If recurring skin problems plague your cat, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a pet dermatologist in order to identify and treat the underlying cause as soon as possible. Pet dermatologists are veterinary specialists specifically trained in the diagnosis and treatment of skin problems in cats, dogs, and other animals.
Why Cat Skin Problems Sometimes Require the Help of a Specialist
There are several difficulties to overcome in treating cats with skin problems:
- Concealment – One problem is that if your cat has skin problems such as itchiness or over-grooming they will try and hide their discomfort from you. Cats are predisposed to hiding pain or problems that make them appear vulnerable to predators. As a result, the problem may worsen before you are aware that your pet needs help. There’s an expression called “silent groomers” that refers to how cats with skin problems will lick themselves obsessively when they are alone and during the night when the family is asleep. This usually leads to signs of hair loss or skin lesions on cats, even though they may not seem to be in discomfort when around you.
- Diagnostic Difficulties – There are multiple types of skin diseases in cats that at first glance may appear identical as skin lesions and hair loss. Multiple causes of allergies can also lead to such identical signs. Skin infections, fungal infection, and self-trauma due to parasites or allergic reactions can all appear identical when skin lesions are observed. Pet dermatologists are specially trained to differentiate between these causes, select the appropriate test based on the symptoms’ presentation, and obtain a proper diagnosis.
Watch for Symptoms of Skin Problems
Once a skin problem starts to bother your cat, it has to be treated, and sooner is better than later. Stay alert to any hint that all is not well with your cat such as:
- Scratches more than usual
- Frequently shakes their head
- Nail biting or nail pulling is noted
- Skin lesions such as crusts or hair loss
- Constantly refuses to be petted
- Lack of appetite
- Constantly hiding from you
Any of these symptoms means he or she needs to see a veterinarian who will check for the common causes of skin problems such as infection, fleas, mites, etc. Once these causes are eliminated, your veterinarian may recommend a pet dermatologist to diagnose the underlying cause, such as skin allergies and other similar problems.
Pet Dermatologists Provide Specialized Testing and Treatment
If an environmental allergen is the suspected problem, a veterinary dermatologist will recommend appropriate testing for your cat. Two types of tests to help in evaluation of environmental allergies (Feline atopy) are:
- Intradermal skin testing –similar to skin allergy testing in humans, this test is conducted by injecting common environmental allergens into the skin of the patient in order to assess possible reactions to those indoor and outdoor allergens such as house dust mites, grass pollen, environmental molds and even human dander. The skin site is then checked for the degree of reaction to each possible allergen.
- Blood test – This is a serum-based test and it checks for antigen-induced antibodies in the blood that cause an allergic reaction. A blood sample will be taken from your cat and sent to a lab for testing, if this test is indicated.
- Combination allergy testing – In cat patients, combination testing utilizing the individual advantages of each of the above two tests may be required in order to obtain relevant information about a cats’ allergic skin condition.
If a non-environmental cause is determined to be the underlying problem, different sets of testing and treatments will need to be conducted in order to evaluate for other allergies such as food allergies or flea allergy dermatitis. Non-allergic conditions may need to be evaluated by testing and treatments such as:
- Video otoscopy (for deep ear infection and ear masses)
- Anti-itch medication (for patient comfort)
- Microscopic evaluation (for skin mites and bacteria)
- Dermoscopy (for evaluating cat hair and skin follicles)
When the allergen is identified, desensitization or allergen avoidance can begin. Allergen avoidance is the gold standard of treating pets with skin allergies. If avoidance of the offending allergen is not possible or does not lead to adequate improvement, allergy immunotherapy can be manufactured and injected into or given orally to your cat over a period of weeks or months until your cat becomes less sensitive to the allergen (i.e. desensitization of allergies). When indicated, allergen desensitization therapy is selected based on the patients’ individual needs in order for the treatment to provide maximal benefits (also called Allergen specific immunotherapy, or allergy injections, or allergy drops).
When a cat is suffering from a skin problem, a veterinarian will probably recommend consulting a pet dermatologist. You may also request your veterinarian to refer you to one. Your cat will be very grateful.
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Dr. Jangi Bajwa is a Board certified veterinary dermatologist at VetDERM Clinic in Surrey BC. He is also the dermatology feature editor for Canadian Veterinary Journal. Dr. Bajwa’s special interests include otitis and allergic disease in pets; as well as helping improve quality of life of pets and their families.