Cats spend 30-50% of their waking time grooming themselves. They're naturally clean animals and take their personal hygiene seriously.
But what happens when their behavior turns into something obsessive and constant? So much so that you've caught yourself frequently asking, "Why does my cat itch so much?"
Excessive itching, biting, or licking is oftentimes a sign of a bigger problem. Some of the most common causes include allergies, parasites, and infections.
If you've noticed your cat scratching themselves multiple times a day, the best course of action is to consult your veterinarian to determine the cause of such behavior.
7 Possible Reasons Why Your Cat Itches (Plus Symptoms and Remedies)
Excessive scratching and itching is a symptom rather than a diagnosis.
Regular grooming alongside the occasional scratch here and there is completely normal, but if you've caught your cat itching herself more than several times a day, she is likely suffering from something that causes her discomfort.
Here are some of the most common causes of itchiness in cats:
Excessive scratching is one of the easiest ways to tell that your cat is plagued by parasites. There are three types of feline parasites: ectoparasites, intestinal parasites, and feline heartworm.
Ectoparasites are parasites that live outside of their hosts. Examples include fleas, ticks, lice, and mange mites. These pesky little critters are what cause frequent itching in cats.
Unfortunately, ectoparasites conceal themselves quite expertly in a cat's fur. Due to a cat's dense hair coat, it might be quite challenging to diagnose a cat with external parasites. Even more so if the cat has dark fur. But just because you can't see them doesn't mean they’re not there.
Along with intense itching, symptoms include:
- Wet scabs
- Fur loss
- Constant biting and licking
- Sore skin
- Pale gums
You can tell a cat has fleas by searching for black pepper-like specs on her fur or bedding. These black, gritty materials are the parasite's feces. Run a comb through your cat several times and occasionally part her fur to locate these specs.
If your cat is showing signs of external parasites, act quickly! Keep in mind that an adult female flea can lay up to 50 eggs per day, therefore posing a health danger to you, your household, and your cat if left untreated.
Luckily, treating your cat for external parasites is a relatively easy affair. Simply take your cat to the vet so your doctor can prescribe her a parasite treatment. Depending on the severity, the parasites may either die within 24 hours or within several short weeks of regular spot-on application.
In the event that your cat is indeed suffering from external parasites, you may likewise need to treat your home to prevent a parasite infestation and re-infect your cat.
Ear mites are a type of surface mite that infects a cat's ear canal. Although rarely, they’d also sometimes live on the surface of a cat's skin. Ear mites are extremely contagious, so if you have more than one cat, your other cat is likely affected by them, too.
These mites are barely visible to the naked eye if they're not bundled in clusters, where they then appear as dark, waxy discharge from a cat's ear. If your cat is constantly shaking her head or scratching her ears with her front or back paws, it's likely that she's suffering from ear mites.
Other symptoms include:
- Crusted rash around or in the ear
- Blood blisters on the ear
- Skin lesions
- Hair loss
- Excessive wax build-up
- Foul-smelling ear discharge
Treatment usually comes in the form of ear drops. If your cat has excessive ear mite build-up, it's best to visit the vet so the doctor can perform a spot-on treatment and prescribe you with eardrops made specifically for ear mites.
You'll then need to use these drops anywhere between several days to a few weeks, depending on your doctor's recommendation and the severity of the cat's mites.
Immediate treatment is imperative to prevent aural hematoma, deafness, and inner eardrum damage.
Cats get allergies, too! Cats can be allergic to certain types of medications, foods, plants, and more. They can also have severe reactions to parasite saliva, dust mites, and dander, along with other environmental agencies such as fungi, mold, pollen, and grass.
If your cat isn't suffering from any type of external parasite and seems to vary in her itching from location to time of year, she's likely suffering from an allergic reaction.
Allergy symptoms in cats include:
- Excessive grooming
- Pulling or biting out hair
- Red, dry, or flaky skin
- Watery eyes
- Swollen paws
- Chewing at paws or body
- Snoring caused by throat inflammation
Visiting a veterinary dermatologist is the best way to diagnose allergies in cats. He or she may perform several physical exams and look through your cat's medical history to help determine what your cat's allergic to.
If it's food-related, your vet may recommend avoiding an ingredient or two in your cat's diet. The same is said if your cat is allergic to medications, cleaners, plants, and other things that are avoidable. If your cat is allergic to pollen or dust, your cat may need to take regular medication.
