Flake-Free Felines: Treating Cat Dandruff Safely and Quickly

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 10 min read

Flake-Free Felines: Treating Cat Dandruff Safely and Quickly

Dandruff is a common ailment in people, so much so that we've all seen the commercials for shampoos and medications to help deal with it. What many people don't realize is that dandruff isn't limited to people; it can affect our fur babies as well.

In fact, if we think it's annoying when we've got flakes coming from our scalps, imagine the discomfort and irritation – not to mention the mess – of a critter covered in fur experiencing the same problem!

In this case, I'm talking about cats. Our precious feline friends are not immune to the elements or to disease. They can end up with dandruff just like people, and it's something you need to take care of as soon as you can.

Is Cat Dandruff Bad?

More often than not, dandruff is simply an annoyance and is not indicative of sometime more dangerous.

It's pretty much never going to be concerning enough to warrant a trip to the emergency vet. Instead, you'll want to call your vet and bring it up as something to talk about at your next regular appointment. If it's accompanied by other symptoms a first available appointment might be more appropriate.

A Cat With Dandruff Image by Toe Beans

If left untreated, or in severe cases, dandruff in cats can lead to some significant problems. Dandruff is caused by dry and irritated skin, and that can point to underlying conditions or environmental issues that are causing the problem.

Moreover, dry and irritated skin is, well, dry and irritating. Your fur baby is probably going to be scratching, licking, and picking at their skin, particularly in affected areas. Unfortunately, this tends to do more harm, and they can end up scratching themselves raw, pulling out their fur, or even giving themselves an infection if the skin cracks and bleeds.

There's also one other consideration allergies. If you or someone in your household or a frequent visitor are allergic to cats, what they're actually allergic to is a protein in a cat's skin and saliva. Well, when your cat has dandruff, they're going to be licking more than normal and shedding more skin than normal, which increases the amount of allergens in your home. It can overwhelm those OTC allergy meds making it pretty unpleasant for allergy sufferers to be around until the problem is taken care of.

Because there are varying causes of dandruff, from benign to serious, it’s always best to have your vet check it out to confirm nothing serious is causing the flakes.

“If an owner notices dandruff, it is certainly worth having the cat checked to rule out an underlying problem, especially if the cat has other concurrent problems. If the cat is itchy; losing hair; vomiting; has a change in appetite, water consumption, or litter box use; or if the owner notices skin lesions or parasites, it is worth a visit to the veterinarian.” – Dr. Lori Teller, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science

What Causes Dandruff in Cats?

So, what's the deal? Why is your fur baby suffering from dry skin and leaving flakes of shed skin throughout their fur and on the surfaces they spend time on?

There are a handful of different causes you might want to look for.

Primary Seborrhea

This inherited disease causes an over production of sebum in the skin. The excess oil causes the skin to become itchy and flaky over time. Generally primary seborrhea is diagnosed by ruling out all secondary causes, which we’ll get into next.

An imbalanced diet

One of the key ingredients a cat needs in their diet to keep their skin and fur healthy is fatty acids. A variety of different fatty acids are generally found in good cat foods, but if you're on a specific diet or you're making their food yourself, you might be missing an ingredient that provides the fatty acids they need.

Protein is also an essential building block in the hair growth cycle, so when adequate protein isn’t available, an abnormal level of oil can be produced leading to dandruff.

A dry environment

You've probably spent time in an area where it's dry, with little or no ambient moisture in the air. Your mouth dries out, your skin dries out, and you might end up with flaky skin issues. Your cat can suffer from the same thing, but the levels of humidity that can cause it are different. A winter home that gets heated too much or a summer house with a dehumidified air conditioner can both cause dry air that can lead to a flaky fur baby.

General dehydration

On average cats need a little under an ounce of water per pound of body weight every day. While it can be tricky to measure just how much your cat is drinking, if they aren’t drinking enough, they can end up with dry skin and a host of other more serious issues.

