Recognise The Staring Coat: An Early Sign Of Cat Illness

Updated September 2, 2023

If you know your cat, there’s a sign of poor health that you can spot from across the room. But you have to get your eye in first.

It’s called a staring coat.

What Is A Staring Coat?

cat spiky hair

A staring coat is when the tips of a cat’s hair start to stick together, probably due to a buildup of grease. The hair doesn’t form a smooth ‘shell’ any more but is separated into rows or tiny clumps. It gives the coat a spiky, clumping appearance.

A staring coat happens very quickly when a cat stops grooming adequately. Every cat owner knows how much time their cat spends licking themselves, plus rolling and dust bathing. What they may not know is just how important these behaviours are.

healthy cat coat
A normal coat for comparison

While the staring coat isn’t a major health concern in its own right, it significantly reduces the insulating effect. It will also be associated with a buildup of dead hair, and increased parasite numbers in untreated cats. When this happens even a simple flea infestation can be serious.

The main issue with an ungroomed coat is that it might be a sign of something worse.

Why Do Staring Coats Occur?

There are six reasons why a cat might not be grooming enough:

oily clumping cat hair
  • Sickness: any illness will reduce the amount of effort a cat can put into their coat, often before other signs occur
  • Pain: musculoskeletal pain will reduce a cat’s flexibility, which is why a staring coat is a common sign of arthritis
  • Dental disease: a cat with a sore mouth will not groom as effectively
  • Stress: unhappy or anxious cats don’t spend time on ‘luxury’ behaviours like grooming (so you should be flattered that Tibby always wants to lick herself all over when she gets on your lap!)
  • Age: good grooming habits sometimes take a few months to develop, and so some kittens under 6 months old can have staring coats despite being in good health
  • Obesity: I’ve written before how dandruff is often associated with obesity, and staring coats are just the same: excess weight causes an inability to groom properly

What To Do If You Cat’s Hair Is Spiky Or Matted

tabby kitten

If your cat’s coat looks like any of these pictures, ask yourself if it has always been this way. If it hasn’t then you need to get your cat a checkup.

This kitten looks fine, right? That’s true from the front, but his coat is the one in the earlier photos. He’s actually fighting a respiratory infection.

Almost all cats with staring coats have something that needs attention. Anxiety is very treatable, as is weight control, as is arthritis in cats.

cat coat not shiny

Some might be normal, but we won’t know this without a physical or possibly blood tests. The purpose of this article isn’t to tell you what’s wrong, it’s to tell you there’s an abnormality and it needs investigation!

To finish up, here are a few more pictures taken all within a few days. Staring coats are everywhere when you look. However, I still don’t know why they ‘stare’- any ideas?

old cat coat
This was an arthritic cat before treatment

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

38 Replies to “Recognise The Staring Coat: An Early Sign Of Cat Illness”

  1. My cat has staring coat on her back and sides. Started out just on her back, a little, but now it has spread. She eats and poops and she is about l5 years old. She stays upstairs in my bedroom, but has her own cat room. We have two big dogs and they stay on the bottom floor. Because of the cold weather, they have been coming in a lot. I think this may be the cause, but I can;t catch her to take her to the vet. Also, can’t give her a bath. What can I do, Just wait for the days to get warmer, then the dogs will go out….

    1. Hi Donna. I’m sure you’ll find a way to get her to the vet if she lives inside, and that’s by far the best approach.

    2. I cannot catch her to take her to the vet. She runs underneath the bed. I have a cat carrier that is really nice. She only used it once, when she was a baby cat and I had her nails clips….

      Can I give her some kind of medication for her coat. It is getting worse every day.

  2. Hello,

    I’m Adrian. First of all thanks for the article and helping everyone out! You truly are wonderful and an enrichment for us all!

    My cat has developed a staring coat for some time now, maybe 1-2 years. But it was always just near the tail and went better after time. I also tried to help him out with cleaning it.