Feline skin infections include feline acne, bacterial infections, yeast infections, ringworm, sporotrichosis (fungal disease), and skin tumors. All these skin infections cause extreme physical discomfort and even pain. Symptoms include the following:
- Excessive shedding
- Excessive scratching, licking, or chewing
- Scaly, scabby, or flaky skin
- Skin swelling, bumps, rashes, and redness
- Draining sores
- Pustules (small bumps on skin containing fluid or pus)
- Unnaturally foul odor
- Painful skin lesions
If you've noticed your cat's coat is no longer shiny, healthy, and dander-free even after giving her a bath, it might be a cause for concern. The same is said with skin lesions and acne-like skin bumps on your cat's body.
A visit to the veterinarian is highly recommended if your cat is experiencing any of the symptoms above. Along with testing for parasites, your vet will evaluate the type of infection your cat is suffering from and determine the appropriate treatment.
Treatment usually includes oral antibiotics and/or topical creams or ointments to soften the crust on your cat's skin. Bacterial and yeast infections may be treated with antibiotic shampoos or dips. In severe cases, cysts or lesions may require surgical removal.
Itching due to insect bites is quite common in cats, especially during the spring and summer seasons. Insect bites caused by mosquitoes, flies, spiders, and midges, along with wasp and bee stings, can result in moderate to severe itching in cats.
Painful welts may develop, and while sensitive to the touch, your cat may disregard the pain for the momentary relief brought about by scratching. This often results in bleeding and/or skin lesions.
Keep in mind that cats are sensitive to insect venom or saliva, and may therefore cause anaphylaxis or extreme allergic reactions. In severe cases, cats may experience difficulty breathing and wheezing, excessive drooling, vomiting, disorientation, and even seizures.
If any of these symptoms occur within 20 minutes of being bit, take your cat to the vet immediately.
Tamer symptoms include:
- Excessive scratching, licking, or chewing
- Swelling in the affected area
VCA Animal Hospitals recommend applying a thick paste of baking soda on the affected area to soothe the pain of the bite. In case of bee stings, look for a stinger and remove it by flicking it off or scraping a credit card over your cat's fur. Don't use tweezers as this may squeeze the stinger and secrete more venom into your cat's body.
To prevent allergic reactions, give your cat a dose of oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl and Vetadryl, if you have it available. Avoid gel capsules as they often contain solvents that are potentially toxic or irritating to a cat.
Consult your vet before giving your cat a dose to prevent overdose, as antihistamine is manufactured for living beings that weigh a lot more than cats.
Cats with dry skin are prone to scratching, biting, and chewing themselves. Along with the above-mentioned causes of dry skin (parasites, allergies, and skin infections), some of the most common causes of dry skin include nutritional inadequacies, dry winter air, and hormonal conditions such as hyperthyroidism.
Bathing your cat with the wrong shampoo or too-hot water may also cause dry skin.
For symptoms, keep an eye out for the following:
- White, dandruff-like flakes appearing on fur
- Diminished shine or dull-looking coat
- Constant irritation and scratching
If you believe your cat has dry skin, start by increasing the air's humidity using a humidifier during wintertime. You can also place a pan of water close to the radiator to increase your room's moisture.
Then, increase your cat's omega-3 fatty acid intake. Dr. Juliette Bouillon of Ross University recommends adding about an eighth teaspoon of salmon oil, fish oil, or flaxseed oil into your cat's meals once every day.
You can also change your cat's shampoo and use hypoallergenic shampoos instead, preferably those with oatmeal or benzoyl peroxide for relief.
Overweight cats are more likely to suffer from dry skin due to decreased grooming. This often results in skin inflammations, hair matting, and flaking. Avoid this by regularly brushing and grooming your cat.
Apart from staying clean, cats groom themselves as a calming mechanism. If your cat is distressed, anxious, lonely, bored, or simply isn't happy, she may scratch and groom herself to feel a bit of relief.
These psychological factors are more likely to happen with indoor cats as they don't experience the same excitement and adventure that outdoor cats do.
Stress in cats is usually caused by:
- Change in the environment
- Change in routine
- Presence of a new animal or baby
- Hunger, thirst, and lack of key resources
- Territorial issues multi-cat household
- Inappropriate or improper handling
- Loud or noisy environment
- Loss of a loved one
If you've caught your cat scratching herself one too many times, it's likely a sign of a bigger issue. Pay attention to your cat's distress and try to understand the reason behind her constant itching. Stay on the safe side and consult a veterinarian so they can help you diagnose your cat.
To conclude this article, allow me to quote Dr. Osborne: Grooming your cat on a regular basis is the single best way to maintain the overall health of her skin and hair coat.