Fleas aren’t the only cause of itchy skin in cats. The itching is just a sign and not a specific disease or medical diagnosis. If fleas aren’t the cause of your cat’s itchiness, a more detailed analysis is required to make a diagnosis.
Infections and allergies are common causes of itchy skin (pruritis) in cats. Cats can have food allergies, dust allergies, and an inherited skin allergy called atopy. Many skin diseases do not start with itching. However, itching may occur if these diseases are caused by secondary bacterial or yeast infections.
Successful treatment depends on the cause. Sometimes the reason for the itchiness is unknown, or a basic over-the-counter treatment does not lead to recovery. In which case, feline-safe prescription meds may be required, and/or your vet may suggest adding essential fatty acids to your cat’s diet.
Why Is My Cat Itchy With No Fleas?
If a cat feels any type of discomfort on its skin, it will automatically attempt to soothe it with scratching. A cat’s tongue is also very rough, which allows it to scratch its skin easily and clean the area of any possible irritants.
However, a cat that scratches itself too frequently or aggressively most likely has a medical problem that it cannot eliminate easily.
How to Tell if Your Cat is Itchy
In addition to excessive itching and scabs, scratching and chewing at the affected site, cats may have the following symptoms:
- Damage to the skin caused by too much scratching and biting
- Hair loss (often symmetrical)
- Unhealthy-looking coat or dandruff
- Greasy looking or matted skin and coat
- Dryness and flakiness of the skin
- Skin lesions and ulcers in many parts of the body, including the side of the mouth and between the toes
Keep in mind that visually obvious signs, such as lesions, may only develop once the condition has progressed.
1/ Food Allergy or Intolerance
When it comes to food, an allergy may lead to hypersensitivity in cats. However, it is also likely that the itchiness may be from a chemical reaction to certain foods, preservatives, or chemical additives.
However, replacing the diet with food that your cat hasn’t been exposed to before may help eliminate itching.
There isn’t an accurate laboratory test to confirm a specific food allergy in cats. Therefore, your vet will place your cat in an alternative, hypoallergenic diet, for 6 to 10 weeks. This will help to rule out food-response dermatitis in your cat.
However, this isn’t as simple as replacing one food brand with another as most ingredients in cat food are similar. Talk to your vet about the most suitable diet for your cat. This may be a diet with home-prepared food, or a special hypoallergenic diet.
Outdoor access cats may be fed by neighbors. They also may be hunting and eating small prey animals, such as mice and birds. Because this can complicate the trial, you may have to keep your cat indoors only and make sure no other foods are given during this period.
2/ Atopy or Atopic Dermatitis (Dust and Pollen Allergy)
Allergies to dust mites and pollen can be a potential cause of itching in cats. However, it can be challenging to diagnose such allergies and to know whether the disease is inherited.
Research in PLOS ONE shows that there are higher numbers of Staphylococcus bacterium in allergic cats than in healthy cats, indicating that allergies have a connection with the bacteria.
Atopy in cats is usually diagnosed by ruling out other possible causes of itching, such as parasites and food.
Cats with environmental allergies will typically show signs and symptoms early in their life. If your cat experiences its symptoms as the seasons change (seasonal itching), chances are it is suffering from atopy.
Over time, symptoms of atopy may worsen and last longer. Cats with year-round allergies may have food allergies or allergies to dust mites.
Your vet may perform allergy testing, such as intra-derma skin tests and blood tests, but the results aren’t always reliable.
Some cats may also be allergic to cleaning products and chemicals used in the house. Scented litter is another possible offender.
It can be challenging to determine the cause of your cat’s allergic reaction. However, once you remove the allergen from your cat’s environment, its itchiness should improve fairly quickly.
Keep in mind that atopy cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. Your vet may recommend adding anti-histamines and essential fatty acids to reduce your cat’s itching.
According to the Canadian Veterinary Journal, feline atopy requires life-long management with multiple treatments and lifestyle changes for the cat and owner. Your cat may be given long-term corticosteroids or other immunosuppressive drugs.