    He was always with my mother and me, but maybe he had a slightly better connection with me. I decided to travel Asia for 6 month, since it was always my dream. After I came back I almost didn’t recognized him anymore. The staring coat was over his whole body and he looked like his time was about to come. I’m sure my mother cared for him as best as she could, but since my Grandpa was hospitalized and she had to care for him and my Grandma, next to her work, our cat may have not gotten the amaount of attention he might had needed, I don’t know. He also seemed very distant to me, when I came back, although he seems to slowly open up again. I have to mention he is almost 20 years old now. I want him to get better or at least have him to be as happy as possible in his remaining time. He really hates going to the vet and attacks the vets. Last time they even had to give him something to sleep just for a simple check up.

    I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to stress him anymore, but I want to do everything I can to get him better.

    What do you think?

    Thank you for helping!

    1. Hi Adrian. He definitely needs a checkup and a blood test, so I would grit your teeth and do it despite the stress it may cause. The results may be life-saving. Talk to your Vets about a pre-examination dose of gabapentin too.

  3. Hi ! My name is Joanna I have 4 c
    cats from the same family and they are older now and beau-beau has gained weight and her fur is greasy and scruffy can I give her a bath at 12 yrs old she is coleco…
    she is special she had two black kittens and one red his name is el tigre, like in shrek…
    he is harrasing mom ,
    they were fixed under a catch and release program for stray cats but mine are not stray , just lower income

    1. Hi Joanna. I wonder if the cause is stress from her son. Generally relationships between cats and their offspring aren’t always harmonious.

  4. Hello
    My little Audrey (10 years) had had a staring coat for about 2 months now. She has been very anxious, running away from me, which is unusual. Normally she seeks me out for cuddles and play time. She stopped playing with her toys, which she usually loves. She lost a little bit of weight (she was going to her food bowls furtively, mostly when I was not around) but her appetite has improved of late. I noticed she stopped playing with her toys. After a trip to the vet (more anxiety from that) her blood tests all came back normal. I have been trying to give her gentle reassurance and cuddles but she looks terrified when I go near her. I am confused about whether to cuddle or give her space. Lately I decided let her come to me when she’s ready. She’s never been a jumper, but I can’t see signs of arthritis. She is grooming, but not as much as before. Her diet is excellent (fresh organic meat with a premium soaked cat mix added) and her litter habits are normal. The vet suggested a urine test for a UTI, but capturing the sample is a bit tricky. I was using an oily type face moisturiser. This could have rubbed on to her coat when I was cuddling her. My home is peaceful and I try to create a very calm atmosphere. I am stumped and not sure what to do to make her life better and her happier.

    1. Hi Francesca. It sounds like you’ve done everything right so far. My guess based on all of this is that the problem is primarily one of anxiety, but to what I’m unsure. A common, unseen reason is cats prowling around outside the house, which your cat knows about, but you do not. You could talk to your vets about an anxiety medication trial if you suspect this.

  5. There is a new cat, as in stray, that frequents our yard and our boy sees him and is very unhappy with him. The outdoor cat is not leaving and our boy has had a staring coat since the new cat has taken up residence. In every other way our boy is healthy. Could this new cat be causing great stress in our boy?

    1. Hi Leon. That’s certainly an extremely plausible explanation – stress will cause a lack of grooming just like you suspect and a stray cat prowling around is the greatest cause of stress to most cats.

  6. Yesterday we went to the vet with our almost 2 year old male cat. Just a basic vaccine against panleukopenia. Today I noticed his fur is stared. As I’m his favorite person from all the household, I noticed this almost imediately, that his fur has changed. Might it be due to stress from the vet vidíte or is it the vaccine taking a toll on his body?

    1. Hi Kai. Some vaccines can make cats off colour for a few days, which will certainly result in a staring coat when they temporarily cease grooming. I would advise you make a phone call to your vet to see if this makes sense with the vaccine they have used.

  7. Hey my cat has rolled in car oil and I font know how to get it out what would be the best way to save is fur

    1. Hi Hayley. It’s very important that you get the oil off straightaway so that he doesn’t lick it off and poison himself. The best for this would probably be dishwashing liquid, but you then need to rinse it off carefully afterwards as well.

  8. I rescued an approx. 7 yr old blind stray cat a few months back. After proper nutrition his coat has gotten much better but it is still stared everywhere except his head and face. He’s been to the vet. All good there except he does have a giant firm belly that we can’t determine a cause. He’s not fat by any means. I do see him spot grooming himself but he never really covers his whole body. Should I bathe my boy? Would it make him feel better? Would it help him to care for himself? Would it really make a difference to him?

