Recognise The Staring Coat: An Early Sign Of Cat Illness

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 five 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
  • 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.


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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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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