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How Can I Soothe My Cat’s Itchy Skin?

Cat scratching itself indoors
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If your cat is scratching themselves raw, and your Persian is suddenly looking more like a Sphynx, it’s time to dial your vet to grant your cat some relief. 

Itchy skin in cats (also called pruritus) is not only uncomfortable, it can lead to worse complications—like severe hair loss, infections, and pain—if it becomes severe enough and is left untreated. 

There are numerous causes of itchy skin in cats, and the degree of severity also varies. With the help of your veterinarian, the cause of your cat’s itchiness can be identified and managed before the condition worsens. 

If you’re wondering, how can I soothe my cat’s itchy skin, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s what you need to know.

What Causes Itchy Skin in Cats?

Cat scratching

Pruritus in cats can be triggered by so many things. Pinpointing the cause of your cat’s itchy skin is helpful, as treatments can vary depending on the underlying diagnosis.

Causes of itchy skin in cats include:

The most common signs that point to itchy skin in cats include biting and scratching the skin, overgrooming, hair loss (especially on the rump, base of the tail, and back of the thighs), as well as scabs, sores, and ulcerations.

Seeking proper veterinary care at the first sign your cat is experiencing consistent itching is the key to prompt management. Your regular veterinarian can assist you in determining the cause of your cat’s itchy skin via diagnostic tests. However, if your cat’s condition is more severe and not responding to initial treatment, your vet may refer you to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist for advanced testing and treatment.

How Can I Soothe My Cat’s Itchy Skin?

Woman shampooing a cat

Once the cause of your cat’s itchy skin is identified, your vet will recommend various treatments, depending on the culprit of your cat’s pruritus. This treatment plan may involve a lot of trial and error. This can involve tweaking medication doses or adding in additional meds systematically until the correct “cocktail” of therapies resolves your cat’s symptoms while trying to avoid possible side effects. Some medications may only be needed on a short-term or seasonal basis while others may require long-term use.

Cat Medicine for Itchy Skin

Ointments, sprays, pills—so many medication options exist for the management of itchy skin in cats and its various causes. Your vet can help you navigate which medication is right for your cat. In the vast majority of cases, prescriptions will be more effective and often safer than non-prescription options, so heed your vet’s advice.

Cat medicine for itchy skin may include:

  • Monthly flea control
  • Immunosuppressive drugs
  • Antibiotics or antifungals
  • Immunotherapy (allergy shots)
  • Fluoxetine 
  • Non-prescription topicals

Monthly flea control: The importance of flea prevention for cats cannot be stressed enough. Preventing fleas is far better than treating them, particularly in cats with a flea allergy. Nip fleas in the bud before they ever have a chance at biting your cat. Avoid over-the-counter flea preventions, since most are either ineffective and some can be very harmful. And never use flea prevention on a cat that was intended for a dog. 

Home remedies for fleas are typically not advised either. The best solution is consistent monthly use of a prescription flea prevention year-round for your cat’s lifespan, including in the winter months. Even indoor-only cats (and other pets) need flea prevention. Your veterinarian can discuss the various oral and topical prescription options to decide which is best for your kitty.

Immunosuppressive drugs: Immunosuppressive drugs are the mainstay of skin itchiness that stems from an allergic cause, particularly atopic dermatitis. Various classes of medications fall under this group, each with its unique pros and cons. This includes:

  • Steroids (e.g., oral prednisolone, dexamethasone injections, or topical creams and sprays, such as hydrocortisone)
  • Cyclosporine (Atopica)
  • Off-label use of oclacitinib (Apoquel), which is labeled for dogs

Steroids are typically an effective and affordable option for allergic causes of feline pruritus, but chronic use, especially at high doses, can cause unpleasant side effects, such as an increased risk for infections and diabetes mellitus. They should not be used in cats with certain preexisting conditions, such as heart disease.

Antibiotics or antifungals: Your vet will also treat any secondary infection with appropriate oral and/or topical antibiotics or antifungals.

Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy, including “allergy shots,” may be recommended by your veterinary dermatologist. Pet parents should note that lokivetmab (Cytopoint) injections are formulated for dogs and do not work in cats.

Fluoxetine: If other options have been exhausted, your vet may recommend fluoxetine (“kitty Prozac”). While this medication is typically prescribed for behavioral issues, it also harbors anti-itch properties to assist with uncontrolled pruritus.

Non-prescription topicals: Your vet may also recommend several non-prescription topical products, such as Vetericyn spray, Duoxo S3 Calm, and MiconaHex + Triz. Chat with your vet to ask if any of these options might be right for your cat.

Home Remedies for Itchy Skin in Cats

Most home remedies for itchy skin are not recommended for use in cats, as many have not been fully evaluated in scientific studies. The majority are either ineffective, and some can be harmful. The most inquired about home remedies for itchy skin in cats include coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and essential oils.

Coconut oil: Coconut oil contains plenty of essential fatty acids, which are excellent building blocks for the skin. While small amounts of coconut oil applied directly to the skin are typically not harmful and can even be hydrating, avoid using too much since it can cause GI upset if your kitty licks it off. For similar reasons, it’s also best to avoid oral supplementation to prevent causing diarrhea and weight gain. Only proceed with dietary use if instructed by your vet, though your vet may recommend other alternatives instead (such as salmon oil). For topical use, more effective topical supplements that deliver fatty acids exist and are discussed later.