3/ Insect Bites
Bites from insects, such as bees and wasps, may lead to painful and inflamed skin. This may cause your cat to scratch its skin continuously.
The saliva from insect bites, such as flies, midges, and mosquitos may also cause irritation and itching of the skin.
Mosquitoes and other flying insects are likely to affect hairless regions of a cat’s body, such as the ears and nose, according to Veterinary Sciences.
4/ Nutritional Deficiencies
A diet that doesn’t meet all your cat’s nutritional requirements may lead to poor-quality skin and fur that may lead to itching.
Low-quality cat foods contain filler ingredients with little to no nutritional value to cats. They’re also much lower in protein and too high in carbohydrates.
Cats are obligate carnivores that require a protein-based diet. Because cats lack the ability to process too many carbohydrates, they may experience inflammation and itchy skin as a result of being fed poor quality cat food.
The higher the percentage of protein in cat food per portion, the better your cat’s skin will be.
If your cat has itchy skin, try feeding it an anti-inflammatory diet that is high in proteins and omega-3 fatty acids and low in carbohydrates and grains. Ideally, your cat food shouldn’t contain any grains, potatoes, and other starches.
Adding Oils to Relieve Itchiness
Omega-3 fatty acids are a vital part of an anti-inflammatory diet because they reduce inflammation throughout the body.
Omega-3 fatty acid sources such as salmon oil, krill oil, tuna oil, sardine oil, anchovy oil, and other fish oils help the skin retain moisture and strengthen its barrier to environmental irritants. This prevents dryness and flakiness of the skin, thus, relieving your cat’s itchiness.
You can also talk to your vet about adding coconut oil to your cat’s diet. Coconut oil contains lauric acid which lowers the production of yeast in the body. A combination of coconut oil and fish oil can help inhibit your cat’s inflammatory response.
5/ Ear Mites
Ear mites are the major cause of ear inflammation in young cats. In addition to affecting the ears, ear mites may wander onto the fur and skin around the head and neck region causing itching and irritation.
Furthermore, when cats sleep curled up, the infection may spread to the rump and tail as well, leading to pruritis in these areas.
Harvest mites can cause skin disease, especially during the late summer and fall. They’re dot-sized orange mites that can be visible to the naked eye.
When Harvest mite larvae introduce fluid into the skin, this causes a severe skin reaction to cats that are sensitive. The irritation usually leads to papules, reddening of the skin, and crusted areas of the skin.
The most commonly affected areas include the base of the ears (Henry’s pocket), the face (often the chin and around the mouth), the shoulders and the neck, the belly and around the nipples, between the toes, under the front legs and the vulva and the scrotum.
All areas with a thin covering of fur are at risk of being infected by Harvest mites. Scratching may relocate the mites and cause injury to the skin, resulting in bacterial infections.
6/ Bacterial and Fungal Infections
Bacterial skin diseases are not common in cats but they may occasionally occur after antibiotic therapy for pruritis.
Skin infections with yeasts are often secondary to allergic reactions of the skin. However, in some cases, the yeasts may also contribute to itchy skin.
Ringworm is a common condition that causes severe itching. It is a fungal infection that affects the skin, fur, and nails. Ringworm usually causes lesions on the skin that appear as bald, flaky areas with a red center.
Ringworm lesions are normally found near the tail or around the head and ears. Ringworm is a highly contagious infection. If you suspect your cat is infected, isolate it from other pets immediately.
Itching Caused by Skin Disorders
Skin disorders are among the most common reasons owners take their cats to the vet. Compulsive chewing at the skin, itchiness, and hair loss are a few ways cats react to skin inflammation.
Although skin disorders can be distressing to owners, they can be improved under the careful supervision of a veterinarian.
1/ Dry Skin
Dry skin can occur for a number of reasons, ranging from changes in the season to a poor-quality diet and environmental irritants.
However, if dryness and itchiness are accompanied by flaking, there could be a more serious underlying issue.
2/ Feline Acne
Feline acne isn’t as common as other skin disorders, but it can make your cat very itchy. Acne in cats may lead to blackheads (often on the chin), which progress to become red, inflamed, and itchy.
