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Hair loss in cats

Black, white and brown cat lying down advice

The most common cause of hair loss in cats is parasites.

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Your pet is experiencing hair loss. But is it due to stress? A parasite? Or something else?

By Dr. Liz Barton MA, VetMB, MRCVS

Updated on the 20/11/2020, 22:47

Hair loss in cats, or alopecia, can take different shapes and forms and be due to several factors, ranging from fungal infections to parasties and hormones to stress. Because each cause will have a different treatment, it's important to get to the bottom of the problem as soon as possible to help your suffering pet, as this article explains.

What are the causes and symptoms of hair loss in cats?

The most common cause of hair loss in cats is parasites and, usually, fleas. Fleas can cause an extreme reaction called flea allergic dermatitis, which causes a cat to itch and groom excessively, causing hair loss and scabs, especially around the face, neck and rump. Circular patches of hair loss can be due to a fungal infection known as ringworm. Cats may also be allergic to inhaled allergens, such as dust and pollens, or food. Stress can also cause over-grooming, leading to barbering of the hair (short, stubby hairs), and areas of alopecia. This tends to be seen in the groin and around the back legs most commonly. Excessive grooming focussed on one area can be due to pain, such as over an arthritic joint or an itchy scar. There may also be hormonal causes of hair loss and, more rarely, auto-immune and metabolic conditions.

Why is my cat getting bald spots?

Patches of hair loss can be due to a number of causes and the distribution can give some clues. Baldness around the face and rump is often due to flea allergies. Patches of hair loss inside the back legs and underbelly are more likely to be stress overgrooming or other forms of allergy. Circular patches can be due to ringworm (which people can catch, so beware). Baldness and scabs on the ears of white-haired cats may indicate skin cancer. It is important to have your cat checked by a vet – especially if they are up to date with treatment for parasites – as secondary bacterial infections can quickly take hold where the skin barrier is damaged and make things much worse.

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How can I treat my cat’s hair loss?

The most important first line of treatment is to ensure that your cat is treated for parasites, including fleas, mites, lice and ticks. Not all flea products will protect against the full range of parasites, so if you are in doubt check with a vet. If secondary bacterial infection is present, the vet may prescribe additional treatment, including antibiotics, creams and washes. Washes and anti-fungal treatment are needed for ringworm, and are also very good for hygiene to ensure that people and other animals in the household don’t get it. To reduce allergic itch, anti-histamines or steroids are commonly used. Change in diet may even be recommended to rule out food allergy.

What does mange look like in cats?

Cats can be affected by different types of mange mite. Sarcoptic mange often causes a strong itch-scratch response and hairless, red, scabbed areas all over the body. Notoedric mange is similar, but usually affects the ears and head, then spread elsewhere around the body. Demodectic mange is less common and can cause hair loss and reddening of the skin without being as itchy as the other forms of mange. This also tends to start around the head.

Why is my cat losing hair on her back legs?

Hair loss on the back legs is most commonly associated with skin allergies or behavioural overgrooming due to stress or boredom.

Can stress cause a cat to lose hair?

Stressed cats don’t tend to lose hair all over – like people do when they are stressed. Instead, they tend to use grooming as a coping mechanism known as a ‘displacement behaviour’. When they are grooming, they feel less stressed because their attention is diverted. This makes grooming a rewarding behaviour, so they do more and more, and it becomes a habit which can be hard to break. They can also make the skin sore and itchy from overgrooming, then continue to groom because the skin is irritated – a bit like picking a scab you’ve created.

When should I see a vet?

It is important to see a vet if there are scabs and sores on your cat. If you can see parasites and have used an appropriate flea treatment, you should discuss this with a vet, who will be able to advise on a more suitable product and control of any environmental reservoir in your home or on other pets. The causes of excessive grooming and skin disease are very varied and, if the trigger is not removed, they are likely to get worse over time and become more complicated to treat. So if hair loss is present, it’s best to get your cat checked.

What should I ask a vet about the best diet for a cat losing hair?

In most cases, diet will not affect the hair of your cat. Diet allergy is thought to be the cause of some skin allergies, and a vet will be able to advise how to undergo a 12-week diet trial to check if the food is making your cat itchy. Sometimes, essential fatty acid supplements may be recommended to improve skin and hair quality, and these may also reduce skin itchiness. These can be included in some prescription skin diets, or supplemented usually as capsules on food. It’s important to use a formulation that is specific for cats, as supplements for other species will not be balanced in effective, safe quantities for a cat.

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