Why Is My Cat Itching and Licking So Much?

Why Is My Cat Itching and Licking So Much?

Cats are known for their meticulous grooming habits, often spending a good chunk of their day licking and cleaning themselves. However, when this behavior becomes excessive, it’s a cause for concern. Intense itching and licking in cats signals an underlying health or behavioral issue, and can lead to skin irritation, hair loss, and even open wounds that can become infected.

Determining the root cause of your kitty’s excessive itching and licking is crucial to getting them the care they need to feel better. Read on to learn what may be behind your cat’s discomfort and how to address it.

Why Is My Cat Itching and Licking So Much? 8 Common Causes

There are several potential causes of excessive licking and itching in cats. According to Dr. Colleen Lambo, DVM, a veterinarian with the national mobile pet care service The Vets, the top three reasons are parasites, allergies, and psychological factors. Let’s break down these common causes below.

Flea Allergy Dermatitis 

According to Dr. Carol Osborne, DVM, founder of Chagrin Falls Veterinary Center & Pet Clinic, flea bites are by far the most common allergy affecting cats, especially when the temperature outside is warm. These tiny parasites bite and feed on your cat’s blood, during which they inject a small amount of saliva into the cat’s skin. The proteins in the saliva can trigger an allergic reaction on the cat’s skin known as flea allergy dermatitis (FAD).

This condition leads to intense scratching, excessive grooming and sometimes hair loss, says Dr. Lambo. Flea allergy dermatitis also causes a unique skin condition in cats called military dermatitis that results in small crusty bumps all over the body. The constant scratching and licking can further damage the skin, resulting in open sores and secondary yeast and bacterial infections.

Cats can get fleas through contact with other flea-infested animals, such as other cats, dogs, or wildlife. They can also pick up fleas from contaminated outdoor and indoor environments including grass, carpet, throw rugs, leaf litter, mulch, and bedding where flea eggs, larvae, or adult fleas are present. Fleas can and do easily jump onto cats and dogs from these surfaces, leading to an infestation.

Mites

Mites are microscopic parasites that chew on and burrow into a cat’s skin, causing intense irritation and itching. Certain types of mites can cause a skin disease called mange that can lead to significant hair loss, skin redness, and the development of scabs and lesions due to persistent scratching. Other types of mites, like ear mites, can cause itching around the ears and head, leading to excessive scratching or head shaking, explains Dr. Lambo. Symptoms associated with ear mites also include black debris in ears and secondary ear infections. 

Like fleas, cats can contract mites through direct contact with infected animals or a contaminated environment. Additionally, kittens can contract mites from their mother during grooming and nursing.

Ringworm 

Despite its name, ringworm is not caused by a worm but rather a group of fungi called dermatophytes that infect the skin, hair, and nails. This fungal infection can cause significant irritation and discomfort, leading cats to persistently scratch and lick the affected areas.

Ringworm typically presents as circular patches of hair loss with red, scaly skin, but it can also show up as irregular red skin lesions, overall hair loss, or no symptoms at all! Ringworm fungi thrive in warm, moist environments and are highly contagious to other cats, pets, and people, spreading through direct contact with an infected animal or contaminated objects like bedding, grooming tools, or furniture.

Environmental Allergies

If your cat is itching but doesn’t have fleas or other parasites, an environmental allergy could be to blame. This occurs when a cat’s immune system has a hypersensitive reaction to substances in their surroundings, such as pollen, dust mites, or mold. These allergens can cause skin irritation, leading your cat to excessively lick, chew, or itch themselves.  

Food Allergies

Certain ingredients in your cat’s diet, such as beef, dairy, or grains, can trigger an allergic reaction. Dr. Lambo says this reaction often manifests as intensely itchy skin, typically affecting the ears, face, and paws. Cats with ingredient sensitivities often have digestive signs as well as skin signs. Chronic licking and scratching can lead to hair loss and skin infections if the food allergy is not identified and managed.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when a cat’s skin reacts to substances it touches, such as certain chemicals in cleaning products, fabrics, plants, or topical shampoos or medications. This causes localized itching and redness. The cat’s attempts to soothe the irritation through licking and scratching can lead to further skin damage and infection.

Secondary Skin Infections

Secondary skin infections can develop as a result of excessive scratching and licking. Bacteria and yeast live normally on skin, but when a cat has allergies or external parasites, the microorganisms on the skin can overgrow, causing itching, pimples, pustules, hair loss, skin redness, and odor. Skin infections require treatment for the infection and the contributing underlying skin disorder.

Psychological Issues

If parasites or allergies aren’t the root of your cat’s licking and itching, consider their mental health. “Cats may excessively groom or lick themselves as a response to stress, anxiety, or boredom,” says Dr. Lambo. “This behavior can become compulsive and lead to skin irritation or hair loss over time.”

Diagnosing the Causes of Cat Itching and Licking

Excessive itching and licking typically indicate underlying health issues that require professional diagnosis and treatment. A veterinarian will determine the cause and provide appropriate solutions to relieve your cat’s discomfort.

