You may be familiar with the itchy, flaky annoyance better known as dandruff. No matter what you do, it can seem like relief is out of reach. Unfortunately, for our four-legged friends, dandruff can also be a real issue. Cat dandruff affects more felines than you may imagine. In fact, pet dandruff is so common that there are countless companies that produce anti-dandruff shampoos and other related products. Yet, many pet parents find themselves wondering what causes dandruff in the first place? Is there a way to prevent the itchy irritation? Could it possibly be a sign of something more serious than merely dry skin?
In this article, we will cover all the important points you need to know about cat dandruff. While it may simply be a case of an itchy annoyance, it may also be a telltale sign that your feline is suffering from any of a number of things, from dietary allergies to intestinal parasites. In order to treat dandruff, we must first determine what is causing it. Let's get to it!
What is Dandruff?
So what exactly is dandruff? Dandruff is a condition in which dry, dead skin cells develop and then flake from the cat's skin. More often than not, cat dandruff is accompanied by constant itching and skin irritation.
There tends to be a bit of a stigma regarding dandruff. Many humans with dandruff often feel insecure and yearn for some sort of relief. However, cats don't seem to mind the flaky patches, unless of course, the dandruff is causing undue irritation. When cat dandruff causes your feline to scratch uncontrollably, skin damage can become a real concern.
A bit of dandruff every now and then is likely nothing to worry about. However, it is important to figure out what is causing it, particularly if the dandruff is persistent and extensive.
What is Dander?
We want to note that cat dandruff should not be confused with cat dander. The two terms represent very different things. Dander occurs from the normal, healthy dead skin that your cat sheds. Cat dander is what people associate with allergies and should not cause the cat to be itchy or uncomfortable. Conversely, dandruff is an abnormal shedding of dead skin cells which, unlike dander, is accompanied by either extremely dry, irritated skin or, at times, very oily and itchy skin.
What is Seborrhea?
The terms ‘dandruff’ and ‘seborrheic dermatitis’ are also often used interchangeably, although they are not entirely the same thing. Seborrhea is actually one cause of dandruff.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin disorder that may occur in both cats and dogs. The disorder arises when the skin's sebaceous glands produce an excessive amount of sebum, therefore resulting in dandruff, among other clinical signs. Seborrhea often causes a distinct odor, which worsens if a secondary bacterial infection or a yeast infection develops.
Cat Dandruff Symptoms
In order to accurately identify cat dandruff, it is important that pet owners know the leading clinical signs of the condition. As you will see, the signs of cat dandruff are very similar to the clinical signs of dandruff in people.
The most common and noticeable sign of cat dandruff is dry, flaky skin. If your cat has dark fur the flaky skin will be even more apparent. If your cat has thick fur, you may have to part their fur in order to see the flaking skin.
Red, Irritated Patches
Additionally, if dandruff is more severe, causing your cat to have irritated skin, you may find red, inflamed patches due to the constant itching and licking. Pet owners should be aware that the excessive itching can cause the delicate skin to break open and can quickly lead to the development of infection.
Cat Hair Loss
Additionally, constant itching and licking can lead to bald patches and hair loss. In such cases, getting to the bottom of what is causing your cat's dandruff is imperative, as it can lead to severe skin damage, as well as infections.
Thick, Scaly Patches
Cat owners may also, find thickened, hard, scaly patches of dry skin, accompanied by an excessive amount of flaky skin.
What Causes Dandruff?
Typically, cat dandruff is caused by one of five issues: allergies, dehydration, diet, other health issues, or parasites. In this section, we will cover these five main causes as well as additional possibilities to rule out.
We cannot stress enough the importance of diet. It is paramount to ensuring your cat's health and wellbeing and their ability to fight off ailments. Skin conditions, including dandruff, are often a telltale sign that your cat may not be receiving the necessary nutrients in their food. Often times, dandruff is a sign of a lack of omega-3 oils. Feeding your cat the best possible diet can help to prevent dandruff, as well as a slew of other health conditions.
Dandruff in cats can also be a telling sign of dehydration. If your cat isn't receiving the necessary amounts of water, the result can often show up as dry skin, and therefore, dandruff.
The weather can also affect dandruff in cats. If you live in an arid climate that is particularly dry, such as California or Arizona, dehydration can occur more quickly than you may expect. When it comes to inadequate hydration, dandruff will likely be the least of your concerns unless the issue is rectified in a timely manner.
