Why Your Cat Is Itchy and How to Help

Are you concerned about your cat’s constant itchiness? Itching, known as pruritus in veterinary terms, is a common complaint among cats. While it may be slightly more challenging to treat than in dogs, there are various options available to help your feline friend find relief. In this article, we will explore the causes of itchy skin in cats and discuss what you can do to alleviate their discomfort.

What Causes Itchy Skin in Cats?

There are three main categories of itchy skin causes in cats: infectious, allergic (inflammatory), and everything else. Infectious causes often stem from parasitic, bacterial, or fungal infections. Allergic causes are typically triggered by an overreaction of the immune system to allergens inhaled, ingested, or encountered by the cat. The “everything else” category includes a wide range of possibilities, such as inherited genetic diseases, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer.

To effectively manage your cat’s itchy skin, it is essential to identify and address the underlying cause. Your veterinarian will perform tests to determine the root of the issue, allowing for targeted treatment and improved quality of life for your furry companion.

Infectious Causes Behind Itchiness in Cats

When a cat’s skin becomes infected with bacteria, fungi, or parasites, itchiness is often the result. Testing for common skin infections is typically one of the first steps in diagnosing an itchy cat.


Ringworm is a common contagious fungal infection in cats. It can also be transmitted to humans, making it crucial to test for ringworm, even if it is not initially suspected.

Parasitic Infections

Parasitic infestations, including fleas, ticks, mites, and other organisms, can cause cats to become itchy. Many cat owners are surprised to learn that even indoor cats can contract flea infestations. Fleas are present in over 50% of itchy cat cases, particularly if the itching is concentrated near the base of the tail.

Your veterinarian will visually inspect your cat’s skin and fur, often using a flea comb to check for flea dirt. Skin scrapes may also be performed to detect the presence of mites. In some cases, treatment with flea and tick preventatives may be initiated before further tests if the itching persists.

Inflammatory Causes of Itchiness in Cats

Different types of allergies are responsible for the inflammatory issues that lead to itchiness in cats. The most common allergies in cats include food allergies, environmental allergies, and flea bite hypersensitivity. Contact allergies are rare but can also cause itchiness.

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Food Allergies

Contrary to popular belief, grain allergies are extremely rare in cats. Food allergies in cats are typically caused by proteins like chicken or fish. To determine if food allergies are contributing to your cat’s itchiness, a food trial is often recommended. During a food trial, your cat will be fed a hydrolyzed diet that does not trigger an allergic response. If the itchiness significantly improves during the trial but returns when regular food is reintroduced, a food allergy is likely the primary cause.

Environmental Allergies

Environmental allergies occur when cats inhale allergens, leading to allergic skin conditions known as atopy. Intradermal allergy testing can help identify specific allergens, although it is most useful in cases where hyposensitization therapy (allergy shots) is a potential treatment option.

Flea Bite Hypersensitivity

Flea bite hypersensitivity, or flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), is the leading cause of skin disease in cats. Cats with FAD exhibit severe itchiness, particularly in the rear half of their bodies, after being bitten by even a small number of fleas. Eliminating fleas from the cat and its environment is crucial to alleviate the itch associated with FAD.

Contact Allergies

Contact allergies can cause itchiness when cats come into direct contact with allergens such as certain fabrics, dyes, cleaning materials, plastics, or plants. Unlike environmental allergies, contact allergies can be easily avoided once the specific allergen is identified.

Everything Else That Can Cause Itchiness in Cats

If your cat’s itchiness is not attributable to infectious or allergic causes, it falls into the extensive category of other possible causes. In such cases, your regular veterinarian may recommend a referral to a veterinary dermatologist or perform further testing in-house, such as skin biopsies. If more extensive testing is not feasible, treating the symptoms alone may be an option, although it is less ideal.

Why Is My Indoor Cat Itchy?

Many cat owners mistakenly believe that itchiness is solely an issue for outdoor cats. While outdoor cats do face higher risks of parasitic infections, ringworm, contact allergies, and environmental allergies, indoor cats are not immune. Both indoor and outdoor cats can experience itchiness due to similar causes, albeit with varying likelihoods.