Apple cider vinegar: Apple cider vinegar is typically not very effective at alleviating skin itchiness (even for fleas) and infection. It should not be used orally as a water additive. If used topically, it must be diluted with an equal volume of water for a 50:50 solution to avoid the vinegar from stinging the skin.

Essential oils: Essential oils have not been proven to be effective at preventing fleas or otherwise treating itchy skin in cats, and since some can be very toxic to kitties, it’s best to avoid using them and discuss safer products with your vet instead.

Additionally, avoid over-the-counter (OTC) products and human products unless specifically advised by your vet for your cat’s particular situation. For instance, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and other OTC antihistamines are not typically effective on their own, though they may be recommended by your vet as ancillary support for itchy skin when paired with prescription medications. 

Prescription antihistamine options, such as chlorpheniramine, may be more potent, so ask your vet. Also consult with your vet before using triple antibiotic ointments (such as Neosporin) or topical steroid creams. They may be okay in some scenarios, but may otherwise be unnecessary or even harmful in certain settings. (For instance, some cats can have a bad reaction to the polymyxin in triple antibiotics.)

Cat Shampoo for Itchy Skin

Most cats can be difficult to bathe, resulting in stress to the cat and scratches to the pet parent. However, if your cat doesn’t mind a nice warm bath, a gentle and hydrating shampoo (such as a natural oatmeal formula) can help alleviate some itchiness while removing topical allergens that could otherwise worsen a skin flare-up. 

Flea shampoos for cats (such as Adams brand) are not typically recommended, as they can overly dry the skin and contain harmful chemicals such as pyrethrins. Avoid using flea shampoos and opt for a regular prescription flea prevention instead. 

If your cat has a skin infection or greasy skin (seborrhea), your vet may recommend a prescription shampoo with antimicrobial and antiseborrheic properties. Remember to never use a shampoo that contains tar (such as those formulated for human psoriasis), as these can be very toxic to cats.

Cat Food for Itchy Skin

A change in diet can help some pruritic cats, particularly those with an identified food allergy.

Formulas for food allergies tend to be prescription-only diets. They either contain a novel protein that your cat has never ingested (and thus has not yet had an opportunity to develop a food allergy to) or a hydrolyzed protein that is formulated so that your cat’s immune system does not recognize it as an allergen. When trying to diagnose a food allergy, your cat should strictly eat the hypoallergenic diet for approximately 8 weeks without ingesting any additional foods, treats, or flavored medications or supplements. If your cat’s skin issues have resolved, your vet may deem the dietary trial successful (thus diagnosing a food allergy) and keep your kitty on this special diet long-term. 

Prescription diet options for cats with food allergies include:

  • Hill’s Prescription Diet z/d
  • Hill’s Prescription Diet d/d
  • Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Hydrolyzed Protein
  • Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hydrolyzed

Stick with one of these diets, and avoid raw food diets unless otherwise directed by your vet. Additionally, keep in mind that grains are not a common cause of food allergies in our pets, particularly not in cats, so there is typically no need to choose a grain-free cat food for the basis of managing itchy skin.

Even if your cat is not suspected to have a food allergy and does not require a prescription hypoallergenic diet, your vet may still recommend swapping your kitty’s food for a formula for sensitive skin. Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin & Stomach or Hill’s Science Diet Sensitive Stomach & Skin are two commercial options that can help support the dermatologic health of a cat who suffers from itchy skin.

Cat Supplements for Itchy Skin

To help itchiness further and support the overall health of your cat’s skin and coat, your vet may recommend additional supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s, found in high amounts in fish oils, help maintain the integrity of a healthy skin barrier. 

A good quality commercial cat food should contain proper amounts of fatty acids in the diet. While some vets may recommend an additional oral supplement (such as Free Form by Elanco or salmon oil), too much can cause GI upset. 

Topical supplements, such as Dermoscent Essential 6 Spot-On or the Douxo Calming line of topical products, can also help your cat’s skin by delivering hydrating essential fatty acids directly to the skin. These tend to work more potently than topical coconut oil. 

Cat Itchy Skin Treatment: Other Tips and Advice

Cat at vet with pet parent

Pet parents can be proactive in helping prevent their cat’s itchy skin flare-ups from worsening. This can be accomplished by identifying their cat’s early itchy skin warning signs and by taking preventive measures to promote overall healthy skin for their kitty. Monthly prescription flea prevention is the backbone of good skin health for any cat, particularly any itchy one. 

Recognizing that your cat is gradually becoming consistently itchier will enable you to seek vet care. That way, your cat’s skin issues can be addressed promptly with an appropriate veterinary-guided treatment. 

If you have a bit of a wait until you can get your cat seen by your vet, consider an E-collar (cone), cat-sized T-shirt, or Soft Paws nail guards to prevent self-trauma to the skin caused by your cat’s excessive scratching, biting, or grooming. 

You and your vet will work as a team to determine what treatments work best to prevent worsening skin damage and offer your cat much needed relief from their itchy skin.