If your cat has dandruff, it may be caused by a food allergy. Consider whether you have changed food sources recently. Does the onset of your cat's dandruff line up with such a change? Furthermore, cats can sometimes develop food allergies when they are given the same food continuously. Therefore, switching up their food may be all you need to do to clear up their dandruff.
Environmental allergies may be at the root of your cat's dandruff. Just like humans, cats can have allergic reactions to various plants, fertilizers, and even laundry detergents. If you have an outdoor cat, consider whether they may have gotten into something that is causing the skin irritation. If your cat stays indoors, consider whether you have recently switched the laundry detergent you use to wash their bedding, or if you have made any changes to the cleaning supplies used around the house.
Dandruff in cats can also be triggered by both external and internal parasites. External parasites such as fleas, lice, and mites will irritate the cat's skin, resulting in an allergic reaction and therefore, dandruff. The Cheyletiella mites particularly are known to cause even more damage (more on that in a moment).
Fungal and Yeast Infections
Ringworm and Malassezia dermatitis can also cause cat dandruff and may lead to hair loss.
Diabetes & Hyperthyroidism
Metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism, are known to cause feline dandruff, as well as a number of other signs. These diseases are more likely in cats that are middle-aged or older. Additionally, overweight cats and those with preexisting health conditions are also at a higher risk for metabolic disease.
Dandruff in cats can also be a sign of more serious conditions such as feline lymphoma, one of the most commonly diagnosed cancer in cats. There are various types of feline lymphoma, but they are all cancers of the immune system. When the immune system is weakened, skin conditions (such as dandruff) are likely to develop.
Just like people, cats are prone to sunburns, particularly on the more sensitive parts of their bodies like the nose, ears, mouth, and eyelids. Additionally, cats with light-colored fur or thin fur are at a higher risk for sunburn. When the top layer of the cat's skin is damaged by sunburn, it will become dry and flake off, causing dandruff.
Anxiety, provoked by environmental changes, can also cause the development of cat dandruff. We likely don't have to tell you that many cats can be highly sensitive. Even small lifestyle changes, such as moving furniture around, or bigger changes like a new addition to the family, can cause your cat to experience high levels of anxiety.
If anxiety is the reason for your cat's dandruff, it likely won't be the only sign. Anxious cats, even the most well-behaved, are known to shred curtains or have accidents outside of the litter box. If your cat is feeling anxious, make sure to give them some extra TLC. More often than not, their anxiety will subside with a little love and attention.
Cats who struggle with weight issues are also more prone to dandruff. We know how adorable chubby cats can be. However, overweight cats are not at their optimal health level. Additionally, overweight cats are unable to fully groom themselves, which can lead to skin issues. Obesity can often lead to diabetes, which is another potential cause of cat dandruff.
Old age is also a potential culprit of cat dandruff. As the cat ages, the skin begins to lose its elasticity and becomes dry. Dry skin, accompanied by reduced blood flow and occasional chafing can all result in a greater susceptibility to flakiness and dandruff in older cats.
Severe Dandruff: What Else It Could Mean
It is imperative that cat owners recognize that severe dandruff can be a sign of a serious condition known as "walking dandruff." Walking dandruff is a form of mange caused by the Cheyletiella mite. The condition should be treated by a vet ASAP.
How to Get Rid of Cat Dandruff
It is important to do all that you can to understand what is causing your cat's dandruff in order to accurately treat it. If dandruff is caused by a food allergy, an anti-dandruff shampoo clearly won't fix the problem.
In terms of treating dandruff associated with fungal infections, your vet will likely recommend a medicated cat shampoo. When it comes to mites and fleas, it is also imperative that cat owners wash all of their cat's bedding with hot water. Cat owners will also need to treat all other pets in the house with a flea preventative.
If your cat's dandruff is due to a sunburn, your vet may prescribe an oral or topical steroid.
If your cat's dandruff is associated with allergies, both food-related and environmental, your vet will likely suggest switching up their diet. Your vet may also recommend antihistamines or steroids to reduce the irritation while your cat's body adjusts.
Preventing Cat Dandruff
Now, once you have your cat's dandruff under control, you'll want to ensure that you prevent its recurrence. Again, it is important to figure out the initial cause of dandruff in order to effectively prevent it. However, if the underlying cause remains unknown, there are still several things that pet parents can do.
Grooming & Regular Brushing
One of the best ways to help keep your feline's fur dandruff-free is by scheduling regular grooming and brushing your cat on a consistent basis. Brushing will help to stimulate the production of natural oils in your cat’s coat and prevent the skin from becoming dry and flaky.
