Why is my cat itchy?
Itchy skin can be very frustrating for cats. To find relief, they engage in excessive grooming, licking, and scratching at the affected areas until there is hair loss and the skin becomes raw. When this happens, it can pave the way for secondary bacterial and/or fungal infections which can make the problem even worse and a challenge to deal with. Keep reading to learn about the most common causes of itching in cats and what you can do to help your favorite feline.
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Common Causes of Itching in Cats
Fleas are very common external parasites in cats. These pesky parasites are always the first suspects when a cat is itching like crazy. While some cats suffer only minor itching when bitten by fleas, some are allergic to an allergen in the flea saliva. These hypersensitive cats experience intense itching from even just a flea bite or two.
Diagnosing flea-bite hypersensitivity can be tricky. Fleas may not always be present. If a visual inspection does not reveal any fleas, try running a flea comb over your pet’s body. You may get “flea dirt” which is actually flea poop that is composed of digested blood. Fleas usually deposit flea dirt along the cat’s lower back, neck, and base of the tail. Even if there are no signs of fleas, your vet may recommend a treatment trial using a flea medication that is safe for cats. If there are several pets in the household, all must be treated even if only one cat is itching.
Another skin parasite that can cause pruritus (itching) is mites. Cats that spend time outdoors are more likely to be infested. If your vet suspects an infestation of skin mites, skin scrapings may be performed to check for the presence of the parasites. Mite treatment includes a topical medication or lime sulfur dips.
Food Allergies (Cutaneous Adverse Food Reactions)
Itchiness can also be a sign of food allergies in cats. The itching can be triggered when your cat is allergic to something in her pet food. Usually, it’s food that your cat has been eating for a considerable length of time. The most common allergen culprits in cat food include fish, dairy, and beef.
If your vet suspects a food allergy is behind your cat’s itchy skin, a food trial may be conducted. This will involve placing your cat on a novel, hypoallergenic diet for 8-10 weeks. The diet will contain ingredients that your pet hasn’t eaten before, such as duck or venison. Even if an alleviation of symptoms is already evident in 3-4 weeks of the diet, the 6-8-week trial period must be completed. Most vets recommend a prescription hypoallergenic diet for food trials instead of over-the-counter hypoallergenic pet foods.
A food trial is usually performed after your vet has checked your cat for other diseases in which itching is a prominent sign.
Also known as inhalant or environmental allergies, the symptoms can already be experienced by extra-sensitive cats early in life. It may start as a seasonal problem, especially during spring and/or fall when environmental allergens, such as pollen, are at their peak. The symptoms usually worsen with time and may now occur throughout the year. Atopy can also be a year-round problem right from the start when cats are exposed to indoor allergens such as molds and dust mites.
The symptoms of atopy are mainly manifested in the skin. To differentiate the problem from other skin issues, your vet may perform a steroid trial. The test involves giving a daily oral medication or an injection every 6-8 weeks. Daily medication has the advantage of more accurate dosing and fewer risks of potential side effects. However, it can be a problem with some cats. Cyclosporine is one of the newest medications that are preferred by many vets in treating atopy because it is associated with fewer side effects. However, it’s more expensive than the other usual options.
Atopy won’t go away with just one course of steroid or cyclosporine therapy. In most cases, it will require repeat treatments. Considering that there are risks to long-term steroid use, you should work closely with your vet in deciding the best treatment option for your cat.
Dry, flaky skin can occur as a consequence of specific nutritional deficiencies, or it could also be due to the dry frigid air during winter.
Pain or discomfort in a certain part of the body can cause your cat to lick, chew, or bite at the same spot relentlessly in search of relief.
Cats that don’t have adequate opportunities for physical and mental stimulation can become bored. Boredom, stress, or anxiety are potent fuels for the development of compulsive behaviors. Indoor cats tend to be at risk for these psychological disorders. Sudden changes in the cat’s immediate environment and/or routine, such as moving to a new home or having a new addition to the household may cause stress and anxiety and trigger compulsive chewing, scratching, or licking. There are also cases in which these compulsive behaviors start in response to a health issue and persist even when the problem has already been resolved.
Treatment Strategies for Cats with Itchy Skin
Considering that several factors can cause your cat’s persistent scratching, chewing, and licking, the first step in addressing the problem is to identify the underlying cause.
If your vet suspects a flea infestation, a flea control product may be prescribed for your cat. Take note that cats are extremely sensitive to certain medications, thus you can’t use your dog’s flea treatment on your cat without consulting your vet. Elimination of fleas and other parasites can significantly reduce your pet’s licking, scratching, and chewing.
A cat that is engaged in persistent scratching and licking is placed on an exclusion diet or food trial to determine if a food allergy is the culprit. Make sure to follow the instructions of your vet, particularly on the type of food that your pet can eat during the 6-8-week trial period.
After a thorough physical exam and perhaps some tests, your vet may prescribe steroids and/or antihistamines to ease the itching and skin inflammation. If there is a secondary infection, a round of antibiotics may also be necessary. Anxiety medication may be given if the itching and scratching are attributed to psychological factors.
Your vet may recommend supplementing your pet’s diet with certain types of fatty acids and other supplements that can help improve skin dryness and promote skin health.
Addressing Psychological Issues
If your pet’s behavior is not associated with a physical cause, measures can be taken to address it as a psychological problem. Creating an enriching indoor environment can keep your cat busy, happy, and well-stimulated physically and mentally.
There should be lots of opportunities that will encourage your cat to engage in natural behaviors. Make sure to make your cat feel safe and comfortable. Regular interactions and bonding times with your furball are very important to help build her self-confidence. If your cat spends a lot of time home alone during the day, adding a second cat may be a viable option so they can keep each other company. However, make sure to observe an adequate transition period to lessen the risk of stress associated with having a new addition to the household.
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