Dandruff in cats

Dandruff in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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At a glance

About: Cat dandruff is a common condition characterised by small, white flakes of skin in the fur. It is a symptom rather than a disease in itself and can due to external factors ea) or internal factors.

Causes:

  • Endocrine disorders (diabetes and hypothyroidism)
  • Allergies
  • Parasites
  • Dehydration
  • Low humidity

Symptoms: The most obvious signs are flecks of white skin in the fur on the face and along the back. It is more evident in cats with dark coats. Other symptoms will vary depending on the underlying cause.

Diagnosis: Complete physical examination and baseline tests to evaluate the overall health of your cat. Additional diagnostic tests will be necessary to determine the cause.

Treatment: Treat the underlying cause, increase hydration, omega 3 fatty acids, and moisturising shampoos can all help dandruff.

What is dandruff?

Dandruff is a common condition characterised by small, white flakes of skin in the fur and is a symptom rather than a disease in itself. It can be caused by external factors (such as seborrhea) or internal factors (such as diabetes).

Most cases of dandruff are harmless; however, if you notice an excessive amount of dandruff and/or other symptoms, see a veterinarian. Dandruff is more evident in cats with dark coats.

Causes

The cause of dandruff can be divided into the following categories, hydration, allergies, parasites, endocrinopathies and other.

Allergies

  • Contact dermatitis – An allergic skin reaction caused by your cat coming into contact with an allergen or irritant such as soaps, shampoos, solvents, chemicals, plants etc.
  • Grooming products such as shampoos which can overly dry the skin.

Parasites

  • Demodicosis – A skin disease caused by the Demodex mite. There are two species to affect cats, Demodex cati lives in the hair follicles, and Demodex gatoi lives in the surface layers of the skin. Demodicosis is rare in cats and is seen most frequently in cats who are immunocompromised or malnourished.
  • Cheyletiellosis (walking dandruff) – Infection with the Cheyletiellosis mite can give the appearance of dandruff in the coat.

Fungal infections

  • Ringworm – A yeast characterised by circular, flaky patches of skin and hair loss.
  • Malassezia – Another type of fungal infection, which results in crusty, flaky areas of skin and a strong odour.

Endocrine disorders (endocrinopathies)

  • Diabetes – A metabolic disease in which the cat’s body doesn’t respond adequately to insulin, which prevents glucose from entering the cells.
  • Hypothyroidism – A rare endocrine disorder where the thyroid gland doesn’t produce adequate amounts of thyroid hormone.

Low humidity

  • Dry winter air is low in humidity which can dehydrate the skin.
Other
  • Seborrhea – A skin condition caused by the overproduction of sebum an oily substance which is produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin. This skin disorder has several possible causes from including diseases, poor diet, and parasites.
  • Poor grooming – This is often caused by elderly cats who are often arthritic and find grooming painful or obese cats who are no longer able to groom properly.
  • Old age – When cat ages, the skin becomes drier due to a decline in sebaceous gland activity which moisturises the skin. Reduced blood flow to the skin can compound the problem.
  • Sunburn which causes damage to the skin, causing it to peel off.

Clinical signs

Dandruff in cats

Dry, itchy, flaky skin are the most common symptoms of dandruff, it is usually most commonly found on the face, along the back and the base of the tail, however, any part of the body can be affected. Dandruff is most apparent on dark-coated cats and is difficult to see on cats with light coats.

Other symptoms of cat dandruff will relate to the underlying cause which may include:

A cat with dandruff should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Dandruff itself is not life-threatening, but the underlying cause can be.

Diagnosis

The veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you.

  • How long has the dandruff been present?
  • Have you noticed any other symptoms?
  • What is the cat eating?
  • Does the cat have any allergies?
  • Is dandruff present all the time, or does it come and go?
  • Is the cat up-to-date on flea control?

Accompanying symptoms along with your cat’s age may give your veterinarian a clue as to the underlying cause. Diagnostic tests will be necessary to reach a diagnosis.

Diagnostic workup:

  • Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis – These tests evaluate the overall health of your cat, including hydration levels, inflammation, infection, organ function, and electrolytes.
  • Skin scraping test – To check for mites or ringworm infection. A small patch of skin will be gently scraped from your cat, placed on a slide and evaluated under a microscope.
  • Tape test –  A piece of tape is placed onto the cat’s skin, removed and evaluated under a microscope to look for common skin parasites.
  • T3 and T4 tests – To measure thyroid hormone levels in the blood.
  • Skin prick test – This involves pricking the skin with multiple needles containing a small number of common allergens (pollen, dust, etc.), to try and determine the particular allergen involved.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to manage the underlying cause as well as increase moisture to the cat’s skin.