Examining Cat Dandruff Image by Toe Beans

Grooming problems

This one manifests as dry skin in localized areas where your cat isn’t really able to reach to groom themselves. The base of the tail is a big one, as is the lower back. If the flaking generally seems to stick localized in these areas, it may be due to a grooming limitation.

This is most common with elderly cats who have arthritis and no longer have the flexibility to get to those hard to reach spots.. It’s also a common issue with obese cats that have limited range of motion due to their size.

Case in Point: When my angel Moo was around 16 years old, I started to notice dandruff right at the base of his tail. Arthritis was preventing him from comfortably being able to reach and groom the area. The rest of his body was dandruff free.

Parasites

A bunch of different cat parasites, like fleas, Cheyletiella mites, and lice, can cause skin irritation, which can lead to dry skin and flakes. Ideally, you'll be able to tell pretty quickly if your fur baby has a parasite of some kind infesting their fur, but sometimes it can seem to spring up out of nowhere. This is also more common with indoor-outdoor and purely outdoor cats, for obvious reasons.

Allergies

Cats can be allergic to things just like people can. Environmental allergies are most common, so if your fur baby has the equivalent of hay fever or a dust or pollen allergy, they might end up with dry skin on days when the allergen count in the air is high. There's also the possibility that they're allergic to something in their food, though that's more likely to manifest as digestive troubles.

Hyperthyroidism

While weight loss despite a ravenous appetite is usually a common warning sign, a cat with hyperthyroid disease can also have a dry, unkempt, flaky coat. You may also notice increased thirst and urination.

Feline diabetes

Another serious condition on the list, feline diabetes can result in dry and flaking skin. Watch for other symptoms, like frequent urination, excess thirst, increased appetite, lack of energy, weight loss, and poor grooming.

You’ll notice there is a lot of the symptom overlap between hyperthyroidism and feline diabetes. Your vet can do simple blood tests to diagnose or rule out both of these diseases, so be sure to mention all symptoms when you talk to your vet.

Cutaneous Lymphoma

This is a type of cancer of the skin. While lymphoma is a common disease in cats, lymphoma of the skin is not, and therefore unlikely to be the cause of your kitty’s dandruff. However, cutaneous lymphoma can appear as flaky skin, nodules, and/or ulcers that with time can ooze fluid. Weight loss and digestive issues are also common signs.

Treating Cat Dandruff at Home

As with most ailments, determining the cause will give you the potential treatment options. Luckily, there are a lot of things you can try to see if they have an impact.

Evaluate their diet. If your fur baby isn't getting enough fatty acids in their diet and it's leaving them with skin problems, there’s a fairly easy fix. All you need to do is adjust their diet to get more fatty acids. You can do this in a few ways.

  • Find a food with higher protein content. It’s no secret that dry food tends to be high in carbs, leaving less room for high quality proteins. Switching to a wet food has two benefits, typically more protein, and more moisture, which is also essential for healthy skin and coat.
  • Find a different food that has more fatty acids in it. There are some foods with extra Omega-3s specifically for cats prone to skin issues. Look for foods labeled “skin & coat” or similar as they’ll likely contain what your kitty’s coat is lacking.
  • Get a fatty acid supplement. Don't just go buy the fish oil in the human vitamins section, though! You'll want a fatty acid supplement specifically formulated for cats, and you'll want to talk to your vet about dosage.
  • Try checking their food for potential allergens. If they're allergic to something in their food and it's causing skin problems, it's probably causing other health issues, too, so it's a good idea to swap foods if you can.

You'll also want to make sure they have a source of water they like. Some cats prefer drinking from moving water, so you might want to get a bubbler or fountain for them. Others just want fresh water over water that has been sitting in a bowl all day. If you do have a regular water bowl, make sure to clean it out and refill it with fresh water daily.

A Cat Drinking Water Image by Toe Beans

Related to diet, you should also help them stay a healthy weight. Obese cats end up with a ton of health issues, and their quality of life just isn't that good compared to cats in the right body weight range.

I get it chonky cats are adorable! The internet loves them, but the truth is those babies are uncomfortable in their own bodies and they need us humans to help keep them feeling their best and that means getting to a healthy weight.

