Updated September 3, 2021
A cat with dandruff may sound funny, but it’s not. So please no Head and Shoulders jokes. In a minute you’re going to see that none of the causes are trivial.
Firstly, what is dandruff? Also known as scurf, or seborrhoea sicca, it’s the accumulation of skin flakes in the coat. It happens either when the skin produces more flakes than usual or they aren’t being taken away.
How To Get Rid Of Dandruff
To get rid of dandruff in cats, you have to know what caused it. Treating the symptom is at best a stop-gap measure. There’s no point in subjecting your cat to special shampoos, sprays, olive or coconut oil. They aren’t the solution.
Here are the top five reasons for dandruff and flaky skin in cats, with notes on treatment.
The number one reason is often the hardest for owners to believe. There’s something very special about grooming in cats (more on that later). If cats can’t lick a part of their coat, it always gets dandruff. Usually it also gets a buildup of old dead hair which can get matted or clumped.
The clue is the position: it gets worse the closer you get to the back near the tail. Once cats get to a certain weight (usually between 5 and 7 kg depending on the coat and age), they simply cannot reach that area well.
Having sore joints works a little like being overweight in stopping cats from reaching all of their coat. The problem looks exactly the same as in overweight cats except these cats are usually quite old and also not very mobile.
Visit this page for the signs and treatment of arthritis in cats. Often, a careful treatment trial will improve the coat considerably and help confirm the diagnosis, as well as make Kitty a lot more comfortable.
3. Illness & Stress
An experienced cat vet can usually tell if a cat is unwell or stressed before they ever touch them. Although it can look like magic, what we can see is an ungroomed coat. We call it a staring coat (pictures at the link), when the tips get clumped together instead of having a smooth shiny surface.
A staring coat is a sign of a sick or stressed cat. For a cat to groom they have to be relaxed, and therefore it’s the first thing that stops when something goes wrong. Then, just like any time a cat doesn’t groom enough, the dandruff builds up as well.
These cats need a checkup with the vet, who will probably also request a blood test.
The last two causes are both due to skin irritation. Fleas, mites and lice can all cause dermatitis that leads to dandruff. This is very hard to prove so regardless of what I think I usually recommend adding a good parasite control like Revolution.
Cats with dermatitis will quickly turn their impressive weaponry on themselves. Therefore, skin allergies in cats look like just about any damage, including overgrooming, hair loss, open wounds or rashes. However, if you’re lucky enough, an untouched area will often have obvious dandruff just like in the picture at the start. A clue that it’s an allergy is finding other skin signs elsewhere on the body.
Treatment of cat skin allergy is discussed in our page on overgrooming.
6. Other Causes?
You’ll also hear people blaming poor diets for dandruff. This is possible (I see it in dogs), but very rare in cats. I’ve only seen dry skin as a problem with artificial heating in winter. Fungal infection (common in humans) is rarely an issue except possibly ringworm in young cats.
At the end of the day, if your cat still has dandruff after a vet has ruled out or treated the causes above, that’s OK. On its own it’s fine as long as it’s not a sign of something worse.
Why Cats Groom
Studies show that cats spend 8% of their waking life engaged in grooming behaviour. There are at least four good reasons why:
- Parasite control: it’s been shown that cats who can’t groom and also have fleas carry double the number
- Removal of dead hair: when cats don’t groom well, the old hair builds up and the coat gets matted
- Removal of dirt and oils: cats are also literally cleaning themselves, which is also why toxins on the coat are dangerous
- Maintenance of insulation: that staring coat I mentioned earlier can’t keep your cat warm like a shiny, smooth coat
Grooming isn’t just something to keep busy. It’s a highly complex, programmed and essential feline behaviour. So the next time you see your cat grooming, remember this: not only is it essential, it’s also a sign of your cat’s wellbeing.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! 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.