Just like humans, cats can be prone to dry skin; this can have an impact on the overall condition of not only the skin but the fur as well. The skin contains thousands of sebaceous glands which secrete an oil (known as sebum) to keep the skin lubricated and moist.
There are many causes of dry skin on cats which may be due to systemic disease, dietary or parasitic or external factors.
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland, usually caused by a benign tumour)
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
- Kidney disease
- Food allergy
- Food intolerance
- Poor diet (low in omega-3 fatty acids)
- Dry air (this is more common in the winter months)
- Poor grooming (this is common in sick cats or the elderly)
- Frequent bathing and using harsh shampoos
- Patches of dry, flaky skin.
- Itching and scratching.
- If your cat has ringworm, you will notice circular, raised patches with hair loss.
Itching is one symptom of dry skin; however, an itchy cat doesn’t necessarily have dry skin. There are several reasons your cat may be itchy which you can read about here. Sometimes the two conditions do in fact overlap, and the dry skin and itching are due to an underlying medical condition. This is why it is important to see your veterinarian determine if your cat has dry skin, and why, or if he is itchy for another reason, such as parasites etc.
As you can see, several conditions can cause dry skin in cats. Your veterinarian will check your cat thoroughly and obtain a medical history from you. The age of your cat, accompanying symptoms (if any), and history of diet can all give your veterinarian a clue as to the cause. Dry skin in older cats, especially if accompanied by weight loss can be indicative of kidney disease or hyperthyroidism (which is quite common in middle-aged and older cats). Older cats are more prone to arthritis and general loss of mobility and may experience difficulty grooming themselves. If your cat is itchy, he may have a food allergy.
Your veterinarian may wish to perform some medical tests to assess the overall health of your cat & check for underlying medical conditions, which may include:
- Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis – To evaluate the overall health of your cat and check organ functionality and imbalances.
- Allergy testing – If he suspects your cat is suffering from an allergy he may wish to perform an intradermal skin test. An area of fur is shaved, and your veterinarian will inject a minute amount of common allergens into the skin to see how the cat responds.
- If a food allergy is suspected, he may choose to put your cat on a novel diet (such as duck) for several weeks to see if the dry skin and other symptoms subside. Your cat will then be re-introduced to his usual diet, and if the symptoms return, it is suggestive that the cat is allergic to something in his diet.
- T4 testing to evaluate for hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
- Skin scraping test to check for parasites.
Address the underlying cause:
- Hyperthyroidism: Radioactive iodine, surgery or prescription diet.
- Hypothyroidism: Hormone replacements.
- Kidney disease: Prescription diet and supportive care.
- Food allergies or intolerances: Avoid the ingredient and change to a hypoallergenic diet.
- Allergies: Removal of the allergen if possible.
- Malnutrition/poor quality food: Switch to a premium brand of food.
- Parasites: Medicated shampoos or dips to treat ringworm. Wash all bedding and decontaminate the environment.
Treating dry skin:
- If your cat is elderly or has trouble grooming himself, daily grooming can help to improve the condition of his skin and coat. Grooming increases blood supply to the skin.
- Don’t bathe your cat as often and if you must bathe him (I have found this unnecessary in all the short-haired cats I’ve had), use a shampoo formulated for cats with sensitive skin. Never use human shampoos or soaps on cats.
- Increase humidity in the home, especially during winter when air can become very dry.
- Your veterinarian may recommend supplementing the diet with omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish oils.