Skin problems in cats

When considering what might be causing our cats to scratch and have skin problems, we need to think small.


Fleas are by far the biggest culprit in feline skin problems or disease. They are responsible for the vast majority of all dermatological problems that we see in our cats today. Fleas have been around for billions of years and have probably been aggravating every warm blooded creature on this planet since evolution began.

Despite all our efforts and the modern drugs that have been developed to combat them, they are still causing problems. One of the issues is that not all cats are allergic to fleas. Some cats will exhibit no signs of having fleas even though they may have a lot, since they are not allergic. This makes it easy for them to transfer them to others. Some cats however have a severe allergic reaction to flea saliva and just need a bite or two to show severe signs.

Did you know…?

  • Fleas can transmit many diseases, including Bartonella, which can affect humans too.

  • Fleas can live for 100 days and produce 400-500 offspring in that lifetime.

  • Only 5% of a flea population is on the animal, the rest is in the environment e.g. your home.

Symptoms of flea allergy

  • Scratching with hind legs, especially around the head and neck

  • Sparse looking coat, especially on the back and trunk of the body

  • Many scabs on the back – typically 1 -2 mm crusts throughout the fur – feels rough

  • Bigger scabs on neck, which may look like small wounds.

  • Ulcers on lips and other plaque like lesions.

If a cat has a severe flea allergic dermatitis (FAD), then they might have secondary bacterial dermatitis which will need to be treated, as well as the underlying problem. Cats have very sharp claws and when they scratch themselves, they can do a lot of damage to their own skin allowing infection not only with bacteria but fungal and even other parasitic infections too.

Treatment for FAD always involves anti-parasitic treatment to tackle the entire flea life-cycle along with drugs to alleviate the intense irritation and often antibiotics to sort out the secondary infection. Often cats that suffer with this problem come from houses where there are a lot of other pets.  It is essential that a strict regime is instigated to eradicate fleas, eggs, larvae, and pupae from the house in order to treat the underlying cause. It takes 12 weeks to treat a flea infestation, some products work better than others, so do talk to our vets and nurses who will be able to advise you on the best products to use.

When fleas are not the culprits of skin problems

  • Food intolerance or allergy – occasionally some cats can become sensitive to their food. This can manifest itself by intense irritation, and often results in facial dermatitis (sores on the face and neck). Like dogs, cats can be given special diets to trial. However, if your cat goes out, it may be difficult to know they’re sticking to it!
  • Atopy (Atopic Dermatitis): Allergy to environmental factors such as pollen. This is often only diagnosed by ruling out all other possible causes. After which, ideally a blood or skin test is performed. In some cases trial therapy on steroids, or other drugs can be useful.
  • Insect bites: Cats, especially when young, will often get stung which can result in intense irritation and a resultant swelling. Mosquitoes can also bite and cause an allergic reaction and manic itching for a short time. In most cases, treatment is not needed unless the problem persists.
  • Other mites such as ear mites: They will cause your cat to scratch their ears and the ears may look dirty inside. These tiny creatures live inside the ear canal and are common in young cats. They are visible through an otoscope and are often picked up at your kitten’s first visit to the vet. Your vet will be able to advice how best to treat these.
  • Bacterial or fungal infections: These can occur but are usually secondary to other underlying problems such as Atopy, FAD or diseases affecting the immune system.
  • Over grooming: Some cats react to stress by licking themselves excessively. This can manifest itself as symmetrical hair loss around the legs and abdomen. It can also be due to a urinary problem where the cat licks itself to relieve discomfort arising from the bladder area – resulting in a bald tummy.

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