What is cat dermatology?

Cat dermatology is the study of skin diseases in felines, mainly when we're talking about medicine. There are a variety of skin conditions and diseases that can affect your cat.

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

How do skin conditions impact the health and well-being of my cat?

It can be pretty dramatic, as skin conditions can cause a lot of discomfort. The main thing we see is itchiness, so you can have a cat that's constantly scratching, tearing the hair out of their skin. You can also have a more low-grade itch where they're maybe occasionally scratching their ears and shaking their head. It's minimally noticeable, but they're still uncomfortable, which is why they're doing that. So I think the comfort and quality of life with certain skin with many skin diseases can be significantly impacted. And then, the cat can develop secondary skin infections, which can worsen their discomfort and affect their quality of life. And in some cases, these infections even make the cat lethargic so that they can have a dramatic impact on the health and well-being of your cat.

What are some signs and symptoms of skin issues in my cat?

The most significant symptoms of skin issues in cats are hair loss and red, irritated skin. Sometimes when they have an ear infection, there will be a lot of discharge or dark gunk in the ears, and sometimes you can even see it around the outside of the ear canal or ear flap. Crustiness, scabs, and different types of skin lesions are typical of various skin diseases. The causes can be a variety of things. Certainly, the most common underlying cause is some sort of allergy, but also infectious diseases like ringworm or feline dermatosis can cause skin conditions. It's ringworm, but it's essentially a fungus that cats can get that's highly contagious to both the cat and people.

Also, skin mites can affect cats. We don't see them super commonly, but it can be quite problematic when it does occur. Some of those mites are related to unhealthy immune systems, while others are more contagious and itchy. The most common mites we see are in younger cats, particularly ear mites, which is a miserable condition. They're tiny mites that crawl around in the ears and bite the skin. It's incredibly uncomfortable for cats. And then, of course, we also see skin cancers in cats, and those can have a variety of appearances.

Why is it important to avoid self-diagnosing skin conditions in my cat?

There are a variety of presentations and different causes of skin conditions, and the way the skin lesion looks is often not definitive. As such, you mustn't try to diagnose your cat's skin condition because a certain presentation doesn't necessarily mean a certain disease. So having a methodical approach that a veterinarian can take by looking at the signs and the history and doing some basic diagnostics is a much more helpful way to approach feline skin disease. The other thing is that addressing the skin disease and the itching can be quite complicated, and there are not many good over-the-counter products that you can use for a lot of these situations. And some of the over-the-counter medications can be pretty dangerous. We want to err on the side of caution with cats, as they can be a bit more sensitive. And so, having your veterinarian look at your cat, assess the skin, talk about the history, do a physical exam, and do some basic diagnostics will be helpful when trying to get a more clear picture as to what's going on.

How soon should I bring my cat to see a veterinarian for issues with their skin?

As with most things, the sooner, the better, because, again, these cats are often miserable or at least uncomfortable when they have certain skin diseases, especially if they're itchy. So addressing that sooner is just much better for their quality of life, and we can intervene and hopefully get to the bottom of it sooner. Other conditions can affect the skin that have many other detrimental effects on the body, including hyperthyroidism, which we see in older cats. And that can affect the skin. So it may look like the primary issue is the skin when, in reality, they have a severe underlying medical condition. And so, being able to assess and address those things earlier in the process is always better for the cat.

How will a veterinarian diagnose skin issues in my cat?

Diagnosing skin issues in cats isn't necessarily a cookie-cutter approach. I can walk you through some of the basics that we look at. So when we have a skin disease, we've got hair loss, skin lesions, ear problems, or whatever else it may be. Usually, the starting point of diagnostics that we will do is a skin and ear cytology. Those are getting samples from the skin in the ears, putting them on a microscope slide, staining them and looking under the microscope, and checking for secondary infection. The word secondary is critical because it's not common for cats or dogs to have primary skin infections. Skin infections are almost always the result of something else underneath, but understanding the infection is essential.

Cytologies, or skin scrapings, are what we use to look for mites and that kind of thing. And then, there are specific tests you can do for ringworm that are pretty different and specific. So we figure out the test based on the presentation. Now we used to have to culture to find out about ringworm, which would take a few weeks. We've got some better testing now that that only takes a couple of days. Certain types of skin cancer require skin biopsies, and then addressing the underlying primary issue, particularly with allergies, is often not very simple.

