Cat Atopic Dermatitis: Our Vet Explains How to Help Your Cat

Itchy cats are a common complaint in small animal practice. Many times, the cause of irritated skin in a cat is atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis in cats occurs when your kitty encounters an allergen in her environment. She may ingest, inhale, or contact a protein to which she’s allergic, and the immune reaction results in inflamed, itchy skin.

In this article, we’ll examine the different types of atopy in cats. We’ll go over the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of the condition along with what you can do to prevent it.

What is cat atopic dermatitis?

Also known as feline atopy or allergic dermatitis, atopic dermatitis in cats is a condition where your cat reacts to an environmental allergen and gets inflamed, itchy skin. It’s considered the second most common feline allergy after flea allergy dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis in cats occurs when a feline encounters an environmental allergen such as dust, mold, or pollen. Kitties may inhale, contact, or ingest the trigger protein and set off a cascade of events in the body. When a cat has atopic dermatitis, you may see

  • Constant itching
  • Recurring ear infections

close-up photo of a black cat with otitis and scratching dermatitis

  • Skin abrasions from licking and scratching

close-up photo of a black cat with otitis and scratching dermatitis

  • Hair pulling out in clumps

  • Changes in skin color

Types of atopic dermatitis (with pictures)

The primary characteristic of atopic dermatitis in cats is pruritus(itching). However, the condition can present in various patterns. 

Miliary dermatitis

dermatology disease at the cat scin with lots of red acne

When atopic dermatitis presents as miliary dermatitis, your cat will have millet-sized red bumps on the skin. The lesions are most common around the back, head, and neck.

Self-trauma with hair loss (alopecia)

Itchy cats tend to over-groom and may resort to hair pulling to ease their discomfort. As a result, you may notice thin hair or bald spots in patches. 

You may also notice scratches or other wounds on your cat’s ears or other parts of the body. 

Eosinophilic skin disease

When red blood cells known as eosinophils accumulate on the skin’s surface, it can cause significant skin problems for a cat. Some presentations of this type of dermatitis include

  • Plaques on the skin or mouth

  • Granulomas

eosinophilic granuloma in the mouth of a cat. Cat with oral tumor.

  • Indolent ulcers

eosinophilic granuloma in cat with allergies Langerhans cell histiocytosis

Recurrent otitis external (ear infection)

the veterinarian cleaning the ear of a cat with ceruminos otitis and vestibular syndrome

Dermatitis and allergies can trigger inflammation of the outer ear. The glands enlarge and produce excess wax, making the soft tissues thicker. As a result, the ear canal narrows. The condition causes pain and itching, and untreated can result in a ruptured eardrum.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Allergies can trigger the skin’s sebaceous glands to produce too much sebum. When this happens, the skin becomes flaky or scaly and very itchy. 

Regardless of the presentation, atopic dermatitis cat treatment is life-long. If your cat has atopic dermatitis, your veterinarian will tailor the treatment plan depending on the severity of the condition, your cat’s health, and how well your cat will comply with receiving the treatment.

What causes cat atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis in cats is an immune-mediated allergic response that causes inflamed, itchy skin. Cats and humans react to similar environmental allergens

  • Pollen from trees and grass
  • Molds
  • Weeds
  • Dust or dust mites
  • Certain plastics
  • Wool or nylon
  • Animal dander

What are the symptoms of cat atopic dermatitis?

With atopic dermatitis, cats tend to have characteristic signs. The symptoms may occur year-round or seasonally. You may notice:

  • Chronic or recurring itching

Cat scratching

  • Recurring ear or skin infections

Close up Infected wounds on the cat's skin injured on the body of a ginger cat and having to shave the hair to heal the wound from infection

  • Severe abrasions or scratches 

A large wound on the back of a cat caused by licking. This resulted in a hard ball of hair and extensive wounds.

  • Large patches of fur pulled out or licked away

Cat's body with slicked spots of receding hairline on the coat. Concept of infecting the skin of a pet. Alopecia and neurodermatitis on the animal's skin.

  • Changes in skin color

  • Miliary dermatitis

dermatology disease at the cat scin with lots of red acne

When should you call your veterinarian?

You should call your veterinarian when you notice signs of cat atopic dermatitis. The only way to properly diagnose and treat the condition is with a history, physical exam, and testing.

How will my vet diagnose atopic dermatitis in my cat?

