Atopic Dermatitis in Cats

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Orange tabby cat grooming his paw

Westend61 / Getty

Atopic dermatitis is a pruritic (itchy) allergic condition that causes cats to itch, lose hair, and develop scabs. Just like humans, cats can develop allergies to environmental irritants, and atopic dermatitis is an external sign that a cat's body is reacting poorly to the offending allergen. Treatment varies in both approach and effectiveness, but eliminating the allergen is a sure-fire way to decrease a cat's discomfort.

What Is Atopic Dermatitis?

Feline atopic dermatitis, sometimes called feline atopy or allergic dermatitis, is one of the most commonly diagnosed feline allergies. Unlike food or flea allergies, atopic dermatitis occurs when cats are exposed to environmental allergens like pollen, mold spores, and dust particles. Allergens can be inhaled or ingested. Feline atopic dermatitis may be seasonal or non-seasonal, and

Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis in Cats

Most cats that are prone to developing allergies become symptomatic in early adulthood. Atopic dermatitis symptoms may resemble other allergies or skin conditions, but recognizing the following signs will help your vet reach a diagnosis:

Symptoms

  • Scratching at the head and/or neck
  • Hair loss on the front legs from over grooming
  • Scabs on the face, front legs, and/or armpit areas
  • Red, crusty spots on the face, ears, front legs, and/or armpit areas

A cat suffering from atopic dermatitis may chew, lick, or scratch all over. Generally, though, the paws, face, ears, axilla (or armpit areas), and the front of the legs are most affected. This is different from flea allergy dermatitis, which causes cats to chew and lick their tail, rump, groin, and thigh area. Of course, it's entirely possible for a cat with atopic dermatitis to also suffer from flea allergy dermatitis, so you may see scabby spots and hair loss in both areas.

Causes of Atopic Dermatitis

Exposure to environmental allergens can happen outdoors or indoors. Common allergens that trigger atopic dermatitis include:

  • Pollen
  • Dust
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Wool or nylon
  • Certain plastics

Diagnosing Atopic Dermatitis in Cats

Your vet will take cytology samples, most often obtained simply by rubbing a piece of clear tape over a lesion, to determine if it contains bacteria, yeast, or both.

Some cats will need to have testing done by a veterinary dermatologist. Often, these experts will perform intradermal testing and even blood testing to help pinpoint the allergens that are affecting your cat.

Treatment

The first step in treating feline atopic dermatitis is to treat your cat's acute skin infections. These infections are secondary to the allergic reaction and are due to scratching and biting. Bacterial skin infections are treated with antibiotics, while fungal infections are treated with antifungal medications.

To help immediately relieve your cat's itching, your vet may also recommend steroids. Corticosteroids can be very effective in keeping itching and inflammation at bay, but they aren't without their drawbacks. They have side effects with both short-term and long-term usage. Your vet can help determine if corticosteroids are appropriate for your cat. T

The most effective long-term treatment of feline atopic dermatitis involves determining what your cat is allergic to. If the allergen can be identified, then a veterinary lab can create targeted immunotherapy drops that you can give to your cat orally to help boost their immune system to the specific allergen. Even so, many cats will need to go on long-term medications to help prevent flare-ups such as cyclosporine.

Prognosis for Cats with Atopic Dermatitis

Cats with atopic dermatitis can be challenging to treat effectively because of their highly sensitive immune systems, but most can be managed with attentive treatment. The condition can be transient, cropping up at certain times of the year worse than others.

How to Prevent Atopic Dermatitis

Unfortunately, there is no current preventative for the development of feline atopic dermatitis. Recognizing the symptoms and keeping up with your cat's flare-ups, though, can help keep your cat as comfortable as possible when their allergies are bothering them.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.