Cats that are too skinny can face life threatening health issues, too. It's hard to say specifically what weight they should be – the range between smaller and larger breeds can vary a lot – but you should be able to talk to your vet about your fur baby specifically to determine their ideal weight.

For an overweight cat, this might require dedicated exercise or a change in diet and restricting what they can eat. Remember, you can't just give your cat a cleanse or a crash diet to lose weight – their little bodies are very sensitive!

"The cat's physiology is different than humans or dogs, and if they do not eat for as little as two consecutive days, they can develop a life-threatening form of liver disease known as hepatic lipidosis (also called fatty liver syndrome). Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and will likely recommend some diagnostic testing to ensure that there are no underlying diseases or obstacles to weight loss for your cat." - VCA.

You can also encourage exercise in a variety of passive ways. Play is a good one, but you can also replace a food bowl with an interactive feeder that requires moving it around to extract a bite, putting their food further away from where they hang out, and continually changing up these locations and habits so they always have to go on an adventure to find their snacks.

You will, of course, want to consult with your vet if your cat is overweight to ensure a safe level of weight loss each week.

You can also help groom your cat. Whether they're old, obese, or just aren't doing a great job, grooming is a great exercise. Get a brush and brush them regularly! This is bonding time, plus it helps distribute skin oils throughout their coat and can remove excess fur that isn't falling out naturally. In certain cases you may need to bathe your cat, especially if your vet prescribes a medicated shampoo.

Toe Beans Cat Brush Image by Toe Beans

Grooming is also a good opportunity for you to check on the health of their skin. If they don't like being brushed, it might indicate something beyond irritation and into pain, and you should get them checked out by a vet right away. Cats with arthritis often dislike being brushed over their hips because of their joint pain.

While brushing, you can also inspect their coat for fleas, mites, lice, and other nasties.

Considering the environment can also be important. If the dandruff problem is a recurring issue at a certain time of year, pollen or another allergen might be responsible. It also might be related to humidity. Getting a humidifier can help quite a bit – and will probably make you feel more comfortable too. Even reducing the level of heat in the winter can be helpful.

Stress can also lead to dandruff, so minimizing stress can be beneficial. Even something as simple as cleaning your home, or setting up an air filter to help remove potential allergens from the air, can be a good way to improve an allergy affected kitty’s coat.

If these simple changes don’t help your kitty’s coat improve, or if you see other concerning symptoms that we mentioned above, it’s time for that vet appointment.

What Might a Vet Prescribe for Cat Dandruff?

A vet will examine your fur baby and check for any underlying health issues that could be leading to dandruff. If those issues, like diabetes, are detected, then treatment will revolve around the diagnosis.

Vet Giving a Cat Medication Image by Toe Beans

Getting glucose or hormone levels back in balance can make a big difference in coat appearance and overall health of your kitty.

  • Antibiotics or antifungals. Sometimes, skin issues can stem from some kind of infection, and antibiotics or antifungals can help clear it up. Don't administer these without a prescription, and if you vet recommends them, ensure you finish the full course of treatment.
  • Medicated shampoo. There are a handful of medicated shampoos you might be asked to bathe your cat with. It probably won't be the most pleasant experience for you and your fur baby, but it may be necessary. Check out my grooming guide for tips on making bath time a more pleasant experience.
  • Antiparasitics. If your vet determines that fleas, mites, or another parasite is the cause, you'll likely be given a topical treatment to get rid of them. Luckily, these are usually a one time application and they begin to work quickly.
  • Antihistamines. If your cat is allergic to something and you can't really eliminate it from your environment, some antihistamines might be the solution. As always, talk to your vet about cat safe options.

In most cases, you'll be able to do something to clear up your furry friend's skin and get them back to their happy, perky self. Once that's taken care of, you can go back to enjoying your fur baby without having flakes of skin left all over the place!

Have you ever had to deal with a cat suffering from dry, itchy skin and dandruff? How did you end up treating it, and what did the cause end up being? Let me know in the comments!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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