defined, abscessed lesion that is most often found on the upper lip
Reviewing Your Itchy Cat’s Diet
Regardless of the cause of a kitty’s itchy skin, I always review the food he or she is being fed to see if there are changes we can make that will support the skin as it heals and prevent a recurrence. Pets with itchy skin should be fed an anti-inflammatory diet. Diets that create or worsen inflammation are high in carbohydrates. If you think your cat’s diet could be contributing to her skin condition, I recommend looking into a NutriScan test.
Your cat’s diet should be very low in grain content and potato-free. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation throughout the body, so adding them into the diet of a cat with a skin disorder is a must. The best sources of omega-3 are krill oil, salmon oil, squid oil, anchovy oil, sardine oil and other fish body oils (unless your cat is allergic to seafood).
I also recommend coconut oil because it contains lauric acid, which helps decrease the body’s production of yeast. Using fish body oil with coconut oil can help moderate or even suppress the inflammatory response.
Next Steps: A Veterinary Visit and an At-Home Wound Healing Protocol
To treat your cat’s itchy skin successfully, the underlying cause must be identified. That’s why the first step is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for a thorough workup, an accurate diagnosis and an appropriate treatment protocol.
The next step is to begin healing your cat’s wounded skin at home. This means she’ll need to wear an E-collar to interrupt the itch-lick-scratch cycle. An alternative might be a light, nonstick bandage or even an infant-sized T-shirt. Keeping the wound clean is absolutely essential. I recommend disinfecting the area with dilute Betadine (povidone iodine) twice a day. Topical remedies I recommend for wound healing in kitties include:
- Manuka honey or raw aloe applied to the area twice a day
- Willard Water or colloidal silver sprayed on the wound several times a day
- Hypericum or calendula cream or tinctures
The E-collar, nonstick bandage or infant T-shirt should be ready to go before you put the healing balm on your cat to prevent her from immediately licking it off. There are also a number of homeopathic remedies that can be very beneficial for itchy cats, so I encourage you to work with a homeopath to find the right one for your kitty. I suspect that over-vaccination is one of the biggest abnormal immune system triggers, so detoxing from vaccines (as well as avoiding further unnecessary vaccines) is also very important.