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Pruritus (Itchiness) in Cats

By: Dr. Mark Thompson

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Pruritus or itching is an unpleasant sensation that causes a cat to scratch or bite at himself. It is caused by chemical reactions that occur in the skin and stimulate the nerves, causing the brain to feel the itch. In fact, the act of scratching itself may stimulate these inflammatory reactions in the skin and make the condition worse. Any skin condition that causes inflammation can cause pruritus.

How pruritis affects your cat's health depends on the degree of the pruritus. Mild pruritus may hardly have any effect at all. However, severe pruritis leads to intense scratching, which may result in painful skin lesions that may become infected.

Every cat has a threshold of pruritis or an "itch threshold." This is the point where all of the sources of itching finally add up to enough irritation to cause the irresistible urge to scratch. Scratching begins when the stimulation exceeds that threshold. For example, a cat with a mild allergy to house dust mites may be below the threshold but may begin to scratch severely when he becomes infested with fleas.

Pruritus is associated with other skin diseases, including secondary bacterial skin infections (pyoderma) and secondary yeast infections. But it is the main symptom of skin conditions like allergies and skin parasites.

What To Watch For

  • Scratching or biting. If this continues beyond one day and leads to lesions such as hair loss, reddening of the skin and obvious pain or discomfort, have your cat evaluated by your veterinarian.

  • Chronic licking of the feet. This is also a symptom of pruritus.

  • In cats, pruritus may be subtler and may present as excessive grooming. You may see thinning of the hair coat where the cat is licking or raised, crusty lesions (miliary dermatitis).

    Diagnosis

    Diagnostic tests may be needed to determine the cause of the pruritus. Your veterinarian will probably do the following:

  • A complete and thorough medical history
  • A thorough physical examination
  • Skin scrapings to rule out mange mites and other parasites
  • Fungal cultures of hair to rule out dermatophytes (ringworm)

    Treatment

    The key to relief from pruritus is to identify and treat the underlying cause. Pruritus may be temporarily relieved with medication but the itching often recurs after the medication is finished. Temporary relief may come from the following:

  • Antihistamines
  • Fatty acid supplements
  • Soothing shampoos
  • Corticosteroids

    Home Care

    At home your care will be aimed at preventing pruritis by keeping your cat's coat clean and brushed free of mats. Consult with your veterinarian to establish a complete flea control program. If your cat is being treated for pruritis, administer all prescribed medication and follow all your veterinarian's instructions.

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