We usually start with a detailed food trial or a specific therapeutic diet. You don't want to just switch your cat's diet. If you think it's a food issue, we need to find a particular type of food. So that's kind of a diagnostic tool because we're trying to identify if there is a food allergy. So there are steps that we can take to walk through with your veterinarian. So we're kind of narrowing things down. If we think there's likely an environmental allergy, we typically will refer to board-certified dermatologists for excellent allergy testing to determine what the cat is allergic to so we can create an allergy serum to directly target the allergies.

Lastly, if we think there might be a flea allergy component, which is common, one of the diagnostic tools we have is putting them on effective flea prevention. And if that helps address the issue, that allows us to diagnose a flea allergy. You can see there are quite a few things you have to think about. And you have to look at the history, physical exam, and all of those things together to come up with the best plan on how to proceed to try and get the skin issues under control.

What treatment options are typically recommended for cat dermatology issues?

I'll just break it down into categories. So if there's secondary infection, depending on whether it's bacteria or yeast, then you have to treat those specifically with antimicrobials or a combination of systemic medications—either oral or injectables that get into the bloodstream in addition to topical antimicrobials, so maybe medicated mousses or wipes or things like that. We have to treat ringworm with a specific anti-fungal therapy.

Again, if it's a food allergy, it's a very specific therapeutic prescription food. And environmental allergies are a huge category. There's no cure for them, so it's all about management. We can do many things that to help manage those. The best thing is allergy testing and allergy immunotherapy, that's that serum that I was referring to. And flea prevention is critical for treating allergy issues with fleas. Also, omega fatty acid supplements are often helpful for skin diseases. So that should be something you discuss with your veterinarian for your individual cat, as there are many nuances to consider.

Are feline dermatology problems curable?

Yeah. Good question. Some yes, some no. You have to have your cat on really good flea prevention year-round. And if that's the only problem, then you can manage that. And essentially, you're not curing the allergy, but you're not allowing the allergy to occur. And often, the cats that have flea allergies also have other allergies. So again, it just gets complicated when considering food allergies. Furthermore, you can't cure the food allergy, but you can effectively manage it by identifying the food. And again, with environmental allergies, there aren't necessarily cures, but the focus is on the best management that we can get, and it depends on the severity. Sometimes these are very frustrating cases.

Although it can be a frustrating process, fungal diseases like ringworm and mites can typically be cured. Skin cancer cures depend on the type of cancer, how quickly it was addressed, and how aggressive it is. So you have to have a biopsy and have a pathology report to get an idea of whether something like that is curable or not.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Cat Dermatology - FAQs

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

What are some common skin conditions in cats?

The things we see most are allergies. I like to break allergies into categories—environmental allergies caused by various pollens and things in the environment; Flea allergies, which are prevalent here in Fort Worth, Texas; and then food allergies, which is an allergy to a specific protein. So any combination of those occurs frequently. We often see certain infectious diseases like ringworm in younger cats, but they can infect a cat of any age. Different types of mites can affect a cat in different ways. Ear mites and different skin mites are relatively prevalent in younger cats in particular. Skin cancer, unfortunately, is not uncommon in cats. There's a variety of different types, some benign and others malignant. Skin cancers occur more often in middle-aged to older cats. Those are the broad categories we come across frequently.

What causes skin conditions in cats?

There's a lot of genetic influence in the typical allergies we see. It's just something that's passed down, from cat to cat. Allergies are prevalent, and the exact cause in each individual case is hard to determine. Cancer has both a genetic and an environmental influence, with many factors coming into play. There's always ongoing research regarding cancer. Infectious diseases like ringworm are typically transmitted by another animal, from the soil, or from a human that's been in contact with another animal. There are many ways cats get infectious diseases, but it's usually through contact with another organism. These are broad terms of the big things we come across. We see a lot of skin infections in cats and dogs. Whether it is Staph bacteria or Malessezia yeast, it is not caused by catching it from other organisms. Secondary bacterial and yeast infections are the result of an underlying skin condition.

