Healthy Coat and Skin for Cats

Published by VCA Inc. in Cats, Grooming, Pets October 17, 2016

The general condition of your cat’s skin and coat are good indicators of its health. A healthy coat should be shiny and smooth, not coarse or brittle. Healthy skin should be supple and clear, not greasy, flaky or bumpy. Although health and nutrition influence the luster and texture of your cat’s coat from the inside, regular grooming and skin care on the outside will help keep your cat’s coat clean and free of tangles, no matter what type of hair coat he or she has.

What are the different types of hair coat that a cat might have?

With selective breeding, we now have cats with coats that range from the hairless Sphinx through curly-coated minimally-shedding Rex cats.  From smooth-coated Oriental breeds with sparse undercoats, to domestic short-haired cats with a regular coat of guard hairs and a fine undercoat. And finally to long-haired cats with fine silky hair that tangles easily.

Some cats that live in cooler climates, particularly if they venture outdoors, will undergo two heavy seasonal shedding cycles per year. During these seasons(late spring and late fall) much of the undercoat falls out in clumps. However, many cats that share our homes shed hair in low levels all year round.

How does nutrition influence the appearance of my cat’s hair and skin?

The skin is the largest organ of the body, and the cells of the skin turn over rapidly. For most pets, virtually all of the skin is covered with hair that is being shed and replaced several times per year. In order to maintain the skin and hair in a healthy state, your cat requires a properly balanced diet. A balanced diet contains highly digestible proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins, and provides the appropriate number of calories to meet its energy needs.

“The ideal diet should be individualized to your cat’s specific life stage…”

Portrait of a british shorthair cat with expressive orange eyes.

If the nutrients are poorly digestible, they will not only be unavailable to meet the body’s needs, but they will also put an excessive load on the liver and kidneys, which must eliminate the indigestible waste products. The ideal diet should be individualized to your cat’s specific life stage (i.e., kitten, adult, senior) and health status. In all cases, quality and balance are the keys to good nutrition. A cat whose diet is inadequate to meet its needs will have a dull, dry hair coat and will often shed excessively.

For more information about cat nutrition, we recommend that you contact your veterinarian to discuss your specific cat’s needs.

What role does health play in the appearance of my cat’s coat and skin?

Illness or stress, especially if it is chronic or long-standing, will affect the appearance of your pet’s coat. Particularly its luster and texture, and many cats will shed excessively when they are under stress. Some of the more common examples of diseases that can affect your pet’s coat include hormone imbalances or other metabolic problems. They may also affect digestive disturbances such as chronic diarrhea, parasites, both internal (intestinal worms) and external (fleas, ticks, mange mites), and cancer. Even arthritis or obesity can cause skin problems such as dandruff or matting if the cat is unable to groom itself properly.

Many skin conditions will affect both the shininess and the appearance of your pet’s fur. Allergic skin disease and seborrhea cause itching and changes in the normal production of skin oils. This results in dullness and excessive shedding, either in patches or over the entire body.

If your cat’s skin or coat problem is caused by an underlying health issue, the general health of the skin and the quality of the hair often improve dramatically when the illness is brought under control.  Through treatment, which may include dietary changes, improvements may occur.

What role does regular grooming play in the appearance of my cat’s coat and skin?

All cats benefit from regular brushing to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells. This helps to keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites. Additionally this helps to distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. Cats with long, silky or curly coats require daily brushing to keep their hair from becoming tangled or matted. Tangles and matts appear especially around the ears, in the armpits, or along the back of the legs. Cats with short hair coats may require less frequent brushing.

“All cats benefit from regular brushing…”

Two friendly cats on spring

Daily brushing will cut down on the amount of hair that a cat swallows during the course of self-grooming with its tongue. Thus helping to reduce the number of hairballs your cat may develop.

In addition to benefitting your cat, daily brushing will cut down dramatically on the amount of loose hair and pet dander floating around the home. For some people with mild cat allergies, daily brushing may even reduce the amount of airborne allergens enough that they can share their home with a cat.

Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your cat’s coat every day to make sure there are no tangles or clumps. These may develop under the armpits, in the groin, or behind the ears. If you regularly check your cat’s coat and skin, you will also have a better chance of detecting any unusual lumps, bumps, or areas of sensitivity on your cat’s body at an early stage.

How often should I bathe my cat?

“Most healthy adult cats are fastidious groomers and rarely require a bath.”

Most healthy adult cats are meticulous groomers and rarely require a bath.  How often your particular cat needs to be bathed will depend somewhat on its age, lifestyle, and any underlying health problems. For example, an older, arthritic cat that has difficulty grooming itself may need the occasional bath to remove loose hair and objectionable odors. If your cat has skin allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe frequent bathing with a therapeutic shampoo.

Cats should only be bathed in a shampoo that is formulated for use on cats. Their skin has a different thickness and pH than human skin. Human shampoo, including baby shampoo, is too harsh for their skin. For routine bathing, a hypoallergenic shampoo without any added perfumes is the best choice. For best results, a conditioning product should be applied afterwards, to restore any lost moisture to the skin. This also minimizes the development of dandruff after the bath. Since all cats will groom themselves vigorously after a bath, it is extremely important to completely rinse out any shampoo. Rinse thoroughly so that your cat does not swallow any residues that could cause digestive upset or other harm.

“ is extremely important to completely rinse out any shampoo or rinse thoroughly so that your cat does not swallow any residues that could cause digestive upset or other harm…”

A Persian cat getting a bath

If you find your cat requires frequent bathing, your veterinarian may recommend the use of a ‘dry shampoo’. Or they may suggest a special therapeutic shampoo and conditioning rinse. This is so your furry friend does not develop skin problems associated with the repeated baths.

For specific information about grooming or bathing your cat, see our related handout “Grooming and Coat Care for your Cat”.

My cat seems to only have skin or coat problems at specific times of the year. Why is this?

Some cats may suffer from skin irritation related to dry winter conditions, particularly from lack of humidity in our homes. Other cats that have allergies to pollens from trees, plants, or grass may develop skin problems during pollen season. This may occur in the spring with tree pollens, or during summer or fall for plant pollen allergies. Some cats are allergic to fleas or insects and can develop a rash or hair loss with a single bite.

If you bathe or groom your cat and the skin or coat problem returns quickly, bring him or her to the veterinarian for an examination. Sometimes, skin problems such as a skin rash, itchiness, excessive dandruff, heavy shedding, a greasy coat, or an unpleasant skin odor can indicate a serious underlying problem, as discussed above.  In many cases, this underlying problem will be easy to diagnose and treat. Occasionally, the underlying disorder can present a diagnostic challenge and might require referral to a dermatologist. Once the underlying problem is diagnosed, the appropriate treatment can be prescribed to control your cat’s symptoms.

The message is that your cat’s general skin and coat appearance may be the first indicators of health problems. A healthy animal will not shed excessively and will have a shiny coat that is free from dandruff or greasiness. Before reaching for the bottle of shampoo, think about whether that lackluster coat could be telling you something else. If you have any concerns, contact our veterinary clinic to arrange a consultation.