Skin allergies in cats: symptoms, causes and treatments

Everything you need to know about spotting a feline skin allergy – and how to help manage the problem.

If you’ve noticed your cat scratching more than usual, skin allergies might not be at the top of your list of suspects. That’s because allergies are a fairly unusual condition in cats, but if left untreated they can become extremely uncomfortable. Find out more about skin allergies in cats and what can cause them, in addition to some potential treatments to get your cat feeling in the best of health once more.

Skin allergies affect cats when they’re exposed to something in their environment that triggers an excessive immune response. These allergens could be in the air, like pollen; in your cat’s food; or result from parasites like fleas or mites. Your cat’s body releases histamines in response to allergens. Histamines then cause  irritation and inflammation that leads to an allergic reaction.

While allergies can affect any cat, they’re thought to be more common in certain breeds, such as the Devon Rex and Abyssinian.

Skin allergies in cats are usually caused by normal proteins found in animal, plant or insect matter, which cause a disproportionate immune response in certain individuals. They can be broadly split into the categories outlined below.

Flea-related allergies

Flea saliva contains specific antigens that can trigger an allergic reaction in some cats. This reaction is known as flea allergy dermatitis. Even a single flea bite can be enough to cause a severe reaction in affected cats, which can lead to intense itching and leave patches of raw skin.

Environmental allergens

Some cats may be allergic to pollen, house dust, mould and other environmental or airborne allergens. Household cleaning sprays, air fresheners and even some fabrics like wool can also trigger allergic reactions in some cats, although these are rarer. Seasonal skin allergies in cats will mainly be due to pollen, while for other allergens, symptoms may be present all year round.

Food allergens

Allergens found in food can cause skin irritation in addition to gastrointestinal upsets in cats. This type of skin allergy will usually be evident by the time your cat is five years old. While food allergies in cats haven’t been that well researched yet, common allergens include chicken, dairy, fish and beef.

Cats with skin allergies may show some or all of these symptoms:

  • Itchy, inflamed skin
  • Skin rashes, or red or raw patches of skin
  • Fur loss (alopecia)
  • Overgrooming, leading to a ‘bald belly’
  • Frequent skin or ear infections

If you’re concerned your cat is suffering from a skin allergy or other health condition, it’s important to consult your vet to investigate the problem. Feline allergies can be very uncomfortable for our pets and if left untreated, may cause serious infections.

Your vet will need as much information as possible before they can make an accurate diagnosis. They may take blood and skin samples for further analysis. Your cat may also be referred to a dermatologist for tests. Your vet will recommend a treatment plan designed specifically for your cat, which might include some of these options:

Flea allergies

Cats with flea allergies will need frequent treatment to prevent any fleas. Your vet may recommend the use of multiple products to reduce the risk of your cat getting bitten. You will also need to reduce the flea burden in the environment using environmental flea-control products and frequently clean your cat’s bedding and any soft furnishings they come into contact with.

Environmental allergies

It may be difficult to identify the exact environmental allergy that’s causing your cat’s issues. You may notice a high pollen count triggers a reaction – in which case, reducing your cat’s exposure by keeping them inside may reduce their symptoms. If the allergen can be identified, then immunotherapy may be offered. This involves injecting an allergy vaccine, to help reduce symptoms. Medicated baths may also help soothe irritated skin.

Food allergies

If food allergies are suspected, your vet may recommend a hydrolysed (thus low-allergen) diet, or a limited-ingredient diet, for your cat. Hydrolysed diets use proteins that have been broken down into smaller pieces, so your cat’s immune system should no longer recognise them as an allergen. Limited-ingredient diets exclude all ingredients your cat has eaten before. Once symptoms stop, other foodstuffs can slowly be reintroduced, with the hope of identifying the allergen by a process of elimination.

Once diagnosed, treating your cat’s skin allergy will usually help resolve any symptoms. To keep your pet happy and healthy, you may need to continue treatment throughout their life. This can become expensive – but the good news is that if your cat was insured with Petplan before being diagnosed, some or all of your costs may be covered.

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