Cat scratching

An Itchy Cat Doesn’t Automatically Have Fleas

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This is a cautionary tale which relates to my dog, but can also affect cats. We share our home with a beautiful chocolate Labrador who has had ongoing issues with ear infections and general itchiness. She scratches, causes trauma, the veterinarian gives her ear drops and antibiotics to clear it up the ear(s), but the problem returns. Last week she sat there scratching, and I asked myself why she is still scratching despite being up to date on her flea medications and no other pets in the household displaying signs of fleas? As the saying goes, ‘if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ and every time a cat or dog would scratch, I immediately put it down to fleas.

I have written about the causes of itching and scratching but hadn’t followed my own advice. It’s too easy to blame fleas, and don’t get me wrong; they are a common cause of itching and scratching in both cats and dogs. However, allergies in cats and dogs often affect the skin, which causes itchiness and self-trauma due to constant scratching.

Once the penny dropped, we started Dizzy on antihistamines (with the okay from my veterinarian) and have put her on a hypoallergenic diet (Hills ZD). During this time, she can not have any other food, just the Hills ZD and a fish oil capsule once a day.

The improvement is beyond my expectations. She scratches 1/10th of the amount she used to, is happy to join me and our other dog for daily walks when she rarely showed an interest. We will keep her on the antihistamines for a short while longer, and she will remain on the hypoallergenic diet for six weeks, and then we will slowly re-introduce different foods to see if her symptoms return which is known as a challenge.

If the itching returns once the antihistamines are stopped and the diet doesn’t help, it will be time to look at other allergens. Common cat and dog allergens include pollen, mould, dust mites and storage mites. This will require skin patch testing, which involves shaving an area of fur and introducing a minute amount of common allergens to see if there is a response.

What should you do?

Fleas are still an obvious culprit when it comes to itchy cats. Only the adult flea lives on the cat, the remainder of the flea life-cycle is spent in the environment. So always make sure you treat both the cat and the home.

Keep a diary

Write down a list of all the symptoms your cat is displaying, the location of the itching, and when the symptoms occur. Is it seasonal or all year round? Does it happen at any particular time of day? What is the cat eating? Is the cat on any medications or supplements? What products do you use around the house? Were there any household changes before the itching started such as new carpets?

Keeping a diary can help both the veterinarian and yourself identify a possible cause.

Seek veterinary advice

If you have ruled out fleas, speak to your veterinarian and bring along the diary to identify other possible reasons your cat may be itchy.

Common causes of itching:

  • Fleas
  • Allergies
  • Ear mites
  • Ringworm
  • Ear mites
  • Notoedric mange (feline scabies)
  • Cheyletiellosis (walking dandruff)
  • Feline miliary dermatitis
  • Insect bite or sting
  • Seborrhea
  • Folliculitis
  • Malassezia
  • Skin infection
  • Adverse reaction to a topical flea product

Diagnosis:

Accompanying symptoms if any are present can help the veterinarian narrow down a possible cause. If allergies are suspected, the easiest diagnostic is to put the cat on a food trial. This requires no diagnostic tests, just a switch to a hypoallergenic brand of cat food or a novel protein, such as duck or venison, which most cats would not ordinarily have.

Diagnostic tests

The veterinarian has several tests to help diagnose the cause of itching which can include:

  • Woods lamp examination
  • Skin scraping
  • Fungal culture
  • Intradermal skin test
  • Fine needle aspiration
  • Biopsy




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