Home Care for the Cat with Itching or Scratching
Itching, also known as scratching or the medical term pruritus, is a common problem in cats seen in veterinary clinics. In fact, it is one of the most common reasons people take their cat to the vet.
What Is Itching in Cats?
Itching is the unpleasant sensation that causes the desire to rub or scratch.
What Causes Itching in Cats?
Itching is caused by stimulation of certain nerves within the skin by mediators of inflammation. Thus, any skin condition that causes inflammation can cause itching. The act of scratching may stimulate the release of inflammatory mediators and worsen the itching causing a vicious cycle.
Itching is a symptom that results from a variety of causes and many different diseases. Causes of itching may include:
- Allergies to fleas
- Skin infections
- Allergies to food
- Allergies to other inhaled substances
- Allergic reactions to insect bites or vaccinations
- Contact allergy
- Ear mites
- Ear infections
The health impact on the animal depends on the severity of the itching. Mild itching will have a minimal impact. Severe itching, however, causes intense scratching which may lead to skin lesions that are painful and may become secondarily infected. These animals will often whimper or cry out, or may have trouble sleeping.
For a full list of possible causes – go to Causes Pruritus in Cats. Pet owners commonly ask, “What can I do at home?”
Home Treatment or Care for Itching and/or Scratching in Cats
Specific treatments of Itching and/or Scratching are dependent on the cause. Here is the general approach to dealing with a cat with itching:
- Look at the skin. Examine the skin where the pet is itching the most. If it is the ears – you may notice red inflamed or smelling discharge in the ears which is consistent with an ear infection. That may be the cause of itching in that area. Licking of one are may be associated with a skin infection or lesion in that area. Itching everywhere with hair loss is most often associated with allergies or flea infestations. Look closely for fleas. You may see the live active flea or “flea dirt“. Flea dirt looks like small flakes of pepper and is actually the bowel movement of the flea.
- Check for fleas. If you can identify fleas, a soothing bath that kills flea and is safe for cats may be helpful. Flea prevention products would also be recommended. Home cleaning for fleas is also essential as for every flea you see on your pet- there are 200 in your home or yard in different life forms waiting to soon become an adult. If you only treat your cat – it won’t help as new fleas continue to jump on him. Cats with flea allergy tend to scratch their back ends leading to lesions on the rump, hind legs, tail, and belly. There may be few to no fleas seen on the cat since it takes just one flea to make the cat react. Flea allergy is the most common allergic skin disease in the United States.
- If you notice an ear infection – see Home Care for Ear Infections.
- If you notice areas of red inflamed skin – your pet may have a skin infection called Miliary Dermatitis. For more information – go to Miliary Dermatitis in Cats.
- If your cat has generalized itching, no fleas, no skin infection and no hives – your cat could be itching due to allergies. If you notice severe itching and you cannot take your cat to your veterinarian (which is recommended), then you may try the following:
Please note that home care methods that work in cats don’t work so well in cats. Cats don’t care to be bathed and don’t respond as well to over-the-counter medications such as Benadryl.
– Some cat owners will try to bathe their cat in soothing shampoo, however many cats hate to be bathed. Shampoo therapy can be very helpful in managing pruritus. Shampoos that contain colloidal oatmeal are soothing and since these shampoos are moisturizing, they can be used frequently without drying the skin. Some oatmeal-based shampoos contain topical anesthetics or topical corticosteroids that are very safe and further help to reduce itching. A shampoo with aloe and oatmeal and sometimes control symptoms. Use lukewarm to cool water. Hot water can often irritate the skin more.
– Medication should never be administered without first consulting your veterinarian. Please do not administer to cats without first consulting with a veterinarian to avoid toxicity.
– Have your pet examined by your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns.
– If your cat is being self-destructive – an e-collar is recommended. Some cats will chew themselves raw actually creating lesions. The e-collar is a cone that goes over a cats head, fastens around the neck and allows him to eat and drink but not lick and chew at his skin.
– cats with long term allergies may benefit from fatty acid supplements. These may help relieve pruritus by modulating the immune response and may be helpful for chronic pruritus. Certain fatty acids, such as eicosapentanoic acid found in fish oils, help to change the chemical composition of mediators produced during the allergic response, thereby making them less inflammatory. Like antihistamines, these products are not helpful for all animals, but are very safe. Some cats that do not do well on antihistamines may do well on a combination of antihistamines and fatty acids.
– This is important! If the itching continues, the skin is red and inflamed, or you notice the onset of other symptoms, call your veterinarian promptly. If your pet is not eating, starts vomiting, has diarrhea, acts lethargic, or any other physical abnormalities mentioned above, it is important to see your veterinarian. Your pet needs the professional care your veterinarian can provide. If your pet is having the clinical signs mentioned above, expect your veterinarian to perform some diagnostic tests and make treatment recommendations. Recommendations will be dependent upon the severity and nature of the clinical signs.
When Is Itching in cats an Emergency?
If the itching cause red inflamed skin, you see fleas you can’t control, or if your pet acts lethargic, doesn’t want to eat and/or starts vomiting, then medical attention is warranted. Please see your veterinarian!
When the above therapies are not effective, corticosteroids such as prednisone may be used and is a prescription drug. This class of drugs is very effective for itching induced by some skin conditions, but is less effective with others.
Itching and scratching can be a frustrating problem for pet owners because there are so many different causes and therefore, many different treatments. Thus, it is extremely important that the pet owner stay in close communication with their veterinarian until the problem is resolved.
- Administer all medications as instructed.
- Keep your pet’s coat clean and properly groomed.
- Observe closely for fleas. Flea infestation makes any pruritic problem worse.
- Observe for the appearance of new rashes, areas of hair loss, or other new lesions that may indicate secondary problems like pyoderma which could require additional medication.
Great Links for More Information on Itching in Cats
For more details about Itching, go to Itching and Scratching in Cats
Disclaimer: Advice given in the Home Care series of articles is not meant to replace veterinary care. When your pet has a problem, it is always best to see your veterinarian as soon as possible. But in some cases, it is not always possible to seek veterinary care. You could be traveling, it could be after hours and there are no 24-hour clinics near you, or maybe you simply can’t afford it. Whatever the reason, when your pet has a problem, you need answers. Most vets will not give you any information over the phone – they will tell you to bring your pet in for an office visit. So, when these difficult situations arise, many pet owners don’t know what to do – and they end up doing the wrong thing because they don’t have sound veterinary advice. When your pet has a problem and you can’t see your vet, the information in this series of articles can help guide you so that you will not inadvertently cause harm to your pet. However, this information is not a replacement for veterinary care.