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Atopic Dermatitis in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Atopic dermatitis in cats can cause intense itching and scratching and consequently, redness, sores, and inflammation of the skin. In this post, our Orange Park veterinary dermatologist discusses the skin condition, its causes, and the measures we can take to help manage symptoms.

What is atopic dermatitis?

Your cat may have allergies to certain environmental proteins that trigger a reaction in the body, such as breathing problems or skin condition such as atopic dermatitis.

Also referred to as atopy, allergic inhalant dermatitis, or itchy skin disease, atopic dermatitis is a common inflammatory skin condition caused by an allergic reaction. It occurs in cats that are genetically predisposed and can become an issue for kitties of any age. 

What are the symptoms of atopic dermatitis in cats?

Cats affected by atopic dermatitis frequently have issues with intense chronic or recurrent itching, which may be seasonal or non-seasonal. Recurring skin and/or ear infections also tend to plague cats with atopy. Areas most commonly affected include the feet, face or muzzle, ears, armpits, and groin. 

In many cases, affected cats scratch or chew frequently in an attempt to relieve the itch, which can cause significant trauma to their skin. Redness, raised and open sores, bumps with bloody scabs, crusts and scaling, or scratches may appear, or a cat may lick away or pull out clumps of fur. Fur may also be stained brown from saliva. 

The skin may also change color due to chronic licking and inflammation. In addition, you may notice your cat suffers from facial itchiness and see a loss in symmetric patterns on their fur. These symptoms also appear with many other conditions or allergies such as food hypersensitivity and flea allergy dermatitis, or other skin diseases. Keep in mind that symptoms may differ widely between cats. 

Atopy is a lifelong disease and symptoms generally tend to worsen with age. Although they can be controlled, they are not typically eliminated completely. 

What causes atopic dermatitis in cats?

Some of the most common environmental causes of allergies in cats are dust, grass, pollen, fungi, mold, weeds, and grass. Common indoor allergens include smoke, certain cleaning products, flea control products, cat litter, prescription drugs, and perfume. 

How atopic dermatitis diagnosed?

Your veterinary dermatologist will start by examining your cat thoroughly to check for itching, skin lesions and other symptoms. They will also take a complete patient history, asking you a variety of questions about your cat's skin disease so they can better characterize the condition. 

Based on the results of the physical exam and history assessment, the veterinary dermatologist may begin to suspect atopic dermatitis as the primary cause of your cat's skin disease. 

Unfortunately, there is no definitive diagnostic test for atopic dermatitis. Your veterinary dermatologist will need to rule out other similar skin conditions to make a diagnosis. Since symptoms are so similar to other skin conditions, this may take some time. 

Diagnostic tests can be done to rule out skin parasites (e.g. lice, mites, fleas), bacterial skin infections, and ringworm. Biopsies may also be completed so the vet can rule out autoimmune skin disease and other skin conditions.

The vet may also recommend a food trial to exclude a food allergy as a source of your cat's skin issues. Ruling our other skin conditions is key to concluding that atopy is causing your cat's symptoms. 

Finally, other lab tests can help rule out underlying medical conditions and determine whether certain medicinal treatments would be safe for your cat. These tests will likely include a complete blood cell count (CBC), urinalysis, and serum biochemical profile. 

However, there are certain tests that can help your veterinary dermatologist decide how to best manage your cat's atopic dermatitis:

  • Intradermal Allergy Testing - This test involves injecting very small amounts of many allergens found in your local area into your cat's skin to see if a reaction occurs. Your pet will first be sedated to make sure they are comfortable. An area of the skin will then be shaved so the allergens can be injected. Your cat will be monitored at a couple of key points - 20 minutes and two hours - after exposure to see if a reaction has developed.  
  • Serum Allergy Testing - A small sample of your pet's blood will be taken and sent to our in-house lab for examination. This test will check for allergen-specific antibodies (IgE) related to numerous common allergens that can contribute to skin problems in pets. 

How is atopic dermatitis in cats treated?

If your cat is diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, they'll require lifelong treatment, since this is a lifelong disease. When it comes to managing atopic dermatitis in cats, treatment is about managing symptoms. This may involve administering antihistamines, corticosteroids or other steroids, and immunotherapy (allergy shots or drops). 

Note that using steroids long-term may lead to complications such as iatrogenic Cushing's disease, diabetes, and worsening bacterial or fungal skin infections. 

Immunotherapy is formulated specifically for individual cats or dogs and is administered via injection under the skin. Immunotherapy can successfully reduce itching in many pets, while topical therapy (shampoos, sprays, mousses or rinses) may also be beneficial.

How can I prevent my cat's atopic dermatitis from flaring up?

The best way to prevent your cat's atopic dermatitis symptoms from flaring up is to avoid exposing them to known allergens. We recommend closing windows, maintaining a dust-free house, and keeping your cat indoors during seasons when pollen levels are hight.

It's also important to keep your cat's fur clean and avoid minimize fleas, skin or ear infections, and other factors that may complicate symptoms. Since the predisposition to inhalant allergies is genetically transmitted, affected cats should be spayed or neutered. Taking your cat to your primary vet annually can also help detect any problems early.

Veterinary Dermatology at Animal Friends Dermatology

Our veterinary dermatologist in Orange Park understands that seeing allergic dermatitis or other skin conditions on your cat can be very concerning. We are here to help treat, manage, and prevent flare-ups of these conditions. 

We provide specialized care for pets suffering from uncomfortable skin issues like allergic dermatitis, which require proper diagnosis, treatment, and management to prevent allergic reactions or recurrences. A veterinary dermatologist can be an important ally in managing skin conditions like atopic dermatitis. 

We accept both requests for appointments and referrals from primary care veterinarians. Our vet dermatologist can develop an individualized treatment plan for your cat and provide you a written copy. In addition, we are always available to answer any questions and concerns you may have about treatment or at-home care. 

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Have you noticed symptoms of allergic dermatitis or other skin conditions on your cat? Ask your vet about a referral. Our veterinary dermatologist will work with your primary care vet to ensure your pet receives the best possible care. 

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