Cats by instinct and nature are groomers. They love to clean themselves and lick their fur. However, if you aren’t careful, sometimes these behaviors could become compulsive.

Most often though, compulsive licking, scratching, and chewing occurs with certain breeds, such as the Siamese.

If your cat has never engaged in these behaviors before but is suddenly now licking, scratching, and chewing himself, it may not be so much a compulsion, but a reaction to an unknown underlying feline skin condition.

When cats over-groom themselves, they can end up losing their fur and create issues such as irritation and hotspots, open wounds, scabs, inflammation, and infections.

Unfortunately, until your cat starts showing visible signs like some of the above, it can be difficult to figure out whether your cat is engaging in normal grooming behaviors or excessive ones! Oddly enough, cats like to do their grooming business when no one is looking (we’ll call it top secret grooming), so it’s easy to miss when a behavior is becoming out of control.

Another problem in figuring out why your cat may be itching is because feline skin diseases can mimic each other in many ways and present with similar symptoms. So sometimes just looking and visually inspecting your cat doesn’t give you many answers or help you figure out the underlying cause of their itching. Here’s a quick overview of some of the more noticeable symptoms of itchy kitties.

Common Signs of Itching in Cats

  • Excessive scratching, itching, biting, and chewing, to the degree that causes damage to the skin.
  • Hair loss, often in a symmetrical pattern.
  • Dandruff coupled with a greasy looking skin and coat. These symptoms could indicate miliary dermatitis.
  • Skin lesions and ulcers that can affect various parts of the cat’s body as well as develop inside their mouth.

Unfortunately, once your cat begins to develop visually obvious signs like skin lesions, healing can take quite a long time.

That’s why it’s important to try to catch these signs and symptoms as early on as possible, so you can begin treatment right away and prevent further skin damage in your fur baby.

Skin Conditions that Cause Itching in Cats

Environmental Allergies

A cat that suffers from environmental allergies will often show signs and symptoms early on in his life. For instance, he may experience symptoms at the change of seasons, and then you may notice as time goes on that his symptoms seem to get worse and last longer.

Sometimes your cat can suffer from indoor allergens like dust mites. If this is the case, he can have allergy problems all year long, not just seasonally. Occasionally cats may even be allergic to cleaning products that you use in your home, or litter that contains perfume.

It can be difficult to pin down exactly what’s plaguing your cat, but once you do and remove the allergen, he should recover relatively quickly. 

Food Allergies

When a cat has food allergies, you may notice him start to lose hair around his face and neck, and sometimes other areas as well. Your cat could also suffer from vomiting or diarrhea, and even weight loss.

Foods like dairy, fish, chicken, and beef can all cause allergies in cats – even if they’ve never shown signs of an allergy before. Food allergies can come on suddenly with no rhyme or reason. The only way to nail down a specific food allergy and eliminate the trigger is to put your cat on a special hypoallergenic diet for 8 to 10 weeks.

However, this can be difficult, so your vet may try to rule out any other possible culprits for the itching condition before recommending such a diet. 

Parasites

Flea Bites

Fleas are one of the most common culprits of an itchy kitty, and thankfully are one of the easiest to diagnose.

You can sometimes see the fleas on your cat just with a visual inspection. If you can’t find the tiny insects, sometimes you can see little black granules, called “flea dirt.”

Flea dirt occurs when the flea digests blood and deposits it into your cat’s fur. This dirt can usually be found around your cat’s neck or at the base of his tail and his lower back. It is easiest to look for fleas and flea dirt on your kitty’s stomach, as there is less hair there and they are easier to find. It is a good idea to wait until your cat is sleepy before poking around his belly!

If you don’t see any fleas at all, the most likely scenario is that your cat has eaten the flea. When this is the case, you won’t find any evidence of fleas at all, not even flea dirt.

Even if you can’t find anything in these areas, it doesn’t mean your cat isn’t suffering from fleas. If your cat keeps scratching those areas, you might still want to try a doctor recommended flea medication just to be safe.

It’s also a good idea to treat your home because fleas can be brought into contact with your cat in a variety of ways, even through you.

Skin Parasites

Other common culprits to your cat’s itching problem are skin parasites. Parasites can cause very severe itching. Cats that may have contact with other animals outside or go outside on a regular basis are more susceptible.

Unfortunately, skin parasites such as mites can be difficult to diagnose. If you do find that mites are the problem, your cat will most likely need a topical parasiticide. Sometimes they may also need to be dipped in a lime sulfur solution. If you want to try to prevent your cat from picking up skin parasites, it’s best to keep your cat indoors and away from strange animals.

