Why Is My Cat Losing Fur?
By Amanda Jondle, DVM August 19, 2019
Have you noticed that your cat’s normally clean, shiny, sleek hair coat has become patchy, bald, red, inflamed, or infected? When cats lose their fur, the condition is called alopecia. There are several different causes for alopecia which will be discussed. Sometimes the hair loss can be accompanied by red skin, dermatitis, scabs, or dandruff. Other times it is simply hair loss without any skin irritation. Some cats will excessively scratch or lick the itch, causing hair loss and skin irritation. But at other times, a cat may still be losing fur without feeling itchy.
There are several different reasons why your cat might be losing their fur. We will go into detail of each one.
Skin parasites are the number one cause of alopecia in cats. The most common parasites that infect cats are fleas. Cats can get fleas even if they never go outside. Fleas can get inside by riding in on your shoes or clothes, through cracks in the doors and windows, or on other pets. Even unwelcome wildlife such as birds, mice, and squirrels can transfer fleas to your cat. Flea eggs can survive for long periods of time in the carpet or baseboards. A cat can get fleas when moving into a house where flea eggs are in the carpet. The eggs hatch and the fleas enjoy a new host: your cat!
Fleas can be very irritating and cause a persistent itch. People can also be bothered by fleas and flea bites. Many cats actually have a hypersensitivity to the antigens in a flea’s saliva, which can cause an allergic reaction and create a more extreme itch. The scratching and licking due to fleas and/or the allergic reaction will cause skin irritation and often a secondary bacterial infection if left untreated.
Many people think that because they don’t see any fleas, there is no way their cat has fleas, but this is not the case. Because cats groom themselves several times a day; they often groom the fleas off (unless they are infested with fleas). So sometimes you won’t even see the culprits!
The first thing you will want to do if your cat is itching or losing fur is apply a safe flea preventative. Most high-quality flea preventatives will actually prevent and treat fleas, flea larvae, and flea eggs. Be careful not to just pick a product off the shelf at your local grocery store; many of these products have toxic ingredients that can make your cat’s skin condition even worse and could be life-threatening. It is best to ask your veterinarian what flea preventative they recommend for your cat. If you want to learn more about getting rid of fleas, then read our article here.
Lice is another skin parasite that can affect your cat. Lice are very small bugs that chew your cat’s skin. This can make your cat lose fur, cause skin irritation, and make them itchy.
- Other skin parasites
Other skin parasites include mites such as Demodex and Scabies. These mites can make your cat feel itchy and lose their fur. Your veterinarian will be able to help diagnose mange by doing a skin scraping. Many of the flea preventatives also include prevention against skin mites, so this is another reason that regular prevention is important for your cat
- Parasite Allergy
Cats can get allergies just like people and dogs. They can develop allergies to just about anything. Most commonly, they develop allergies to fleas and the antigen in flea saliva, which has been discussed above
- Food Allergy
Food allergies are one of the causes of fur loss and skin irritation in cats. Sometimes cats can develop an allergy to one or multiple ingredients in their food. The majority of the time it is due to the antigens in the main protein source. However, sometimes it may be another food ingredient. Your veterinarian will diagnose food allergies through testing or a diet trial – trying various hypoallergenic or novel protein foods.
- Environmental Allergy
Environmental allergies can include allergies to just about anything found in your cat’s environment. This can range from dust, dandruff, medications, various household products, pollen, plants, mold, insects, and more.
Your cat can develop an infection on their skin causing fur loss. The most common skin infections are those due to fungal infections such as ringworm, or bacterial infections.
- Fungal Infection
Cats can get ringworm from other cats or dogs. Ringworm gets its name from the characteristic round, red, raised rash of hair loss, flakes, and inflammation. The fungus can infect the skin, hair, or nails. It is not actually caused by a worm. Ringworm is contagious and can spread between pets and humans. Your veterinarian can diagnose and treat ringworm in your cat.
- Bacterial Infection
Bacterial infections usually result from some other underlying cause. When the surface of the skin is broken and raw due to scratching an itch, then wounds can appear. Bacteria can invade the wound and cause an infection. Treatment for a bacterial infection is prescribed by a veterinarian and usually includes topical and/or oral antibiotics.
4) Behavioral Condition
- Overgrooming/Psychogenic Dermatitis
Cat can develop a condition that can lead to fur loss but does not involve infections, parasites, or allergies. The cause is actually a behavioral one. The condition goes by several different names, such as feline overgrooming disorder, behavioral overgrooming, psychogenic alopecia, or psychogenic dermatitis. Sometimes this behavioral disorder actually starts from a medical condition, and the cat continues to lick and groom themselves constantly.
Cats normally groom themselves throughout the day. But grooming becomes a problem when they lick themselves constantly, obsessively, or focus their grooming in one specific spot on their body. This condition is diagnosed when your veterinarian has ruled out other underlying causes of alopecia through various tests and treatments.
Psychogenic alopecia is a stress-related disorder. It is a type of obsessive-compulsive condition where the cat can’t stop licking or chewing themselves. Sometimes they pull their fur out in chunks, sometimes they chew and break the hairs. Grooming actually releases calming pheromones for cats. So by grooming, they make themselves feel better and more relaxed. It becomes a problem when they do it so much that it becomes detrimental.
Cats can become stressed due to an endless list of reasons. If you think your cat is overgrooming themselves, try to think of anything that could be causing your cat stress and eliminate that factor. You can also encourage stress relief and distraction by engaging your cat in play and providing toys and perches for them to enjoy.
Sometimes cats will start overgrooming due to boredom so these suggestions will help keep them occupied and happy. Your veterinarian can help you identify stressors and come up with solutions. In some extreme circumstances, this can include behavior-modifying medications.
5) Endocrine diseases and other health concerns
Cats can lose fur due to other diseases and conditions such as thyroid disease, adrenal gland disease, or cancer.
Below are answers to additional questions you might have.
On What Areas Can Fur Loss Occur?
Hair loss can occur anywhere on your cat’s body. Most cats have thin hair in the areas between their ears and eyes. Abnormal hair loss is often found around the back end, tail, and sometimes inside of the back legs or belly. But cats can lose fur anywhere they have fur.
When Should I Be Concerned With My Cat’s Fur Loss?
Alopecia is never normal in a cat. If you notice any concerning changes in your cat’s haircoat, it is important to see your veterinarian right away. If left untreated for too long, a simple fur loss or irritated skin issue can quickly turn into a skin infection and become infected with bacteria. Afterwards, this will require a much more involved treatment plan.
What Are The Treatment Options For Fur Loss?
The treatment for fur loss will depend on the cause of fur loss. Your veterinarian will be able to determine the cause of the alopecia, and then they can develop a treatment plan for it.
What Can I Do To Help Prevent My Cat From Losing Fur In The First Place?
The simplest prevention for fur loss is a quality flea preventative. It is even better if the flea preventative includes mite and lice prevention. This will prevent the most common causes of alopecia.
As you can see, there are several reasons your cat might be losing fur. If your cat is already on a quality flea preventative, living in a clean environment, and you have eliminated their sources of stress, but your cat is still itching, licking, chewing, or scratching, then see your veterinarian for diagnostic and treatment options to help your kitty look and feel their best!