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.
Skin Conditions that Cause Itching in Cats
Environmental AllergiesA 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 AllergiesWhen 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.
Flea BitesFleas 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 ParasitesOther 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 BitesSometimes 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 MitesEar 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
RingwormRingworm 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.
Dry SkinDry 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 DamageSun 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 AcneFeline 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.
Feline Eosinophilic Granuloma ComplexThis 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
Pemphigus FoliaceusThis 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!
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 AnxietySometimes 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.
PainSometimes 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.
CancerUnfortunately, 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.