Insect Bites

Sometimes your cat may itch because he has been bitten or stung by an insect. Wasps and bees can cause pain and swelling, whereas flies and mosquitoes can cause massive irritation and itching.

More often than not, you’ll notice bites along the ears or the bridge of nose because insects tend to gravitate towards hairless areas.

Ear Mites

Ear mites can cause inflammation, especially in younger cats. However, they aren’t just relegated to the ears. Ear mites can move around and even spread to your cat’s neck and head or tail and backside. Ear mites are highly contagious to other animals.1

Ringworm

Ringworm is a relatively common condition, and it can cause some pretty intense itching. Ringworm is a fungal infection, causing problems, not with just your cat’s skin, but his hair and nails too. With ringworm, you may notice lesions on your cat’s skin. They may look like little bald areas that are red in the center, with flaky skin. Typically, you’ll find these lesions around your cat’s head and ears, or near his tail.

Ringworm is quite contagious, so if you suspect it, make sure you lock your cat up in a kennel away from other pets and wash your hands thoroughly.

Skin Disorders

Dry Skin

Dry skin has numerous causes ranging from environmental irritants, a cheap diet, to changes in the season. However, if your cat’s itchiness also presents with flaking, there could be a more serious underlying problem, and you should have your vet look into it.

Sun Damage

Sun damage is just as easy to develop in cats as it is in humans – especially when it comes to the white or light colored breeds, and cats that have white or light colored ears and noses.

Ears are particularly sensitive, but noses and eyelids are affected as well. Outdoor cats have a bigger risk of sunburn and skin damage than indoor cats, but all can be affected.

Feline Acne

Feline acne, although not as common as some of the other skin conditions can still make your cat itchy. This is a condition where your cat can develop blackheads, usually on their chin, that then progresses and turns itchy and red. When this happens, they can develop into pimples, then to abscesses that can rupture and become itchy and crusty. You also must be careful because your cat could develop a bacterial infection as a secondary condition.

Bacterial Skin Infection

This is fairly uncommon, but sometimes it happens. It can also coincide with a yeast overgrowth that can contribute to the misery of your itchy feline. Every time your cat experiences severe trauma to the skin from excessive scratching, he can be prone to infection. These infections are typically secondary to some other underlying cause.

Systemic Disorders

Feline Eosinophilic Granuloma Complex

This is a disorder where your cat produces an excessive number of a particular type of white blood cells called eosinophils.2 Three different types of conditions can result from this overproduction of eosinophils.

  • Eosinophilic Plaque
  • Eosinophilic Granuloma
  • Indolent ulcer

With each of these conditions, you may notice either round or oval-shaped ulcerated sores, raised sores, masses, or lumpy sores. These wounds are typically found on the abdomen or thighs, or their face or inside their mouth. Indolent ulcers can cause abscessed lesions along the upper lip as well.

Pemphigus Foliaceus

This condition causes your cat to itch his feet. It’s an autoimmune skin disorder and can present as crusty, scaly looking skin, mild ulcerations, pustules, and you may notice overgrowth and cracking on their footpads.3 Itchy and painful indeed!

Cowpox Virus

This is another rare phenomenon. It typically manifests in cats that like to hunt small rats. Cowpox Virus develops when the rat bites the cat.4 The virus enters the skin through the bite, and after a few days, you may notice little-ulcerated nodules pop up. These can be itchy and painful!

Miscellaneous Disorders and Diseases

Boredom and Anxiety

Sometimes cats will engage in compulsive licking, scratching, and chewing behaviors when he is bored, anxious, or suffering from a mental disorder. This seems to be more prevalent with indoor kitties, possibly because they get less exercise and interaction with the outside world.

Environmental changes, such as moving into a new home, or welcoming a new family member (whether four-legged or two) into the home can also be a cause for compulsive behaviors in your feline. It’s important for cats to feel loved and safe and comfy, and to receive plenty of exercise and stimulation each day to keep them from being bored and anxious.

Pain

Sometimes cats will lick, chew, and bite because they are feeling pain in a particular area. If you notice your cat seems to be doing this in the same spot over and over, it could be pain related.

Cancer

Unfortunately, with long-term and excessive skin damage, you increase your cat’s risk of developing skin cancer. Also, sometimes your cat may itch excessively due to a tumor that is developing that may be related to another type of cancer. It’s important to examine every bump or lump that you find, and confirm it’s nothing serious.

Treatments for an Itchy Cat

Depending on the condition and what is causing the itching, your vet may offer several treatment options. If your cat is suffering from fleas, your vet may prescribe an oral flea medication.

