It’s hard to see a pet suffer from a horrible itch. Unlike with humans, you can’t explain what’s happening to them, and it’s hard to ask what they’ve been doing that might have set it off. With cats it’s especially difficult, since sometimes the first thing you’ll notice is a scary looking scab. Thankfully, most allergies are rarer in cats than humans, and are manageable with long-term treatment. If you’re worried your cat is having an allergic reaction, here’s what to look for, and what treatment might end up looking like.
Allergic reactions in cats most often show up as scabby skin, crusty eyes and face, breathing problems, or unusual swelling. If your pet has any of these issues, allergies might be at play. But first things first: All diagnoses and treatment should be done in conjunction with your vet. Don’t try and diagnose and treat anything without having an expert’s advice - though you might think it’s allergies it doesn’t mean it for sure, so always check with your vet first.
Causes of Skin Allergies in Cats
There are four major causes of allergic reactions in cats: fleas, foods, inhalant/seasonal, and contact - of these, fleas are the most common. A flea allergy is different from your cat just scratching at a flea bite; instead, it’s a reaction that can cause itching across their entire body. As veterinary dermatologist Dr. Millie Rosales, explained to me, tick allergies are by far the most common allergy type she sees - and more than a little preferable to other types, because ticks are directly and easily treatable.
The other three types are closely linked to exposure to the allergen, and it’s generally a matter of treating the symptoms as you can, attempting to keep your cat away from whatever’s setting them off, and potentially seeking long term treatment like immunotherapy.
Symptoms of Cat Allergies
There are a surprising number of symptoms that are often seen with allergic reactions in cats - though it can be tricky to pin down a single symptom as a definitive indicator. There’s a long list of potential symptoms according to vet Dr. Erica Hess. Dr. Hess advises to look for “scratching (especially around the face/neck), hair loss, inflamed skin, overgrooming (especially the abdomen), skin lesions such as small red bumps (“papules”), pimple-like lesions (“pustules”), excoriations, crusts, lesions affecting the lips or oral cavity, and chin acne.”
Many of the symptoms we associate with allergies in cats come from “atopic dermatitis”, which is like the kitty version of eczema, essentially red and itchy skin. In cats, this presents commonly as “miliary dermatitis” - this is where a cat gets so itchy that they lick and scratch their skin to the point of causing little scabs to form. If you’ve ever been groomed by your cat, you know how scratchy their tongues can be; and so if they’re licking at one spot trying to get at that itch, it’s no wonder the skin would break and scab over.
Cats may also show “self-inflicted alopecia”: areas of skin they’ve made bald by over-aggressive licking. Dr. Rosales told me that pet owners may have the common misconception that cats licking themselves bald may be due to stress or other behavioural issues, but she explained that’s true for “a very small percent” of cases and “the majority of the time it’s because they have an allergy.” So if your cat is licking themselves to the point of hair loss - get them to a vet.
Allergies can also cause your cat to have mouth ulcers and respiratory issues like coughing, sneezing, or wheezing. Dr. Hess also made sure to add this reminder: “Many of these symptoms can be seen with a number of other conditions, and a thorough patient history along with a complete physical check-up by a vet is crucial.”
If you have any questions, you can speak to a veterinary expert here.
Diagnosis of Cat Allergies
Many of the symptoms associated with cat allergies can also be caused by other issues like fungal infections, bacterial infections, or parasites. So, if you suspect your pet is having an allergic reaction... talk to your vet. Dr. Rosales pointed out that if your cat tests negative for those problems, chances are allergies are the culprit.
Because cats can show allergic reactions several different ways, it can be hard to pin down the exact cause. And the site where a cat is having a reaction isn’t as closely linked to what set them off as it is in other animals, like dogs. Like with humans, your vet may give your cat a skin pinprick test where they inject tiny amounts of allergens and see how much your skin bumps - but Dr. Rosales told me that since cats have such thin skin, it may be difficult to test them accurately this way, and a vet may also do a blood test for more information.
It may take several attempts for your vet to correctly identify what’s causing the allergic reactions, but it’s a process. Give it time, and work through all the steps so that you can all be sure and treat the issue properly.