This Disorder Looks Like Dirt, but Can Feel Intensely Painful

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

feline acne

Story at-a-glance -

  • Among the many strange disorders cats can develop is feline or chin acne, which typically takes the form of a collection of bumps that look like dirt
  • A case of feline acne means hair follicles have become clogged with oil and dead skin cells
  • Contributing factors to kitty acne can include hyperactive sebaceous glands, contact dermatitis and chin trauma
  • Treatment options include cleaning and disinfecting the area daily, and eliminating all potential triggers from your cat’s diet and environment
  • It’s also important to feed kitties with skin conditions an anti-inflammatory diet

Cats differ from other animals in too many ways to count, including some of the disorders they acquire. One example is hyperesthesia, a bizarre condition known in layman's terms as rippling or rolling skin syndrome, or twitchy cat syndrome. And then there's hepatic lipidosis, also called fatty liver syndrome, which is a very serious condition and the most frequently diagnosed liver disease in cats in the U.S. The disease doesn't occur in any other animal — just kitties.

Another strange disorder commonly seen in cats is, believe it or not, acne. Also called feline acne or chin acne, it can occur in any breed and both sexes. Unlike humans, who tend to deal with acne breakouts in their teens, kitties typically develop the condition in middle age. Feline acne typically appears on a cat's chin, and can progress from barely noticeable to open, oozing and painful sores if left untreated.

How Feline Acne Develops and How to Tell if Your Cat Has It

There are many sebaceous glands in the skin of your kitty's chin, and these glands secrete an oily substance called sebum. In some cats, the glands produce an excessive amount of sebum, which traps dead skin cells that clog the hair follicles in the chin.

The clogged hair follicles turn into blackheads (called comedones) on the chin and lips and often look like dirt that can't be washed away. The blackheads can progress to red itchy bumps, then to pimples and ultimately form abscesses that rupture, bleed and crust over. Once the condition has reached this advanced stage, it's called furunculosis.

When a cat's chin acne is severe, there can also be swelling, hair loss and the development of draining tracts, which are tract lesions that connect the area of inflammation under the skin to the skin's surface. Often the chin is very itchy, and a kitty can cause even more trauma to the skin by scratching. Secondary bacterial infections such as cellulitis are common in advanced cases of feline acne.

Some cats develop a single outbreak of chin acne that resolves and never returns. Others have recurrent outbreaks, and some cats can develop permanent chin acne.

What Causes Feline Acne?

The exact cause of chin acne in cats isn't known — one theory is that it's the result of damage to the hair follicle. There do seem to be multiple possible contributing factors, including hyperactive sebaceous glands, and contact or atopic dermatitis (allergies). Since cats tend to rub their chins against things they like, including people and other animals, any surface they rub against could potentially cause irritation or inflammation, also known as contact dermatitis.

Sensitivity to foods or chemicals in foods can be a cause, as can reactions to certain medications, hormone imbalances and poor grooming habits. Feline acne can also be secondary to an underlying systemic condition such as an infection. Other potential contributing factors:

Chin trauma (from excessive rubbing or scratching)

Bacterial contamination from food or the environment

Seborrheic dermatitis

Stress

Allergy to plastic food or water bowl

Compromised immune system

How Veterinarians Diagnose Chin Acne

Your kitty's chin acne can look a lot like other types of dermatitis, including parasitic and fungal infections, as well as atopic dermatitis and environmental chemical exposure, so it's important that your veterinarian correctly diagnoses your pet's skin condition.

He or she will examine your cat and get certain details from you, such as when you first noticed the problem. Skin scrapings or even a biopsy may be needed to rule out similar-appearing problems such as mange, a yeast infection, allergies, ringworm or eosinophilic granuloma complex.

A biopsy involves removing a hair follicle and examining it under a microscope to determine if it is swollen from increased oil, indicating acne. If a bacterial infection is suspected, a culture and sensitivity test should be performed.

Treatment Options for Cats With Chin Acne

Mild cases of feline acne may not need treatment, but it's important to closely monitor your cat's chin and seek veterinary care if the blackheads seem to be turning into something more serious (e.g., open pimples).

And whatever you do, do not try to squeeze or remove blackheads from your cat's chin. Your kitty will object strenuously, and in addition, it can lead to a more serious skin infection. Very often the symptoms of chin acne are significantly more annoying to the cat's human than the cat! It's important that any underlying conditions like mange, a yeast infection or allergies are identified and resolved.

I recommend disinfecting the problem area with either dilute povidone iodine (Betadine) or a gentle, organic soap on a daily basis. I also recommend dabbing a small amount of colloidal silver, fresh aloe gel or manuka honey (a special type of therapeutic honey with potent antibiotic properties) on the chin after each disinfecting session.

If your cat's chin acne has a tendency to recur, you can proactively swab her chin with a cotton ball dipped in witch hazel or hydrogen peroxide several times a week to prevent or control flare-ups. Also be sure to wash food and water bowls at least daily. If your cat's food or water bowl is plastic, consider switching to a shallow stainless steel or nontoxic ceramic to eliminate a potential plastic or dye allergy as the cause of the acne.

I also recommend evaluating your cat's toxin load from vaccines, environmental chemicals (e.g., household cleaners; air scenting sprays, candles and plug-ins; and imported non-organic cat beds), and the water and air in your home.

Never under any circumstances should you try to treat your cat's acne with a medicated cream or ointment intended for humans. Topical products containing hydrocortisone, "triple antibiotic" preparations, antifungal creams, lotions containing zinc oxide and other similar products can be toxic to cats.

Cats With Chin Acne Should Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Regardless of the underlying cause of a skin condition, I always review a pet's diet as part of my workup to see what changes might promote healing and prevent a recurrence. I've seen many cases of feline acne resolve with an improvement in the quality and type of cat food being fed. Pets with itchy skin should be fed an anti-inflammatory diet.

Since diets that create or worsen inflammation are high in carbohydrates, I find that removing unnecessary grains and carbs from the diet, as well as giving cats a break from both seafood and poultry as protein sources, can help prevent a recurrence of chin acne. If you follow Chinese food energetics and principles, you'll also want to avoid feeding "energetically warm" or hot foods during flare-ups of chin acne. This means avoiding chicken and beef as protein sources.

Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease inflammation throughout the body. Adding them into the diet of a cat with a skin disorder can be very beneficial. The best sources of omega-3 are krill oil, salmon oil, tuna oil, anchovy oil, sardine oil and other fish body oils. 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.

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