Allergies, mites, and ringworm are primary conditions that lead to a disrupted skin barrier and inflammation. That allows the bacteria and yeast that are already on your cat's skin, just like they're already on our skin, to overgrow. Realizing that bacteria and yeast are not the primary issue is an important distinction. They have to be treated and managed, but the underlying cause is the big issue that has to be managed.

Why is my cat so itchy?

In most cases, allergies are the cause. Different things can cause an itch. Primarily, you have the underlying condition. Suppose your cat has an allergy, like if they're allergic to a variety of pollens, your cat's immune system overreacts and causes inflammation. Inflammation for cats and dogs tends to manifest in the skin. That inflammation disrupting the skin barrier in combination with other factors causes itching.

On top of that, once your pet gets secondary skin infections, it leads to worse itching. The extent to which each layer causes itching depends on the individual situation. A combination of the inflammation because of the allergy and the secondary bacterial or yeast overgrowth cause itching. Sometimes there's no secondary infection, and it's just an underlying allergy or related condition that causes your cat to itch. Each situation is different, and because there are many things to tease out, it's important to have your cat evaluated by a veterinarian. In cases where the itching is difficult to manage, making the cats miserable, we refer to a board-certified dermatologist to get the best control possible.

We know allergies cause itchy skin in cats, but can anxiety or stress cause skin conditions or itchiness in my cat?

Yes, we do see that in cats. I will say that the overwhelming majority of itchiness in cats is related to an underlying organic skin condition. It is also often other issues in the body that are causing skin conditions. There's usually an underlying cause that's not behavioral. In some cases, cats that are stressed, anxious, or dealing with high levels of day-to-day anxiety will pull their hair out, not because they're itchy, but because they're stressed. It is difficult to determine the issue in those situations. First, focus on the common things that cause cats to do that. It is often a skin condition, but it's also important to understand that sometimes, especially indoor cats, are dealing with a lot of stress that's related to a lack of environmental, mental, and physical stimulation. Work through factors like inter-cat conflict or conflict with other pets in the house. Many behavioral things impact cats that sometimes lead to them pulling out their hair. These are complicated situations, so it's best to work through those things with your veterinarian to get the best results.

Could a grooming product I'm using cause skin conditions in my cat?

Not commonly. There can certainly be reactions to something you put on your cat. Even the best flea and tick preventions and the product we use will occasionally cause a reaction. That can't be avoided, but it typically occurs shortly after you apply the product, and it's not going to be ongoing. If you're using a product that your cat has a significant reaction to, like if they're itchy and their skin's red, and you continue to use the product regularly, it could be ongoing. I often get asked, "We bathed my cat a month ago, and it's still itching. Is it because of the shampoo?" It's possible, but if your cat's having skin issues, it's mostly because of an underlying issue like allergies instead of a product. That has to be discussed with your veterinarian because there can be reactions, but it's not common.

How can I care for my cat's skin at home?

It can be tricky because you can't readily bathe them, and it is very stressful for them. The best thing to do for cats with chronic skin and ear conditions is to identify the underlying cause, especially if it's recurring. Try to lower that itch level as much as possible and keep any secondary infection under control. Discuss it with your veterinarian and come up with a plan that makes sense. If you have a hard time applying anything to your cat skin, sending you home with a medicated shampoo, which we don't do very often, or even a medicated mousse that needs water to be applied, would be stressful for your cat. We won't ask you to do that regularly. We need to find a balance that works for what we want to accomplish.

We have great products that help keep the skin barrier healthy and reduce itch levels. Some products even reduce bacteria and yeast populations. Supplemental therapy includes special diets that provide additional nutritional support for the immune system and skin health. I'm a big fan of diets that include omega fatty acids.

You can do regular ear-flushing if your cat has a history of ear infections. There are many options, but we have to have a holistic approach. By that I mean that if you can't clean your cat's ears at home because they don't tolerate it, we need to find a different way or find an approach that gets your cat acclimated. At Summer Creek Animal Clinic, we have a trainer who is also a veterinary technician who provides cooperative care services. With these services, we help you get to a place where you can provide regular care by getting your cat acclimated to having their ears cleaned, taking a bath, or getting brushed. It's best to have these discussions with your veterinarian to come up with a plan that's logistically feasible for you.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.