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John McCoy of East Petersburg, Pennsylvania, turned to a professional groomer at Salty Dog Salon when he saw his cat, Charlie, scratching and licking himself bald in spots. Now, at age 10, Charlie gets relief with the help of an anti-itch shampoo bath every eight weeks.
A main cause of cats' skin and coat problems is allergies – reactions to flea saliva or inhaled, ingested or contact irritants. But because inflamed skin and hair loss can also be signs of other conditions, it's important to have your cat checked out by your veterinarian.
"Any cat who doesn't feel well will stop grooming, and his coat may become dry, dull and dandruffy," says William Miller, Jr., VDM, dermatologist and medical director of the Companion Animal Hospital at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Irritated skin is also a common sign of bacterial or fungal infections, he says.
The itch response arises when mast cells, most prevalent in the skin, including the lining of the ears and nasal passages, become irritated. This itching may be a histamine response triggered by allergens or inflammatory agents, causing further inflammation and itching.
"We've learned that many different diseases can cause the same skin lesions in the cat," Dr. Miller says, "including flea allergy, ringworm, bacterial infection and autoimmune skin disease."
A humidifier can remedy dry environments, which sometimes aggravate the itch response. Avoiding specific allergens or giving your cat allergy shots can work well when the allergy source is known.
But the basic treatments for itchy skin in an otherwise healthy cat are steroids, antihistamines, antibiotics and dietary changes. "Cats have higher protein (and) fatty acid requirements than other animals," Dr. Miller says. A protein deficiency, for example, could cause dry, brittle hair and flaky skin.
As most cat owners know, some scratching is normal. But if it seems excessive, it's always best to consult your veterinarian.