These can progress to become pimples and abscesses. When they rupture, they make the skin crusty and itchy. A ruptured pimple can lead to a secondary bacterial infection.
3/ Sun Damage
Sun damage can cause dryness of the skin, which can get itchy.
According to Veterinary Pathology, sun damage to a cat’s skin is most prevalent among white and other light-colored breeds of cats.
Cats with white or light-colored noses and ears are also vulnerable to sun damage in these areas. Cat ears are especially sensitive to sun damage, but the eyelids and noses can be affected as well.
Outdoor access cats have the highest risk of sun damage and sunburn. Therefore, if you have a cat that is susceptible to sunburn, you should consider keeping it indoors during hours of bright sunlight.
Itching Caused by Systemic Disorders
The following discusses several systemic disorders that are common in cats and may result in itchy skin.
1/ Pemphigus Foliaceus
This is the common autoimmune skin disorder in cats that causes itchiness of the feet. Other symptoms include:
- Crusty or scaly skin
- Lesions at the toenail bed
- Mild ulcerations
- Cracking or some overgrowth on the footpads
Treatment may include immunosuppressive therapy, including cyclosporine, glucocorticoids, and chlorambucil. In many cases, remission is observed with therapy.
2/ Feline Eosinophilic Granuloma Complex (EGC)
EGC is a group of inflammatory skin disorders in cats where the body produces too much of eosinophils (a type of white blood cell.)
It includes three different types of conditions that lead to extremely itchy skin lesions that can be worsened by the cat licking them:
- Eosinophilic Plaque
- Eosinophilic Granuloma
- Indolent ulcer
The above three conditions typically result in raised sores, lumpy sores, oval-shaped ulcerated sores, and masses. Wounds are usually found in the thighs, abdomen, the face or the inside of the mouth. Indolent ulcers may cause lesions along the upper lip in cats as well.
Corticosteroids are the most common treatment method for controlling symptoms of EGC.
3/ Cowpox Virus
Cowpox virus in cats is rare, but it may occur in cats that hunt small rats. The virus develops when a rat bites a cat.
Tiny ulcerated nodules may erupt in the region of the bite where the virus has entered the skin.
Cowpox virus is a highly uncomfortable, painful and itchy condition in cats and must be checked by a vet immediately.
Your cat may itch frequently at an area where a tumor is developing.
Owners must routinely examine cats for lumps and bumps. If you find anything unusual, take your pet to a vet to diagnose the problem.
Cat Scratching Due to Boredom and Anxiety
Some cats may compulsively scratch, lick, and chew when they’re bored, stressed, or depressed. This is more common in indoor cats, possibly due to getting less exercise and outdoor interaction.
Cats can also get distressed due to environmental changes, such as a new family member, loss of a family member, a new home and even changes in their litterbox or resting spaces.
If you notice any changes in your cat’s behavior, check if there have been any recent changes in its environment.
Too much noise from neighbors, a barking dog or a construction site nearby can also stress some cats and cause them to lick their fur constantly.
You can keep your cat from getting bored or anxious by giving it at least 15 minutes of playtime, along with plenty of stimulating toys/activities to keep it occupied when you’re not around.
Cat Scratching Due to Pain
Some owners mistake pain for itchiness because cats react the same way to both symptoms, by scratching and licking the painful area. If you notice your cat licking the same area repeatedly, it may be due to pain.
Research by PLOS ONE on the different behavioral signs of pain in cats found that they are likely to react to pain by overgrooming.
A veterinary checkup can help confirm the root of the problem. If pain is involved, your vet may prescribe pain medication. However, pain is often a symptom of an issue and not a diagnosis on its own.
Cats can scratch at themselves for a number of reasons, from poor diet to skin disorders and cancer. Sometimes, a cat may scratch its skin due to pain, boredom or stress and not actually itchiness of the skin.
Pay attention to your cat’s behavior and look out for any changes in its skin. The earlier that you detect the cause of itchy skin in cats that’s not fleas, the smoother the treatment process will be.