Dandruff (Pet Dander) in Cats

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Last updated on
4 min read

Key takeaways

Dandruff is the presence of excessive amounts of dry, flaky skin near the hair roots.

  • Cats of any age may develop dandruff
  • Dandruff is not an emergency, but the underlying condition may eventually become severe or life-threatening without veterinary investigation
  • Skin across the whole body may be affected, or dandruff may occur in only small, localized spots
  • Dandruff may result from infectious and parasitic diseases that can spread to people or other household pets, so isolation of affected cats may be necessary
  • Microscopic examination and culture of the hair and skin are often sufficient for making a diagnosis
  • Biopsy may be necessary in complicated cases
  • If the underlying condition causing the dandruff is successfully treated, dandruff usually resolves
  • Hereditary disorders, like primary seborrhea of Persian cats, cannot be cured and require lifelong management
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A closer look: Dandruff (Pet Dander) in Cats

Dandruff is the presence of dry, flaky skin near the hair roots.

Dandruff, especially as a solitary symptom, is not an emergency. While dandruff in humans is relatively benign, dandruff in cats is not normal. Cats develop dandruff as a symptom of a variety of underlying conditions, so veterinary attention for appropriate diagnostics and treatment is indicated.

The presentation of dandruff is highly variable in cats. It may be characterized according to:

  • The amount of skin affected (focal, multifocal, or generalized)
  • The location of the affected skin. Stud tail, for example, affects the base of the tail, while primary seborrhea affects the face
  • The tendency of the symptom to spread or stay the same. Dermatophytosis and mites, for example, tend to spread
  • The presence or absence of other symptoms. For example, cats with dandruff due to atopy or food allergies are likely to be itchy
  • The severity of dandruff. Young cats and immunosuppressed cats are more likely to develop severe dandruff

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Possible causes

Feline dandruff occurs with a variety of disease that are broadly categorized as:

  • Parasitic (both internal and external)
  • Infectious (fungal and bacterial)
  • Allergic and other immune-mediated diseases
  • Tumors and cancer
  • Hormonal disorders
  • Hereditary disorders of keratinization (the normal process by which skin cells grow and shed)

Risk factors

Immunosuppressed cats, such as those with feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus, are at a higher risk of developing symptoms like dandruff from infectious and parasitic pathogens.

Cats who are obese or have mobility deficits, like those that occur with arthritis, are unable to groom normally, so dandruff may accumulate in hard-to-reach places.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnosing the underlying cause of feline dandruff starts with a full history including information about the cat’s:

  • Environment (indoors, outdoors, multicat household)
  • Flea/tick control
  • Diet
  • Additional symptoms
  • Progression and seasonality of the symptom

A typical workup for a cat with dandruff includes laboratory testing such as:

  • Skin scraping
  • Wood’s lamp evaluation
  • Fungal and/or bacterial culture
  • Microscopic examination of hair samples and samples from the skin surface
  • Combing for fleas

Blood tests and biopsy may be necessary in more severe or complicated cases.

If the underlying condition responsible for the dandruff can be identified and treated, it should resolve.

Dandruff may show improvement with therapeutic trials of:

  • Antifungal medications and shampoos
  • Internal and external parasite control
  • Allergy medication
  • Medicated anti-dandruff shampoos (indicated only when the underlying condition cannot be treated or eliminated)

Symptomatic therapy with topical lipids and omega fatty acid supplementation may benefit some cats.

Similar symptoms

Flea dirt sometimes looks similar to dandruff, except it is always dark brown or black and turns rusty red when wet.

Associated symptoms

Since dandruff is associated with underlying conditions in cats, the symptoms of underlying conditions are expected to appear alongside dandruff.

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