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.

Cat Dandruff And Dry Skin

A lot of cats have dry skin, but not all of these cats will develop dandruff. There is usually an additional underlying cause leading to increased shedding of skin cells and flaky skin.

Causes of Cat Dandruff

Dandruff is caused by a number of different conditions.

The most common causes of dandruff are environmental factors that lead to unhealthy, flaky skin.

Dietary Causes

Omega-3 fatty acids found in certain oils help keep your cat’s skin healthy and the coat shiny.A poor-quality diet may not have high enough oil content or the wrong type of fatty acids making the skin dry and unhealthy.

Fish oils are an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids and feeding a fish-based cat food can help prevent dry skin that may lead to dandruff. Wet foods tend to have a higher concentration of fatty acids than dry kibble.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also available in many over-the-counter supplements. Before you add a supplement to your cat’s diet, be sure to speak with your veterinarian. Cats absorb fatty acids differently than people and your DVM will be able to pick the right one for your cat.

Poor Grooming

Cat owners are often surprised at how much time cats spend grooming. when cats groom, they are distributing the skin’s natural oils throughout the body, giving them healthy skin. 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.

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. Talk with your groomer to determine if shaving is necessary.

Mites

Mites may cause dandruff

External parasites, such as cheyletiella mites shown in this image, can contribute to dandruff in cats

Cheyletiella mites can be a cause of dandruff in cats, dogs, and rabbits. These mites may spread from pet to pet in your house.

Cheyletiella mites live under the first layer of the skin and cause heavy scaling and flaking of the skin. 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.

Many cats have an allergic reaction to flea bites, leading to extreme itchiness and hairless. In some cats, it only takes one or two fleas to cause a severe reaction, so even if you do not see a flea or flea dirt on your cat, your veterinarian will likely recommend treating your cat for fleas, especially if you have an outdoor cat.

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 natural oils around the skin. You may want to switch to a high quality wet food or add an omega-3 fatty acid supplement. A humidifier may helpful if you have dry air.

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 dandruff shampoos or products for humans.

However, if there is an underlying health problem, 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, seems to have dry skin, suffers from obesity, 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. If due to poor grooming habits,brushing and bathing with a special cat shampoo may help. Dietary changes, such as changing to a high quality wet food that is high in omega-3 fatty acids can help with dry skin and other skin problems. If your cat's dandruff is due to a medical skin condition, 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.

What can I give my cat for dry, flaky skin?

Dry, flaky skin may be due to a poor diet. Make sure you are feeding your cat a high quality cat food. An Omega-3 fatty acid supplement developed specifically for cats may also give your cat healthy skin and a shiny coat. It is important to note that coconut oil is not a good source of fatty acids for your cat.

What is the difference between cat dander and dandruff?

Dander is a term for the dead skin cells that all cats develop as their skin turns over. It is usually very small and not noticeable. Cats with dry skin tend to have more dander. Dandruff is composed of larger skin cells mixed with the natural oils of the skin. It occurs when cats have flaky skin and often has an underlying cause beyond just dryness.

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.

5 thoughts on “Cat Dandruff: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Remedies

  1. Deanna Knauff

    My cat seems to be obsessed with licking. He licks peoples skin, artificial flowers and plants, plastics, shoes, etc. If he goes outdoors he nibbles and eats grass. Otherwise he is a very nice playful cat. He will not eat wet food. I have offered nearly all brands and flavors and he just won’t eat them. He is Maine Coon mix, three years old and weighs 15 pounds. Why does he have this licking obsession?

    Reply
    1. Mallory Crusta

      Hi Deanna, that’s an interesting question! Your cat may just be curious or he may be showing signs of pica due to nutritional imbalances or as a behavioral issue. Consultation with a vet may shed more light on the issue.

      Reply
      1. Jennifer Shepherd

        Hello Deanna –
        I agree with Mallory. Consulting with a vet is a good place to start. As she said, it may be a nutritional imbalance. Other possible causes include stress/anxiety, allergies, or even a viral infection.

        Reply
  2. Cookies Kittens Pets4Homes

    Hi, I just wanted to leave a query! We currently have 2 cats, one calico Persian, and her son. Mum has had I think 2 flea treatments from the vets, as well as both the cats having at least 2/3 flea tablets (not all at once of course!) and also have had two different types of flea pipettes at home. None of these options had worked and they are still both scratching! We don’t tend to let them outside, as we had figured it may have been mum bringing the fleas home but nothing has really seemed to work. After reading this article, I have started to groom them more often, as they are longhair breeds, and I have seen some flaky residue on both of them. I hope you can help, what would you recommend we do? Thanks a lot!
    – Cookies Kittens | Cat Breeder

    Reply
    1. Mallory Crusta

      Hi there. That’s a good question. Are both of the cats currently on flea preventive? I’d think that something like Frontline Plus would be the most effective solution to keep fleas off of your cats long-term. You’ll still have to think about treating the environment, but a preventive will make it easier. This article on getting rid of fleas and flea infestations may help you to develop a complete approach.

      Reply

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