How Do Vets Determine Why a Cat Is Itchy?

When evaluating an itchy cat, veterinarians typically start by testing for skin infections. Common tests include cytology, skin scrapes, and ringworm culture. Once infections are ruled out or treated, further diagnostic tests may be performed to identify the underlying cause.

Biopsies, in which small samples of skin are removed for examination, provide valuable insights into skin diseases. Intradermal allergy testing, performed under sedation or anesthesia, helps identify specific allergens triggering the itch. In cases where further testing is not feasible, veterinarians may use a “response to treatment” approach to diagnose the cause based on the cat’s response to specific treatments.

What Can I Give My Cat for Itchy Skin?

Administering any medication to your pet without consulting your veterinarian is not recommended. However, there are a few measures you can take at home to alleviate your cat’s itchiness.

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Calming Bath

A gentle bath can provide relief for your cat’s itchy skin. Use warm water to wash away scabs, dandruff, allergens, and other irritants. Avoid using human shampoo products as they can be harsh on your cat’s skin. Instead, opt for shampoos specifically formulated for cats, containing ingredients like colloidal oatmeal or phytosphingosine.

If over-the-counter cat shampoos do not provide sufficient relief, consult with your veterinarian for recommendations on medicated shampoos tailored to your cat’s condition.

Human Allergy Products

Antihistamines, commonly used to relieve allergies in humans, are occasionally recommended for cats with itchy skin. However, their effectiveness in pets is not as significant as in people. Antihistamines may provide some relief in chronic cases but are rarely helpful for acute flare-ups. Always consult your veterinarian for proper dosing information before giving antihistamines to your cat.

Use a Cone to Prevent Scratching

Wearing an Elizabethan collar, also known as an E-collar or cone, can prevent your cat from excessively scratching or licking the affected area. By eliminating the source of irritation, you can effectively reduce itchiness. Use an E-collar temporarily to buy time between noticing your cat’s itch and scheduling a veterinary appointment.

Steroid Creams

The application of steroid-containing creams is generally discouraged due to potential side effects and the risk of worsening your cat’s condition. Steroid creams may suppress the immune response, allowing infections to worsen. Furthermore, cats groom themselves, increasing the likelihood of ingesting any product applied to the skin. Always consult your veterinarian before using any topical treatments on your cat.

What’s the Veterinary Treatment for Itchy Skin in Cats?

Veterinary treatment for itchy skin in cats focuses on addressing the underlying cause, whether it be infections, allergies, or other factors. Antibiotics and antifungal medications may be prescribed to treat bacterial and fungal infections, respectively. Steroids, administered orally, injectably, or topically, can help manage allergies. Additionally, hyposensitization therapy, food trials, and other specialized treatments may be employed depending on the specific diagnosis.

In cases where autoimmune diseases cause the itch, long-term control is achieved through immunosuppression. New research is exploring the use of Apoquel, a drug commonly used in dogs, for itchy cats. However, its efficacy in feline patients is still being investigated, and further experience and research are needed to recommend its use widely.

How to Prevent Itchy Skin in Cats

Prevention strategies aim to reduce itchiness or minimize flare-ups in cats already diagnosed with skin diseases. The most crucial preventive measure is to keep your cat on a flea and tick preventative throughout its life, even if it remains indoors.

Supplementing your cat’s diet with primrose oil and fish oil may provide some relief in conjunction with other treatments. However, their efficacy as standalone remedies requires further investigation.

Daily oral administration of antihistamines may reduce the frequency and severity of itchiness in chronically itchy cats. However, antihistamines are unlikely to prevent skin diseases in cats that are currently not itchy.

Some evidence suggests that daily probiotic administration may help prevent certain types of itchy skin conditions in pets. However, probiotics are not a cure-all for itchy cats and should be used under veterinary guidance.

By understanding the causes of your cat’s itchiness and seeking appropriate treatment, you can help improve your furry friend’s comfort and overall well-being.

Featured image: iStock.com/Nils Jacobi

This article is brought to you by Katten TrimSalon.