    1. Hi Diane. I can’t comment on the belly without more investigation. As for the coat, it may just be that he spent so long in a high stress environment that he has lost the habit of grooming himself properly. Some of these cats will indeed enjoy a bath, but I would use a sponge or cloth rather than putting him in water. Nothing replicates the beneficial effects of self grooming though, so his coat will still not look as good as another cat’s.

      1. Thank you so much for your quick response and for your advice! I’ll definitely be using it! Blessings

  9. My kitten is 12 weeks, he is active and eats well. He has the spiky fur just the top layer, he does groom but not excessively or a lot like my old cat.

    1. Hi Fifi. Like I say in the article, if he’s otherwise well, it could just be a case of being too young to groom effectively.

  10. Hi, my kitten (6 months) has this now. She had a cold the last couple of weeks but is all cleared up no more sneezing and running around playing as usual. Will this staring coat slowly go as she gets better she does groom herself a fair bit. Thanks

    1. Hi Kay. Yes, once the underlying problem is resolved, nearly every time the staring coat will resolve as well. It’s just that there is often a delay as they get it back under control again. This is especially true in kittens who are not as proficient in grooming as adults.

  11. Hello my cat has developed this weird greasy and spikey look on her coat after being fixed. She has gained 2x her weight from 5 to 10lbs now and has really bad dandruff all of a sudden too? She seems to be bothered by me messing with the dandruff. What should I do?

    1. Hi Les,
      My cat has done the exact same. Got her fixed, she has also gained almost double in weight and her coat is also greasy and rufflely or spikey. I hope someone will tell us what to do for it.!! Shes not eating more food, however wow, the weight packed on her quickley.!

  12. Hi Andrew,
    Just stumbled on this article as I tried to look at examples of staring. Great read. I see that these examples here are for cats but have you encountered it on dogs i.e on the pinna if not kept clean and dry.
    See you in class in a few weeks!

    1. Thanks Piya. It’s not so much of a thing in dogs, as they don’t groom themselves in the same way, so a lack of grooming is less noticeable.

  13. Hello my name is Debb. My cat Bella has this coat going on. She is 12. In cat years I don’t consider that old. I believe she may have an ear infection. I’m bringing her to the vet tomorrow. Could this be the problem? Or is it something more serious. I’m really nervous. I will be devastated if it’s someone else. Please help.

  14. Dear Andrew, I am so traumatised and sickened, as I put my 15 yr old cat down 2 weeks ago, after the vet told me she had megacolon. I could not subject her to a major op to remove her colon and am now filled wirh grief and guilt for not picking up the severity of her condition earlier. I didnt realize tgat her constipstion was a life threatening condition.

    1. Hi Sandy. Don’t worry too much. Constipation is very hard to spot early.

  15. Hi, my cat developed a ‘staring coat’ after her came back from the vets after having some teeth taken out due to a gum infection. I thought this was probably because of the trauma he had been through but this was three months ago. He grooms himself, he eats well, he poops and pees, the only glitch is that i think he’s jealous of my other cat although they ‘play fight’ a lot together. My problem is whether or not to take him to the vet as i know he will get terribly distressed again, although i guess i’m not going to get any answers unless i do.

    1. Hi Ayse. It’s difficult with such a scared cat, but I would advise a sedation for blood testing and full examination, just to be sure. Ask your vet as well about gabapentin for the trip down.

    2. Hi,
      Give your vet a call and let rthem know what’s going on. Ask about bringing him in for bloodwork to see if something is still going on. I know you hate to stress him out, but you will hate it more if there is something wrong with him and you don’t take care of it . The suggestion of gabapentin to relax him for the trip is a good one. I have used it with 3 different cats over the years and it has worked well without any lasting affects.
      Jealous of your other cat? Was he very jealous before the dental issue so that it caused a stared coat then too? 2 of my cats were jealous of the other getting attention for 13yrs. Luckily never so much that they were stressed about it. Is the other car new?

  16. Thank you for sharing this information & all your topics. I am fairly new to taking care of cats so trying to learn as much as I can!

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