Dealing with Dandruff

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As a veterinarian specializing in cats, I’ve examined many cats with temperaments that could be described as “a little flaky.” While I’ve grown to appreciate some of these flaky feline personalities, flaky haircoats are a completely different story.

Cats are fastidious when it comes to their appearance, meticulously grooming their fur to maintain a beautiful, spotless coat. However, on occasion, some cats will develop dandruff. In cats, dandruff isn’t a cause of social embarrassment like it is in humans. In fact, cats couldn’t care less. In most cases, dandruff is merely unsightly, although sometimes it can be an indicator of an underlying medical condition.

Dandruff explanations

The most common reason for dandruff, in my experience, is simply dry skin. Here in the Northeast where my practice is located, the winters can be fairly dry, and some of my feline patients will develop flaky skin simply from the low humidity.
(I’ve tried telling these cats to use moisturizer after bathing, but alas, they ignore me.)

Obesity is another common cause of dandruff. In overweight cats, the heaviest concentration of flakes is seen in the lower back region, the reason being obvious: These corpulent kitties are too chubby to reach the center of their backs when grooming!

Although most veterinary textbooks don’t list dandruff as a symptom of diabetes, a dull, dry, flaky haircoat is a very common finding in my feline diabetic patients. The major signs of diabetes in cats are excessive thirst and urination, weight loss despite a ravenous appetite and possible weakness in the rear legs. If your cat has dandruff plus some (or all) of the signs listed above, a prompt veterinary visit is in order to be certain that he isn’t diabetic.

Dandruff treatments

Treatment of dandruff in cats is based on the cause. Dandruff is the least of a diabetic cat’s problems. Cats with diabetes should be fed a prescription diet designed for diabetic cats, and most cats will require insulin injections as part of their therapy. As the diabetes comes under control, the dandruff usually resolves as well.

Overweight cats should be put on a diet. Prescription diets for weight loss can be of the high-fiber/low-fat variety or the high-protein/low-carbohydrate variety. Both diets are effective; however, the high-protein/low-carb diets are more suitable for cats, as they are true carnivores and weren’t designed to handle too many carbs. Also, diets that are low in fat can sometimes induce or exacerbate scaly skin.

After evaluation, if your veterinarian agrees that the cause of the dandruff is simply dry skin, there are several options for treatment. Mild cases can be ignored; a few flakes are no big deal. Combing your cat with a flea comb (a comb with teeth that are very close together) is usually effective in removing flakes from the coat.

Cats who are moderately scaly often respond to bathing with “keratolytic” shampoo (one that dissolves flakes), and most veterinary offices carry these shampoos. (One should bear in mind that the percentage of cats that enjoy being bathed is approximately … zero.)

Giving a fatty acid supplement rich in omega-3 fatty acids often reduces or eliminates dandruff and usually improves the coat’s general appearance, although it may take a few weeks to see the full effect. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are available in many forms, such as capsules, liquids and treats. Because these fatty acids are derived from fish oil, you’d think that cats would love these supplements, but in my experience it’s hit-or-miss. Some cats love them, but quite a few (perhaps as much as 40%) are repelled by the taste and will refuse food to which these supplements are added.

If there’s no underlying medical disorder, then kitty dandruff is just an unsightly nuisance. Conscientious cat parents who want to be proactive in preventing dandruff should monitor their cat’s weight to prevent obesity, brush their cat regularly and consider using a humidifier during the cold, dry winter months.

It might be mites

I would probably be remiss if I did not mention Cheyletiella (pronounced “kyla-tiella”) in an article about feline dandruff. Cheyletiella is a genus of mites that can affect dogs, cats, rabbits and people. They live on the surface of the skin, completing their entire life cycle while on the host animal. Here are a few things you should know:

✤ The most common sign of Cheyletiella is itching and dandruff. Although the itching can be anywhere on the trunk, it is mainly concentrated on the back.

✤ Dry white scales are often present down the back.

✤ When a cat infested with Cheyletiella is examined closely, the dandruff can be seen to be moving, hence the term “walking dandruff” that is frequently used to describe the condition. The movement is actually caused by the mites moving around beneath the dandruff flakes.

✤ Cats can develop small scabs all over their body, and symmetrical hair loss can be seen along the sides of the body where the cat might be overgrooming from the itchiness.

Diagnosis is made by examining skin scrapings under the microscope. However, because the mites live on the surface of the skin, they may be detected using the “Scotch tape” technique, in which a piece of clear tape is applied to the scaly part of the skin, and is then stained and adhered to a slide for microscopic evaluation. Fortunately, is easily treated.

About the Author

Dr. Arnold Plotnick
Dr. Arnold Plotnick
Dr. Arnold Plotnick is the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a feline-exclusive veterinary practice on Manhattan’s upper west side. He is also an author of The Original Cat Fancy Cat Bible. Dr. Plotnick is a frequent contributor to feline publications and websites, including his own blog, Leisure Commando. He lives in New York City with his cat Glitter.

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