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How to Recognize and Treat Cat Dandruff

Martha Stewart Living logo Martha Stewart Living 5/6/2020 Caroline Biggs
a cat lying on a bed: From the symptoms to at-home treatments, three veterinarians offer their top tips. © Elisabeth Lindmark Murman / EyeEm / Getty Images From the symptoms to at-home treatments, three veterinarians offer their top tips.

If you have a cat with a dandruff problem, you already know how uncomfortable it can be for a pet. "Dandruff is a visible flaking of skin which often results from irritated or very dry skin," explains Carl Winch, DVM at Banfield Pet Hospital. "It is relatively common and is often in response to the skin glands overproducing their oils. Generally, small amounts of dandruff aren't worrisome, but it can become a very irritating problem for a cat if left untreated."

However, it's important to be able to distinguish cat dandruff from pet dander, which is totally normal (and often unnoticeable). "Dander occurs from the normal, healthy dead skin that your cat sheds and should not cause your cat to be itchy or uncomfortable," explains Dr. Chad Dodd, veterinarian for YuMOVE. "Conversely, dandruff is an abnormal shedding of dead skin cells which, unlike dander, is accompanied by signs of extremely dry, irritated skin or, at times, very oily and itchy skin which could be an indicator of an underlying health problem."

Related: Common Sounds Your Cat Makes and What Each Means

Know the Signs of Cat Dandruff

Most cats experience a dandruff problem at some point in their life, which is why Dr. Dodd says it's important to know what symptoms to look for. "Cat dandruff is fairly common and can often go unnoticed in light-colored cats," he says. "If you observe that your cat is shedding more than usual, and you notice white flakes on your cat or on their bedding materials, it could be a sign of dandruff."

Determine the Cause

Dr. Winch says that there are several potential causes of dandruff in cats, including obesity, food allergies or nutritional deficiencies, climate or environmental changes, metabolic issues, or even an underlying skin condition, like seborrhea or ringworm. "Overweight cats are more susceptible to dandruff due to decreased mobility, so it's important to help your cat maintain a healthy weight by feeding your pet a balanced diet, with constant access to fresh water," he says. "It's also important to partner with your veterinarian who can diagnose and create a treatment plan appropriate for your pet."

Don't Bathe Your Cat Unless Otherwise Instructed

While the promises of dandruff-fighting pet shampoos might be enticing, don't forget that cats rarely enjoy being in water. "I do not recommend bathing cats unless they have specific medical conditions," says Dr. Jamie Richardson, chief of medical staff at Small Door Veterinary. "Cats are fastidious groomers, spending many hours a day performing this ritual which is how they bathe themselves. This grooming keeps their skin and coat healthy by stimulating healthy coat oil development from the skin and subsequently distributing these oils throughout the coat."

Brush Your Cat Regularly

A little grooming goes a long way when dealing with cat dandruff. "For cats that are a bit older, that may be arthritic and have difficulty grooming or those with long coats that need a bit of help, regular brushing by an owner can help mimic the same behaviors a cat does while grooming," Dr. Richardson says. "Glove type 'brushes' can help distribute some of the oils as well as remove loose hair."

Avoid Messy Topical Treatments Unless Prescribed

If you think pet-friendly lotions and oils can help combat cat dandruff, Dr. Richardson says you'd be mistaken. "I wouldn't recommend spreading coconut oil or lotions in your cat's coat," she says. "Most of these products will just get trapped in the coat, causing a greasy mess and not do much for the skin. Equally, your cat is likely to ingest most topical products through grooming."

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