Ask A Vet: Why Does My Cat Have Dandruff And What Can I Do About It?

Everyone who watches TV knows what dandruff is. From people wearing a black shirt brushing their shoulders off to close-ups of white flakes in dark hair, national media has made us all painfully aware of how gross dandruff flakes are. What about when your cat has dandruff?

You might notice flakes along your cat’s back that you can brush off, but they always seem to return. Many people minimize the importance of the flakes of skin. You can find blogs and articles that label it “dry skin” and suggest various home remedies.

If you wonder what the real reasons that cats get dandruff, you have come to the right place. These errant flakes can be a harbinger of more important issues for your cat.

Sometimes flaking skin, especially if accompanied by severe pruritus, can be caused by a skin mite. This extremely contagious mite infestation is caused by a mite called Cheyletiella. This condition is commonly referred to as “walking dandruff”. The presence of the mites causes excessive flaking of the skin and close inspection can sometimes reveal the movement of the insects, hence the distinctive name. If you believe your cat could have the walking dandruff, you should see your veterinarian as soon as possible. If the Walking Dead is enough to gross you out, give the Walking Dandruff a good long thought! The bad news is these mites can get on you, your dog and your rabbit too. The good news is that there are effective medications (available by prescription) to eliminate the mite infestation.

Allergic disease can hasten the cell turnover of your cat’s skin and make it shed off at an accelerated rate. Allergic flaking is more likely to be also accompanied by excessive grooming and signs of itching. You might notice some seasonality to this concern. For example, you could see the flakes on your cat’s skin mostly in the spring or the fall when the allergic disease is most prevalent. But cats can be allergic to things that are present all the time, like the food or house dust. I have even had patients allergic to humans! Your veterinarian will be able to help you decide if allergic disease is underlying your cat’s dandruff issue. He or she might recommend referral to a veterinary dermatologist to get to the root cause.

I frequently see cats affected by metabolic disease. These are diseases like chronic renal failure, liver disease and diabetes. These ill cats just do not feel like grooming themselves normally and sometimes the earliest sign of their malaise is poor grooming and an unthrifty coat. Many times, these cats will have lost weight and may seem very thirsty or be urinating excessively. If you noticed changes in your cat’s appearance, hair coat or overall well-being, please see your veterinarian. These common metabolic diseases will show up on routine screening and can be managed with appropriate treatment.

Cats have a unique digestion. They are obligate carnivores. Because of this distinctiveness, they can be very sensitive to imbalances in their diet. It is a common misconception that cats can be made vegetarian. Cats require certain nutrient building blocks that cannot be supplied by vegetables alone and even a meat based, home cooked diet may be insufficient to meet their dietary needs. Sometimes one of the outward signs of a dietary imbalance is a flaky hair coat. If your cat has dandruff and you have seen your veterinarian to rule out these other common causes of skin flaking, you might want to reexamine your cat’s diet to be sure he or she is getting a high quality, premium diet.

The most common reason that I see in my practice for feline dandruff is obesity. Being overweight makes it extremely difficult for your cat to groom himself normally. We don’t think about how limber a cat must be to be able to bathe his entire body with his tongue. It seems that the most difficult spot to reach when a cat is overweight is the area along the back and above the tail. Not only do obese cats suffer from flaky skin, but they are often unable to clean their rectal area. This creates a sanitary issue and occasionally there will be anal gland problems as well. It is important to keep your cat at a normal body weight, encouraging exercise and limiting excess calories. If you think that your cat should be on a diet, ask your veterinarian to help. I often provide a daily calorie guide to help cat owners know how much is enough. Encourage your cat to exercise as much as possible. See my article How Can I Make Sure My Cat Is Happy for ideas.

If your cat has flaky skin, don’t be too quick to assume that he or she just has dry skin. Make sure you think about contagious causes, allergies, metabolic disease, comprehensive nutrition and ideal body weight. Flaking skin does not have to mean something terrible is going on, but you certainly do not want to ignore this obvious visible sign if something hidden is occurring. Remember that early detection is absolutely critical to a long, healthy and happy life.


vet thumbnailAbout The Vet: Dr. Kathryn Primm is a practicing small animal veterinarian. She has consulted on articles for national magazines, done numerous radio interviews and appeared on local television. She has contributed to an article for Prevention magazine and Woman’s Day in Feb 2014 and June 2015 on shelves now.

She has a social media presence on TwitterFacebook and Google+ and enjoys interaction with others about her passions, animals and communication. She is a regular contributor to Boomeon, the online community which can be found at . She has also written a book, Tennessee Tails:Pets and Their People. The book received recognition as Runner Up in the Memoirs category at a national book festival. You can read more about Dr. Primm and how to get the best value for your pet care dollar at her website,

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Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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