When you bring your cat to the vet, the doctor will take a history that includes symptoms, diet, and changes in your kitty’s environment. After that, he’ll examine your feline and note any scratches, skin lesions, infections, or other signs. 

Once your vet has a presumptive diagnosis of feline atopic dermatitis, he’ll run diagnostic tests including:

  • blood work 
  • intradermal injections of suspected allergens
  • skin scrapings
  • fungal cultures

What does treatment for atopic dermatitis in a cat look like?

The treatment for atopic dermatitis in a cat varies depending on the severity of the disease, your cat’s health and compliance with treatment, and the owner’s willingness to follow the plan. Based on the diagnosis, your vet will likely recommend a combination of medication and lifestyle changes including:

  • Glucocorticoids or corticosteroids to ease allergy symptoms
  • Antihistamines at later stages to control seasonal flare-ups
  • Allergen-specific immunotherapy(allergy shots) has a 60-78% success rate 
  • Oral antibiotics to treat skin infections
  • Ear drops for otitis externa
  • Supplementation with omega-3 and 6 fatty acids to support skin health
  • Allergen avoidance measures such as air purifiers, changing bedding regularly, etc.

Treatment for cat atopy is almost always long-term management of symptoms. The initial cost of a diagnostic workup generally costs $400-800. Ongoing management tends to run about $30-100.

What are the cat atopic dermatitis treatment home options?

There are some treatments for atopic dermatitis on cats that you can use at home to ease your kitty’s symptoms. 

  • Medicated baths and shampoos may help with seborrheic dermatitis and secondary bacterial infections
  • Applying a solution of finely ground oatmeal and water to affected areas
  • Applying pet-safe ointments or skin moisturizer to soothe dry skin
  • Supplementing the diet with Omega fatty acids
  • Switching to dust-free litter and using air purifiers to reduce inhaled allergens

Some people recommend a cat atopic dermatitis clove oil remedy. However, clove oil is not safe for cats because it has compounds that feline livers cannot metabolize. 

What is the prognosis for cats with atopic dermatitis?

With ongoing management and regular checkups, most cats with atopic dermatitis have a favorable prognosis for a good quality of life. However, the condition tends to get worse over time and requires lifelong treatment to keep symptoms in check.

How can I prevent atopic dermatitis in my cat?

Unfortunately, there’s no preventative treatment available for atopy in cats. However, if you know your kitty has an allergy that triggers atopic dermatitis, you can stay alert and rapidly address flare-ups to keep your precious furbaby as comfortable as possible.

Frequently asked questions

Can a cat allergy cause atopic dermatitis?

Yes. environmental allergens cause cat atopic dermatitis. Felines usually react to the same allergens as humans such as dust, pollen, or molds.

Is cat atopic dermatitis painful for a cat?

Cat atopic dermatitis causes extreme itching and can be uncomfortable for your cat. If the skin inflammation and constant scratching or grooming lead to secondary infections or injuries, the lesions can become painful. 

Is there a cure for atopic dermatitis in cats?

There are currently no known cures for cat atopic dermatitis. If your cat has allergies that trigger skin reactions, she will need long-term treatment to manage the disease. 

 Are certain cat breeds more prone to atopic dermatitis?

Some studies suggest that certain pure breeds may have a genetic predisposition for developing atopic dermatitis. Implicated breeds include Abyssinians, Devon Rex, and domestic shorthairs. However, the studies are limited, and more research is needed.

How long does it take for cat atopic dermatitis to heal?

There is no cure for cat atopic dermatitis. However, with a treatment plan that’s tailored to your cat’s symptoms and underlying triggers, the symptoms may resolve and allow your kitty to enjoy a normal quality of life.  Corticosteroids or other medications can help skin inflammation heal in about 3-6 months. Antibiotic or antifungal treatments can help clear up secondary infections in a few weeks or more.

Can atopic dermatitis kill a cat?

Atopic dermatitis in cats is an allergic reaction that causes skin inflammation. Generally, the condition isn’t deadly to cats. However, without ongoing management and treatment, your cat’s incessant itching could lead to self-injury and infection. 

Author

  • Dr. Liz Guise, Veterinarian

    Dr. Elizabeth Guise (DVM) graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. She worked as a veterinarian in private practice for over two years before going to work with the USDA as a veterinary medical officer for 14 years.