If it is a food allergen that is suspect, your vet may recommend a special diet to try to rule out the offending food.

Sometimes topicals can be used (such as creams), but if your cat is licking all the time, they can lick the medicine right off and render it useless.

Things like fatty acid supplements, antihistamines, sprays, and baths can sometimes be helpful as well but aren’t a guarantee. More often than not you may still need to resort to antibiotics and steroids, or other recommended treatments.

If you choose to use steroids like corticosteroids, the only drawback is that they can have side effects. Thankfully, cats tend to respond much better to steroids than humans do, but even still, they can be dangerous and lose their effectiveness over time if not administered and monitored properly.

References

1 https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/ear-mites-otodectes-in-cats-and-dogs

2 https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/feline-eosinophilic-granuloma-complex-in-cats

3 http://www.skinvetclinic.com/pemphigusfoliaceus.html

4 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1098612X13489212?journalCode=jfma

Comments (11)

  1. Lisa Shea says:

    My cat has mites and is losing alot of fur. He has been suffering for as long as I have. Which is two years now I have given him treatments of revolution. Also I wash him in silver lime dips and nothing is helping him. He scratches all the time and bites at his feet. I took him twice to the vet and she didn’t believe me. She gave him a steroids shot, but nothing is helping. Maybe you can recommend something else to relieve him? I also spray him with vets best flea and tick gentle mist spray. It’s made with peppermint oil and eugenol.

    • Sean says:

      Hey Lisa, that sounds really difficult! Are you sure that it’s only mites? Have you had her retested for mites after all of your treatments? It’s possible that this was the initial problem and there is an additional skin irritation factor like an allergy or intolerance to any number of household or environmental factors. She might be cured of the mites and having a reaction to something else. Best of luck!

  2. Ann says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I read The Ultimate Pet Health Guide by Dr. Gary Richter, M.S., D.V.M. He is a very highly rated veterinarian in the U.S.. We have had several cats with the same problem and have tried everything my regular vet recommended, steroids, creams, etc. Nothing was long term. In the book I mentioned above, Dr. Richter recommended giving cats 5 mg of Zyrtec every 24 hours. The cats have had amazing results! They are not 100% cured but close to it. Best of all they are not miserable and itching all the time and their fur has mostly grown back now. Zyrtec is Cetirizine and comes in 10 mg tablets so you have to break the tablet in half for the cat. He also says the dose is the same regardless of the size of the cat. Giving Zyrtec to dogs, however, is different. Dosage for a dog is 1 mg of medication per kilogram of the dog’s weight given every 24 hours Thought I should mention that encase someone else reading this thought it might be the same amount of Zyrtec for a dog. Sam’s Club has their own brand of Cetirizine(Zyrtec) and it’s much more reasonable then the brand name. Good Luck and prayers for your fur baby and that he finds relief soon from this nasty condition. Dr. Ritchter’s Book is well worth the small investment for the wealth of knowledge it contains for problems with your pets. It may even save you from going to the vet’s at times.

  3. Sumeja says:

    my cat is itching lower part of her mouth lately all the time, and the bleeding started to occur from time to timee, I took her to the vet but he wouldnt tell me what is the problem

    • Sean says:

      Sorry to hear that Sumeja, poor kitty! Cats often express their allergies through their skin, and scratch there until raw like you described. There is a chance this is a new allergy. Allergies to a protein like chicken or an environmental allergen like pollen can develop later in your cat’s life. You could try some different food that does not have chicken to start because chicken is a very common allergen. There are foods you can buy at the pet store like Natural Balance L.I.D. food that only use a “novel” protein that your cat may not have had before, like duck. Make sure the new food does not have any chicken (like chicken meal etc) and that your cat doesn’t get any treats with it in it so you can do a good test. It might take a week or more for the itching to clear up once you find the allergen. If removing chicken does not work, try the next major protein like beef or fish. Good luck to you both!

  4. Jess says:

    My new moved in a month ago, she had a bladder infection which is gone now. After that she was so itchy, so I treated her for fleas, the place I put the flea medication she scratched and now its a big open sore. I dont.know what to do. The vet is so incredibly expensive.

