Cat Dandruff: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Remedies

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cat dandruff on a brush

It seems cats are always grooming themselves, giving themselves a shiny and slick hair coat. So why is it that some cats have big white flakes of dandruff along their backs? Why do some cats develop dandruff and what can be done about it? In this article, you’ll learn the details on cat dandruff and how to treat it. 

What is Cat Dandruff?

The skin is composed of many cells that are constantly being turned over, meaning as old cells die, new ones develop. Dead skin cells are known as dander.

Read More: Cat Dander: What You Need to Know

Most of the time, dander is so small that you do not notice it. However, if the skin cells are larger and they mix with the oil on the skin, they become flakes of dandruff.

Causes of Cat Dandruff

Dandruff is caused by a number of different conditions.

The most common causes of dandruff are environmental factors that cause the skin to dry out.

Dietary Causes

A poor-quality diet may not have high enough oil content or the wrong type of fatty acids making the skin dry and unhealthy. Long-haired cats that are shaved may develop dandruff because the guard hair coat has been removed and the skin is more exposed to a dry environment.

Poor Grooming

Some cats are not able to groom themselves causing dander and oil to build up. This is especially common in overweight cats that are not able to reach their back or in older cats that may have arthritis and are too painful to reach around to groom themselves.

Mites

Mites may cause dandruff

Mites, like the cheyletiella mites shown in this image, can contribute to dandruff in cats.

Skin mites can be a cause of dandruff in cats, dogs, and rabbits.

Cheyletiella mites live under the first layer of the skin and cause heavy scaling. The scales can sometimes be seen moving from the mites giving this condition a nickname of “walking dandruff”. Some animals infected with Cheyletiella may be very itchy but others are not bothered by it at all.

Although Cheyletiella mites prefer to live on cats and dogs, people can pick up the mites from their pets so it is important to treat this condition properly and under the guidance of your veterinarian. People should consult their physician if they develop a red, itchy rash.

Fleas

As the fleas bite the cat, the females are laying eggs throughout the skin. You may never see a flea on your cat as they tend to hide in the fur and your cat may swallow the fleas when grooming, but “flea dirt” is often visible throughout the skin.

Flea dirt is the excrement of the flea that the larvae feed on. It is small, usually in a C shape, and black in color but will turn into a rusty brown or red when wet because it is composed of digested blood.

Ringworm Infection

Ringworm causes dandruff in cats

A ringworm infection may also cause dandruff in cats.

Ringworm is a dermatophyte fungal infection that can infect any mammal, including humans. In most animals, ringworm causes round hairless patches that are red and itchy, but some cats will be carriers of ringworm, meaning the dermatophyte can be found throughout the skin and hair but does not cause solitary lesions.

These cats are often not itchy but will have flaky skin and dandruff. Ringworm is diagnosed either through a fungal culture or a PCR test that can be done through a veterinary laboratory. Ringworm can pass from a cat to a human very easily so this is another condition that is important to treat properly.

Allergies

Many cats with dandruff have allergies. In dogs and cats, allergies cause a breakdown of the skin barriers causing moisture to leave the skin and bacteria and yeast to travel deeper. In many cases the skin is itchy and your cat may have bald patches throughout her fur from licking and scratching.

Pets can have allergies to protein in their foods and/or environmental allergies such as dust mites, trees, or pollens. A veterinary dermatologist can perform allergy testing to help determine what your cat is allergic to and discuss different treatment options.

Treatment of Dandruff in Cats

how to treat cat dandruff at home

There are several ways to treat your cat’s dandruff at home, including dietary improvements and regular grooming.

Dandruff is caused by an underlying disorder with the skin and the only way to get rid of dandruff is to treat the underlying cause. It may be something as simple as brushing your cat a few times a week or changing your pet’s diet to higher quality food.

Start with brushing your cat daily to help remove dead skin cells and move the oils around the skin. You may want to switch to a higher quality food or add a fatty acid supplement.

If your cat is also scratching and/or if you are not seeing an improvement with regular brushing, make an appointment with your veterinarian to make sure your pet doesn’t have an underlying medical disease. Do not use over the counter shampoos or products for humans.

However, if there is an underlying medical cause, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian to come up with a treatment plan for your kitty.

Conclusion

Cat dandruff can be caused by many different things and there is no easy fix. If you notice that your cat is developing dandruff, isn’t grooming as much, or if there is a change in the haircoat, I would recommend contacting your veterinarian.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you treat cat dandruff at home?

The appropriate treatment for cat dandruff depends on the underlying cause. Brushing and dietary changes are both good places to start, but if your cat's dandruff is due to a medical issue, seek a veterinarian's help.

Why does my cat have dandruff on his back?

There could be a number of medical causes for dandruff along the back. The most common cause for dandruff just along the back is due to poor grooming habits. Overweight cats have a hard time reaching around to groom the back. Arthritis in the neck and back can make it painful to groom. Sick cats often don't have the energy to groom properly. 

Jennifer Shepherd, DVM

About Jennifer Shepherd, DVM

Jennifer Shepherd received her doctorate of veterinary medicine from Colorado State University in 2000. She completed a small animal medicine and surgery internship at the Ontario Veterinary College before entering private practice Dr. Shepherd owns Cloquet Animal Hospital in Northern Minnesota where she practices full time. In her free time she enjoys writing, photography, running and spending time with her husband, three children, two dogs, and one spoiled cat. She is pictured here with her best running dog Apollo, a Portuguese Water Dog who can’t swim but loves playing in snow.

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