Treat the underlying cause

  • Medicated shampoos – Applied every three days until the condition is under control. There are different types of shampoo, depending on which form of seborrhea the cat has.
  • Diabetes – Diet alone can manage mild cases. If the cat is not ill and has no ketones, it may be possible to manage diabetes without the use of insulin. Commercial diets suitable for diabetic cats include Hills M/D, Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Diabetic and Purina DM. These are available in canned or dry, canned is always preferable.
  • Hypothyroidism – Treatment will depend on the underlying cause. Most cases of hypothyroidism are due to treatment for hyperthyroidism (increased levels of thyroid hormones due to a benign tumour of the thyroid gland). This includes reaction to radioactive iodine treatment, low iodine diet, thyroid gland removal and side effects of taking methimazole. In some cases, the hypothyroidism will reverse in time, or medications can be revised. If the cat has had his thyroid gland removed, supplemental thyroid hormones will be necessary.
  • External parasites – Anti-parasitic shampoos, dips or topical treatments to kill the parasites. Wash or discard all bedding. Treat all cats in the household at once to prevent re-infestation.
  • Ringworm – Medications, anti-fungal shampoos and/or lime sulfur dips. Treat all cats in the household as well as the environment as fungal spores can spread to surfaces and furniture.
  • Malassezia – Anti-fungal shampoos for mild cases, or oral Itraconazole or fluconazole for more widespread Malassezia.
  • Allergic cats – Avoid the source of allergies if possible. Some cats may require steroids and/or antihistamines to relieve symptoms. Your veterinarian may recommend hyposensitization to reduce the allergic response.
  • Arthritis – Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as glucosamine and chondroitin. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

Home care

  • Add humidifiers – These can help to moisten the air in the home, especially during winter when the air is dry.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids – Adding omega 3 fatty acids to the diet can reduce inflammation and relieve itchy skin due to allergies. Speak to your cat’s veterinarian before supplementing the diet.
  • Dietary – Feed a premium quality diet, preferably raw or canned.
  • Moisturising shampoos – The veterinarian or pet store can recommend a suitable product which is safe for cats, look for products which are oatmeal based. Cat dandruff is a condition characterised by small, white flakes of skin and usually has an underlying cause including allergies, parasites and dehydration. BE careful not to over-shampoo which can dry the skin out further.
  • Medicated shampoos – To treat severe dandruff, this must be a pet-specific anti-dandruff shampoo and not an anti-dandruff shampoo for humans.
  • Groom your cat – Some cats have difficulty grooming themselves due to old age or obesity and need help. Five minutes a day is all it takes in most cats, grooming will help to distribute the cat’s natural oils in the coat.
  • Moisturise your cat’s skin – Use a good quality, natural, unscented product. Most online or pet stores stock spray-on moisturisers designed for cats and dogs look for ones which contain oatmeal. Apply a small amount to your own hands and stroke it into your cat’s coat.
  • Encourage fluid intake – Switch to a wet diet and encourage your cat to drink more water. Switch to a water fountain type bowl which aerates the water or flavour the water with tuna juice. Change the water once a day and wash the bowl as unwashed water bowls can form a layer of biofilm which affect the taste of water.

Remember: Your cat ingests anything put onto the skin so only ever use non-toxic products. If in doubt, check with your veterinarian.

Frequently asked questions

Can I use an anti-dandruff shampoo to treat dandruff on cats?

No, the use of human anti-dandruff formulations such as Head & Shoulders is not safe for cats due to the risk of toxicity. Always use a medicated treatment specifically for cats.

How do I tell the difference between cat dandruff and flea eggs?

If the cat has fleas, both flea eggs and flea feces will both be present in the coat which has the appearance of salt and pepper. Stand the cat over a white piece of paper and gently rough up the coat to dislodge debris. Spray the paper with a small amount of water. If the debris is flea eggs and feces, red spots will appear which is dry blood leeching out of the flea feces.

What is the difference between cat dandruff and dander?

Dandruff is small, flaky pieces of skin caused by abnormally dry or itchy skin.  Dander consists of normal shedding of skin cells which are combined with protein in the cat’s saliva which are left on the skin from the grooming process.



Julia Wilson is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care.Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. She enjoys photography, gardening and running in her spare time.Full author bio Contact Julia