Those same little white flakes that sell millions of dollars of medicated shampoo to human consumers can afflict cats as well. Since a cat has hair all over his body, dandruff is easy to spot. Dandruff is actually dead, dried-out skin cells. It is usually the result of some sort of allergic dermatitis -- a reaction to something that makes the cat's skin dry, itchy or scaly. But don't confuse dandruff -- the result of abnormally dry or itchy skin -- with dander. Dander refers to normal shedding of dead skin cells, combined with proteins in the cat's saliva left on the hair and skin when the cat grooms himself. (Incidentally, dander, and not cat hair, is the cause of allergies to cats in humans.)
Obviously, a cat isn't going to be worried about anybody seeing his dandruff, but it's still important to figure out what's causing it and treat the problem. If left untreated, dandruff may be so uncomfortable that the cat scratches his skin raw, running the risk of getting an infection. Or the underlying cause itself can be dangerous.
However, it can sometimes be difficult to determine the cause of allergic dermatitis. It could be caused by a parasitic infestation, such as ringworm, ticks or mites. Sunburn can cause dandruff. Your cat could be sensitive to stress, or allergic to a new food or grooming product. It could even be due to something as simple as the air being too dry indoors in the winter. If you feel like the air is dry in your home and your skin feels dry and tight as a result, you can bet your cat is experiencing the same thing. Humidifying will not only get rid of the dry skin problem, but it will also cut down on static electricity in your cat's coat and reduce the likelihood of winter colds. This is the easiest fix for dandruff problems in cats.
Once you're treating the cause of your cat's dandruff, you can help him feel more comfortable while his skin clears up. Look for grooming products designed for cats with dry skin. If your cat doesn't tolerate bathing, you can at least use a lotion or step up your brushing routine to distribute the oils in your cat's coat. You may need to make a change in his diet or add a fatty acid supplement as well.
On the next page, we'll look at some more potential causes and remedies for cats with dandruff.
Causes and Treatment of Dandruff in Cats
If your cat has parasites, chances are he may have dandruff, too. Bites from fleas, lice and mites can all cause allergic dermatitis. One particularly nasty type, Cheyletiella mites, have been called "walking dandruff" since they're large enough to see with the naked eye but too small to distinguish detail. All skin parasites can be treated fairly easily, but in order to stamp them out completely, you'll have to treat all other animals in the home, the house itself and, sometimes, even the people. It's best to get help from your vet so you can get the most potent and fastest-working product available.
A cat's coat protects the sensitive skin underneath from the burning rays of the sun. But cats that spend a lot of time outdoors can still get sunburn, especially on the tips of their ears, eyelids, nose or lips. Any place where the hair is sparse is particularly sensitive. This is especially true of cats with white or very light-colored coats. Sunburn kills the top layer of skin, which dries up and flakes off (it can also lead to skin cancer). If you can't keep your cat indoors all the time, at least keep him indoors during the most intense period of ultraviolet (burning) sun rays -- generally from about 10:00 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m. If your cat has a sunburn already, use a hypoallergenic lotion designed just for cats (or ask your vet for one) to help cut back on the peeling skin and dandruff.
If dry air, parasites or sunburn don't seem to be the cause of your cat's dandruff, it's time to dig a little deeper. Have you changed his food recently? Given him some "people food" that he hasn't tasted before? Used a new grooming product? Experiment with taking away the new element to see if the dandruff clears up. Your cat may also be stressed due to things like changes in the household or something as simple as new carpet. It's important to remember that cats can be sensitive to what we would consider minor changes; try to keep his environment as calm as possible.
If your cat has severe dry skin and itching, your vet may prescribe antibiotics, antihistamines or steroids to help get him feeling better. Hopefully, those little white flakes will soon be a thing of the past!
- ASPCA. "Cat Care: Skin Problems." ASPCA. 2011. (April 14, 2011)http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/skin-problems.aspx
- Companion Animal Parasite Control. "Walking Dandruff in Cats." CAPC. 2011. (April 14, 2011)http://www.petsandparasites.org/cat-owners/dandruff.html
- Eldredge, Debra M., et al. "Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook." Howell Book House. Dec. 10, 2007.
- Nash, Holly. "Causes of Dry or Flaky Skin on Cats." Pet Education. 2011. (April 14, 2011)http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=1+2141&aid=207