Skin allergies in cats

Skin allergies can make your cat’s life miserable. Getting to the root of the problem and implementing an integrative treatment plan is the best way to stop the scratching.

Few things are more annoying than a cat with skin allergies that constantly scratches and bites himself. But think how much more annoying it must be to him! When your cat is itching, his attempts to self-soothe through grooming and scratching exacerbate existing inflammation and traumatize the skin. A vicious cycle begins, culminating in the need for treatments to fight infection, quiet the immune system’s response to inflammation, and promote skin health from the inside out.

Common symptoms

• Pruritis: itching that causes licking, chewing, rubbing or scratching. Pruritis can result from allergies or be secondary to other associated issues, including infection and inflammation.

• Erythema: a red appearance to the skin that goes hand in hand with the inflammatory process and is caused by the release of chemicals (histamine, heparin, etc.) that cause blood vessels to dilate and become more permeable. This is part of the body’s complex attempt to promote an increased presence of white blood cells at the skin’s surface to direct immune system response.

• Warm skin: goes along with erythema, as leaky blood vessels permit more blood flow to the skin’s surface.

• Discomfort when touched: red warm skin has increased pain receptor sensitivity. Your cat will likely resent your attempts to touch the inflamed site.

• Oozing and scabbing: as skin cells, infectious organisms and bodily secretions collect on the skin’s surface, so will scabs. Leaky tissues permit water and blood proteins (albumins, etc.) to exit the body, which provides part of the matrix of scabs along with hair, cells, bacteria, yeast and other substances.

Skin allergies can have many causes

1. Ectoparasites

Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is the technical term for mild to severe skin reaction associated with flea bites. Flea saliva is extremely allergenic and can make a cat itch all over as a result of a single bite. Tick bites don’t tend to cause as immediate or severe a reaction, but erythema, oozing and scabbing will occur at the bite site and can cause pruritis. Other biting insects can also cause skin trauma, inflammation and secondary infection.

2. Infectious organisms

Bacterial infection is typically an overgrowth of organisms already living on the skin’s surface (staphyloccous sp, etc). Alternatively, a cat’s mouth (or that of another household animal) or the environment can serve as sources. Yeast and dermatophyte (causative agent of ringworm) have origins in the cat’s indoor or outdoor habitat or from the skin and hair of other animals. Bacterial and fungal infections are often found on locations of the body that are warm, dark and moist, such as skin folds, nail beds, between toes (top or underside of paw) and in ears.

3. Environmental factors

Tree, plant and flower blooms release pollen that can cause seasonal allergies. Grasses, dust mites, cockroach feces and fabrics (wool, etc.) are non-seasonal examples.

4. Foods

Proteins, carbohydrates, fats and other animal tissues can potentially induce feline skin allergies.

5. Metabolic disease and cancer

Hyperthyroidism, hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease), kidney and liver disease and cancer all affect the skin’s overall health. Although such conditions don’t directly cause skin allergies, they negatively affect the ability of the immune system to mount a normal response to allergens and infectious organisms.

6. Medication side effects

Some medications can cause secondary health problems. Methimazole (Tapazole), used to treat hyperthyroidism, can have side effects like facial pruritis (pawing/rubbing of the face) that could be mistaken for allergic skin disease.

Since there are so many potential causes of skin problems, it’s important that your cat be given an examination by a veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist so that a diagnosis can be achieved and the most appropriate treatment prescribed. A skin impression smear and skin scraping for cytology (microscopic exam) also yields important information that can greatly influence the type and duration of treatment. Additionally, baseline blood, fecal and urine testing function should be performed to check for organ abnormalities that can contribute to skin problems.

Controlling his allergies naturally

Grooming – Use a soft bristle brush or comfortable comb to remove excess hair and dander and improve the distribution of body oils across the skin’s surface. Groom on a daily basis and start early in life so your cat will look forward to his human assisted preening sessions.

Bathing – This is an excellent means of cleaning off a variety of agents causing skin irritation, including allergens and infectious organism. Look for a natural shampoo formulated for felines.

Environmental modification – To reduce ectoparasites (especially fleas), vacuum all carpets and upholstery, empty the vacuum canister, and wash all human and animal bedding at least weekly.

Ectoparasite control – Consult a holistic or integrative veterinarian for advice on safe and effective flea and tick control products.

Medications – Antibiotics, antihistamines, steroids and other medications may be needed on a short term basis to get your cat’s itching under control.

Nutraceuticals – Omega fatty acids (fish oil) can have an anti-inflammatory effect along with promoting a healthy phospholipid membrane barrier to keep out invading allergies and pathogens. Vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can contribute to a healthy immune system

Food elimination trial – This may be necessary and involves removing specific animal or vegetable protein and carbohydrate sources potentially contributing to skin allergies. The trial takes at least six weeks, requires strict oversight (no cheating!), and should be performed under veterinary observation.

Getting to the bottom of your cat’s skin allergies and managing them in an integrative way rather than merely suppressing symptoms with medication is the best recipe for success – and it’s much healthier for your kitty.