According to Dr. Lambo and Dr. Osborne, veterinarians use a variety of tests to diagnose the cause of a cat’s itching and licking, including:

  • Physical examination: Your vet will do a thorough physical exam to check for visible signs of fleas, mites, infections, or skin irritation.
  • Skin scraping: This entails collecting skin samples to check for mites and other parasites under a microscope.
  • Skin allergy testing: This procedure is done by a veterinary dermatologist, and requires sedation and shaving a testing area on the skin. In this test, the veterinarian injects small amounts of allergens under the skin to determine if the cat has allergic reactions. From the results of this test, an allergy serum can be created for ‘allergy shots’ that are intended to reduce an allergic cat’s symptoms.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can measure immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which are present when the cat has an allergic reaction. These tests, alongside skin testing for allergies, can help identify specific allergies to environmental factors, such as grass, pollen, and dust.
  • Elimination diet: An elimination diet is conducted if a veterinarian suspects a food allergy. This process involves working with your veterinarian to systematically remove foods from your cat’s diet until symptoms improve. A prescription allergy food is typically prescribed during a food trial. To confirm a specific food as the culprit, the food in question is added back into the cat’s diet to see if the symptoms reappear. Any offending foods should be permanently eliminated from your cat’s diet.
  • Skin culture: This test is used to diagnose ringworm and resistant bacterial infections.
  • Skin biopsy: Typically done for cases of chronic skin conditions, this involves taking a small sample of your cat’s skin and sending it to a laboratory for examination.

In some complex cases, a veterinarian may refer pet parents to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist, says Dr. Lambo. These specialists have advanced training in diagnosing and treating complex skin conditions.

Treatment for Cat Itching and Licking (Plus, Product Recommendations)

Once the underlying cause of a cat’s excessive itching and licking has been diagnosed, your vet will provide an effective treatment plan. It may involve a combination of allergen avoidance, medical therapies, environmental changes, and preventative measures. Some common components of treatment for excessive itching and licking include:

Flea Control

Treatment for cats diagnosed with flea allergy dermatitis involves eliminating fleas and their eggs from your cat and their environment. According to Dr. Osborne, this typically entails:

  • Medicated shampoo: While bathing your cat is not typically recommended to maintain their cleanliness, bathing them with a medicated shampoo can help if they’re dealing with a flea infestation. These shampoos help soothe irritated skin and remove any fleas present on your cat’s skin.
  • Topical or oral flea medications: Give your cat a flea medicine, such as a spot-on treatment, oral tablet, or flea collar, to eliminate fleas and prevent re-infestation. A flea preventative should be given monthly thereafter.
  • Environmental cleaning: It’s crucial to thoroughly clean your living space and clear your yard to eliminate fleas, flea eggs, and flea larvae that could re-infest your cat.
Credelio chewable cat flea and tick control medication

Allergy Management

Treatment for allergies depends on the type of allergy your cat is dealing with. Options may include:

  • Diet change: For food allergies, switching your cat to a diet free from the offending food can eliminate symptoms.
  • Avoid contact: For contact allergies, avoid exposing your cat to the allergen. For instance, if your cat is sensitive to wool, remove their access to that material.
  • Environmental control: Avoiding allergens like house dust and pollen can be trickier, as they’re largely out of your control, says Dr. Osborne. You can try to minimize exposure to environmental allergens like pollen, dust mites, and mold through regular cleaning, keeping windows closed on high pollen days, and air filtration.
  • Allergy medications: If environmental control is not enough to tame your cat’s symptoms, antihistamine allergy medications, such as Benadryl or chlorpheniramine, may be helpful. In more severe cases, Dr. Osborne says inhaled steroids and bronchodilators are available to bring respiratory relief that can occur in addition to itching. Additional medications such as Atopica can also be used in cats.
  • Allergy shots: Dr. Osborne says allergy shots (aka allergen immunotherapy) can help reduce your cat’s allergies by desensitizing the body to the offending allergen.
Royal Canin Hydrolyzed Protein HP dry cat food

Treating Infections

If secondary infections are present, they need to be addressed promptly with medication. This may include oral antimicrobials, injectable antibiotics, or topical antimicrobial medications. Your cat may also be given an anti-inflammatory medication to reduce symptoms.

Addressing Psychological Problems

For cats whose itching and licking are related to anxiety, it’s important to implement techniques to reduce stress. This may include: 

  • Providing more environmental enrichment
  • Establishing a routine
  • Using calming products like Feliway pheromone diffusers
  • Removing any controllable stressors (such as playing loud music)

In some cases, your cat may be prescribed anti-anxiety medications or supplements to help manage stress-related behaviors.

Box of Feliway Classic Cat Calming Diffuser

Skin Care

Certain products can help soothe your cat’s itchy skin and maintain overall good skin health. These may include:

  • Supplements: Certain supplements, such as fish oil and hemp oil, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and can reduce skin inflammation and improve skin health.
  • Topicals: Using topical products like coconut oil and anti-itch cream for cats on patches of irritated, dry skin can help hydrate and provide itch relief. 
  • Humidifier: If the air is dry where you live, consider using a humidifier in your home. This may help improve your cat’s dry skin.
Duralactin soft chews for cats
EicosaDerm omega-3 liquid

Regular Veterinary Check-Ups

Regular check-ups with your veterinarian are essential to monitor your cat’s condition and adjust the treatment plan as needed. Continuous monitoring helps ensure the treatment is effective and allows for timely adjustments if new issues arise.

By understanding and addressing the reasons behind your cat’s itching and licking, you can help your furry friend find the comfort they deserve and keep those happy purrs coming.

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