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4 Common Cat Skin Allergies: Cat Owner’s Guide

cat laying on back with blue eyes staring upwards

Cat skin allergies aren’t always obvious, but they are more common than you think. While a cat can be allergic to anything, four common triggers are seen more frequently than others. 

We’ve put together this guide to help any cat owner better identify the causes and symptoms of cat skin allergies so that you can keep your cat’s health and happiness at optimal levels.

What Are Common Cat Skin Allergies?

When a cat with an allergy comes into contact with that allergen for the first time (either by inhaling it, ingesting it, or having it touch the skin), the body reacts by producing antibodies to help identify it in the future. The next time they interact with their allergen, your cat’s body quickly tells the immune system that there is an intruder. 

Histamine is then released, creating inflammation in an attempt to push the allergen out of the system — where most of the “traditional” allergy symptoms come from. 

Although the only way to know what your cat is allergic to is to pursue allergy testing through your veterinarian, four common allergens are most likely to cause problems. We’ll discuss each in detail.

Flea Allergies

Flea bites already make your cat itchy, but cats with flea allergies will take that itching to another level. This is known as flea allergy dermatitis, a condition where cats have an allergic reaction to the flea saliva left behind from a bite. 

Even a single flea bite can trigger this reaction, which is most frequently seen around the base of the tail. Flea allergy dermatitis can happen all year round (especially in warmer areas of the country) but is most likely to be seen in the late summer when the flea population is at its highest. 

Flea prevention medications can help reduce the risk. You can also regularly check your pet for any signs of fleas (like black flea “dirt”). Don’t be fooled into thinking that your cat isn’t susceptible to fleas just because they don’t go outside. Fleas can just as easily come in on your dog or even on your shoes, especially during the height of flea season. 

Food Allergies

Food can also trigger cat skin allergies, although they are less frequently diagnosed. Many of the symptoms of food allergies are similar to environmental allergies, with the main difference being they don’t ebb and flow on a seasonal basis. Most cats will develop food allergies before they turn two. 

Most commonly, cats will have an allergy to the beef, chicken, dairy, and fish protein by-products found in their food. An elimination diet may help pinpoint the specific trigger, but because most of those ingredients are prevalent in most commercial cat foods, many cats may need to be put on a prescription diet. 

Prescription low-allergen pet foods usually include novel proteins your cat hasn’t encountered before, like duck, rabbit, or venison.

Environmental Allergies

Like us, our cats are susceptible to allergic reactions to triggers found in their environment. These allergens can be year-round or just occur on a seasonal basis, so paying attention to when their symptoms happen can help more accurately pinpoint a cause. This reaction is known specifically as atopic dermatitis. 

The environmental allergens that cause atopic dermatitis are a large, diverse category, including dander, dust mites, mold, pollens, and household chemicals and detergents. Most of them will trigger a respiratory response, like sneezing. Immunotherapy via allergy shots administered through your cat’s veterinarian can help manage those symptoms.

Bacterial or Fungal Infections

Although bacterial and fungal infections aren’t cat skin allergies on their own, they can frequently mimic the signs and symptoms of one.

Ringworm is a good example of a fungal infection with symptoms similar to cat skin allergies. Although it’s called ringworm, the infection comes from a group of fungi referred to as dermatophytes. 

Some of these dermatophytes are zoonotic, meaning they can be passed from your cat to you. Symptoms include itching and scaly round patches on the skin.

Bacterial infections are a frequent side effect of untreated allergies, as the skin is left vulnerable if the skin is broken from itching. Staph is one of the common causes of bacterial infections in cats, which can lead to pyoderma (a purulent skin disease). These infections need to be managed by your veterinarian. 

What Are the Symptoms of a Skin Allergy in Cats?

The most obvious sign of cat skin allergies is itching, which can be localized (just in a specific area) or generalized (all over the body). If your cat does experience localized itching, it can lead to hair loss and, eventually, ulcers or open sores known as hot spots. 

These hot spots can also increase your cat’s risk of developing a secondary skin infection. If they have had a chance to heal on their own, you may just notice scabs under your cat’s fur when you pet them.

Cats can also exhibit respiratory symptoms of their allergies, especially if that allergen can be inhaled (like pollen). Clear discharge from the eyes and nose, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing are common signs of an environmental allergy. Still, they may also indicate an upper respiratory infection, so always take them seriously. 

Other than itching and respiratory symptoms, there are a few other signs to look for. For example, frequent ear infections can also signify that your cat may be dealing with a skin allergy. Look them over if your cat is scratching at their ears more than usual. Debris, discharge, and odor are common symptoms of an ear infection.

Cats with food allergies may also show signs of gastrointestinal distress, including nausea, vomiting, gas, and diarrhea. These symptoms are most likely to appear soon after your pet has eaten, so keeping a food diary can help narrow down the problem ingredient.

On rare occasions, an allergic reaction may turn life-threatening. This is an anaphylactic reaction, usually occurring within minutes of exposure to the allergen (often an insect bite or sting). Cats experiencing an anaphylactic reaction will go into severe respiratory distress, often drooling and vomiting. Emergency veterinary care is needed as soon as possible.

What Else Causes Cats To Have Itchy Skin?

Another trigger for itching in cats that many people aren’t aware of is anxiety. Cats can’t sit down and talk about what’s bothering them, so they find other ways to reduce the stress that they’re feeling. Often this comes in the form of repetitive behaviors, like over-grooming or repeatedly itching the same spot. 

Triggers of stress in a cat’s life can come from many different avenues, like separation anxiety or changes in their home environment. Because these causes are usually different from what we consider stressful, they can often be overlooked by even the most attentive cat guardian. 

However, once you can identify your cat’s triggers, you can start making the necessary changes to help reduce their anxiety and restore peace to your home. Parasites are another less cause of itching in cats. 

Two of the more common parasitic infections include mange and scabies, both of which may be able to be passed from pets to their pet parents. Both infections must be seen and managed by your veterinarian. These infections are extremely itchy and can lead to hair loss all over the body. 

Dry skin can also cause your cat to be itchier than usual. You may notice white dandruff flakes or a lack of shine on your cat’s fur. Dry skin can sometimes result from a poor diet, including your cat not getting enough of the necessary fatty acids they need to support healthy skin and coat. 

If the dry skin all seems to be centered on your cat’s back, it could also be related to a change in mobility or weight that has impacted their ability to groom themselves appropriately. You may need to help them by brushing areas they can’t reach and scheduling them for a check-up to rule out any underlying conditions.

The Bottom Line

Cat skin allergies can range from mild to severe, depending on how frequently your cat interacts with the allergen. Managing your cat’s symptoms and helping keep them comfortable is crucial for their quality of life. 

Unfortunately, because our pets can’t tell us what’s triggering their itching, it’s up to us as pet parents to notice the signs and get them help when they need it. Luckily, they more than pay us back with the unconditional love and companionship they give us!

Sources:

Fleas of Cats – Cat Owners | Merck Veterinary Manual 

Allergies of Cats – Cat Owners | Merck Veterinary Manual 

A broken heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients | Tufts 

Pyoderma in Cats – Cat Owners | Merck Veterinary Manual  

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