If you (or the groomer) are considering a lime sulfur dip for your cat, please seek your vet’s opinion first. Specific precautions must be followed with the use of such dips. In some cases, their use may make the skin condition or dandruff worse. In addition, care must be taken to prevent accidental ingestion, which can be fatal to your cat.
Bathing Your Feline
We know that this preventative measure may be a cat owner's worst nightmare. There aren't many cats who tolerate, let alone enjoy, bathtime. However, with some cats, regular bathing is necessary. (Don't panic! Bathing will likely only be necessary every few months) Cat owners may opt to purchase a natural, anti-dandruff shampoo if they know that their feline is prone to dandruff between baths.
Over Bathing: A Word of Caution
It is important to note that over-bathing can have the exact opposite effect of what you hope for. Be careful not to bathe your cat too often, as this can cause the skin to become even drier and lead to even more dandruff.
Hydration! Hydration! Hydration!
Another easy and effective way to prevent cat dandruff is to make sure that your feline is always hydrated. Ensure that your cat always has a fresh, clean water supply. Whenever possible, keep them indoors or in the shade during peak hours of the day when the sun can be particularly damaging and cause dehydration. Also, adding wet food to your cat's diet is a great way to help with hydration.
Additionally, an incredibly effective way to prevent skin issues is by making sure that your feline is being fed a well-balanced diet. Again, diet is so important for their overall health and wellbeing. Ask your vet which cat food is best and most appropriate for your cat's individual needs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
As we previously mentioned, dry and flaky skin is often a telltale sign that your cat's diet is lacking omega-3 fatty acids. In these cases, cat parents can add an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to their feline's meals.
Coconut Oil & Olive Oil
Adding coconut oil or olive oil to your cat's food are additional ways to ensure that they are receiving healthy fatty acids that will boost skin health. However, with coconut and olive oil, it is possible to give too much of a good thing. They both contain saturated fat. It is important to talk to your vet about the appropriate amounts of each oil that can be safely given to your cat.
Purchase a Humidifier
Your cat's environment can greatly affect their skin. If you live in an arid climate, or if you notice that the dry air is affecting your own skin, you may want to consider purchasing a humidifier. Humidifiers help to add water content to the air and can be a game-changer for both you and your cat.
Next, whenever possible, avoid any additional stressors in your cat's routine. Of course, we know that this is easier said than done. However, try to do your best to keep everything in your cat's home life as consistent as possible. If a major change is planned for the future, try to slowly introduce that change.
Additionally, pay close attention to your cat's overall health. Are they overweight? Are they getting plenty of mental and physical stimulation? Have you noticed any other clinical signs of disease or distress that need to be addressed? Cat dandruff can easily be overlooked and brushed off as no big deal. However, pet owners should not disregard the fact that it can be a telling sign that their cat's overall health is not where it should be.
Moisturize Your Cat
You may want to consider purchasing pet-formulated oils and lotions that help to moisturize the skin and combat dryness and irritation.
CBD Oil for Cats
There are also additional supplements that cat parents can introduce into their feline's diet. Our favorite? CBD oil for cats. CBD oil may help with seasonal allergies as well as support skin and coat health.
Cat Dandruff vs. Dog Dandruff
Pet owners who have both cats and dogs know that it is typically easier to get rid of dog dandruff. This is mainly because of the bath component. Dogs typically don't loathe bath time as most cats do. In fact, some dogs love to have a bath. However, it is important to note that if you do own a cat and a dog, and only one is experiencing dandruff, several causes can be ruled out, because the environment, weather, and anxiety (among others) will likely affect both animals.
Cat Dandruff: The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, we know that you want the very best for your four-legged companion. While cat dandruff can be a bit of a nuisance, it is rarely a cause for absolute panic. With that being said, it is possible that the white flakes are a warning sign of some other condition that we encourage you to take seriously. The good news is that your cat does not need to suffer from dry, itchy skin. There are plenty of safe, effective ways to treat and prevent cat dandruff and get your feline feeling like their best selves in no time!
Petal Smart is a veterinarian who, after a brief stint in clinical practice, has been a medical, veterinary, and science editor for the past four years. She has edited hundreds of research studies that have been published in various academic journals, and more recently, she has been editing blog articles on pet health. She holds a DVM (Hons) from the University of the West Indies - St. Augustine. Her pets in the past have included dogs, fish, birds, and a turtle. At times, she also likes to think of herself as a horse whisperer. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
*This article has been edited and updated for publication by Petal Smart, DVM.