    • Sean says:

      Hi Jess, that sounds so terrible, poor thing! The same exact thing happened to my Zoe kitty with the spot-on treatment – her hair fell out and she scratched it raw. The hair never really regrew completely there.
      One idea would be to try a “cone of shame” and apply a triple antibiotic ointment daily to control infection. Some antibiotic ointments have pain relief built in which may help the itching. Also consider trying a flea collar next time instead of the spot-on treatment. These are all just ideas – no replacement for proper diagnosis from your veterinarian. -Sean & The Missing Link

      • Sean says:

        *Also, get a regular shampoo labeled for cats and wash her whole coat to get rid of anything on her coat that is still aggravating it. Not a flea shampoo, but it’s critical that it’s labeled for cats because they are so sensitive.

  5. Jess says:

    *cat Also she has pooped a couple times outside her litter box, I dont lnow what to do. I am giving her benedryl for itching but its so hard to get meds down her. Please help!!!!

    • Sean says:

      Ugh, so frustrating! She’s in distress is likely why she went outside the litter box. You can sometimes also use the 24 allergy stuff, though it’s not any easier to get down! Watch your fingers.

  6. Josie Medina says:

    Hi! I just wanted to add that I understand that it’s frustrating, the vet is super expensive, you want your cat to be comfortable and you lives to be normal again! But PLEASE REMEMBER, cats systems are VERY different than humans and dogs! Both people – and dogs – are able to take all kinds of medications! But cats cannot! For example, people and dogs can both take pain meds; such as tylenol, but if you gave a cat a small dose like you would a dog… there’s a very good chance that it could kill him/her. Cats have amazing little immune systems and are “healing machines!” They have incredible organs, pliable back bones that enable them to spring jump straight up into the air, 2 smelling chambers (like horses) that allow them to smell things 100 times better than people which is why they make that funny open mouthed face when they smell things sometimes, they have little hooks on their tongues that lets them lap up more water and clean fleas out of their fur! But they do not have a regular gag reflex like people do! It sure sounds like they do when they hack up a fur ball, but they don’t have the ability to vomit out toxins if they were to ingest too much medication. They also do not have the ability to filter out toxins like people do. For example, tylenol is very toxic, but people have the ability to filter it through their liver and kidneys when taken in acceptable doses. But anything over 4g or 8 capsules of tylenol can do serious damage or even kill a person. Cats do NOT have that filtering ability. NO AMOUNT OF TYLENOL IS SAFE FOR A CAT. In fact, NO AMOUNT OF ANY KIND OF PEOPLE MEDICATIONS ARE SAFE FOR CATS. If you’ve ever give a cat some medication without a prescription that was given to that cat; the cat was lucky to survive. And when people do this, they have no clue as to what the cat goes through as the medication goes through their systems. Often when people give cats over the counter people medication without a prescription specifically for the cat, they have horrible and painful symptoms such as heart attacks, cramping, breathing problems, dizziness, choking feelings, runny or dry noses, and a ton of other possible symptoms… but they can’t tell you. And since cats don’t dwell on problems like people, they just lie down – or walk around – and try to act normal. What an awful thing for a sweet, innocent, and beautiful creature to have to go through.
    So I BEG YOU PLEASE, no matter what your cat – and you- are going through; do not give them ANY MEDICATIONS WHATSOEVER UNLESS IT IS PRESCRIBED SPECIFICALLY TO THEM BY A VET (AND ONLY GIVE IT TO THEM AS PRESCRIBED).
    P.S. Please also note, sometimes the topical medications, creams, sprays, shampoos, flea and tick products, etc can actually make the problem worse! These things contain chemicals in them too! If you have given your cat a couple of treatments and the problem persists; STOP GIVING IT TO THEM! You’re just poisoning your cat at that point! You need to seek the advice of a vet or medical professional. I’ve noticed that all of you have made comments such as “the vet didn’t believe me,” or “I did what the vet said and it didn’t work,” or “the vet wouldn’t tell me what the problem is.” If your vet doesn’t believe you or won’t tell you what the problem is… you need to ask for clarification, otherwise, I would find a new vet. If what they suggest or prescribe doesn’t work, you need to tell them this so they can try something else!
    *There are veterinarians who specialize in CATS! They only see cats! They are typically not any more expensive than other vets, and will often give over the phone advice when possible. Also, if you let them know that you cannot afford to take your cat to them, they can either put you on a payment plan, charge you on a sliding scale based on your income, give you a credit loan for services, or refer you to a county low cost facility that provides medical care for pets.
    Last note: There are tons of medical insurance companies for pets now. I actually have medical insurance for my cat through my employer!!! More and more employers are offering this benefit, and it’s extremely inexpensive! Or you can just go online and look up medical insurance for cats. PetSmart has a provider in store that has an affordable plan for pets! It’s all worth looking into.
    Best wishes for you and you dear cat.

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