Coat and Skin Appearance in the Healthy Cat

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

The general condition of your cat's skin and coat are good indicators of her health. A healthy coat should be shiny and smooth, not coarse or brittle, and healthy skin should be supple and clear, not greasy, flaky, or bumpy. Although health and nutrition influence the shine and texture of your cat's coat from the inside, regular grooming and skin care on the outside will also help keep your cat's coat clean and free of tangles, no matter what type of hair coat they have.

What are the different types of hair coats that a cat might have?

Selective breeding has led to cats with several coat characteristics, such as:

  • hairless Sphynx 
  • curly-coated minimally-shedding Rex cats
  • smooth-coated Oriental breeds with sparse undercoats 
  • domestic shorthaired cats with a ‘regular coat’ of guard hairs (the protective outer coat) and undercoat (the soft fine layer found under the guard hairs that provides additional insulation)
  • longhaired cats with fine silky hair that tangles easily

Some cats living in cooler climates, particularly if they frequently venture outdoors, undergo two heavy seasonal shedding cycles per year (late spring and late fall), during which much of the undercoat falls out in clumps. However, many cats that share our homes shed at low levels all year round.

How does nutrition influence the appearance of my cat's coat and skin?

The skin is the body’s largest organ, and the cells of the skin turn over rapidly. For most cats, virtually all skin is covered with hair that is shed and replaced several times yearly. To maintain the skin and hair in a healthy state, your cat requires a properly balanced diet that contains high-quality digestible proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins and provides the appropriate calories to meet her energy needs. If the nutrients are not digested well and are of poor quality, not only will they be unavailable to meet the body's needs, but they will also cause the liver and kidneys to work harder to eliminate the indigestible waste products. The ideal diet should be individualized to your cat's specific life stage (i.e., kitten, adult, senior) and health status.

"A cat whose diet is inadequate to meet her dietary needs will have a dull, dry hair coat and may shed excessively."

In all cases, quality and balance are the keys to good nutrition. A cat whose diet is inadequate to meet her dietary needs will have a dull, dry hair coat and may shed excessively. Consult your veterinarian for advice on choosing the optimal diet for your cat.

What role does health play in my cat’s coat and skin appearance?

Illness or stress, especially if chronic or long-standing, will affect the appearance of your cat’s coat, particularly its shine and texture, and many cats will shed excessively when they are under stress. Some of the more common examples of diseases that can affect your cat’s coat include hormone imbalances or other metabolic problems (hyperthyroidism), digestive disturbances (e.g., chronic diarrhea), internal (intestinal worms) and external (fleas, ticks, mange mites) parasites, and cancer. Arthritis and obesity can cause skin problems such as dandruff and matting if the cat cannot groom herself properly.

Many skin conditions affect the shininess and appearance of your cat’s hair. Allergic skin disease and seborrhea cause itching and changes in the normal production of skin oils, resulting in a dull coat and excessive shedding, either in patches or over the entire body. Suppose your cat's skin or coat problem is caused by an underlying health issue. In that case, the skin's general health and the hair’s quality will improve dramatically when the illness is brought under control through treatment, which may include dietary changes.

What role does regular grooming play in the appearance of my cat's coat and skin?

All cats with hair benefit from regular brushing to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, keep the coat free of dirt, debris, and external parasites, and distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. Cats with long, silky, or curly coats require daily brushing to keep their hair from becoming tangled or matted, especially around the ears, in the armpits, and along the back of the legs. Cats with short hair coats may require less frequent brushing. Daily brushing will reduce the amount of hair your cat swallows during self-grooming with her tongue, reducing the number of hairballs she may develop.

Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your cat's coat every few days to ensure there are no tangles or clumps under the armpits, in the groin, or behind the ears. If you regularly check your cat's coat and skin, you will also have a better chance of detecting any unusual lumps and bumps or areas of sensitivity on your cat's body.

How often should I bathe my cat?

Most healthy adult cats are fastidious groomers and rarely require a bath. How often your cat needs to be bathed will depend somewhat on her age, lifestyle, and whether there are any underlying health problems. For example, an arthritic or overweight cat with difficulty grooming may need the occasional bath to remove loose hair and objectionable odors. If your cat has skin allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe frequent bathing with a therapeutic shampoo as part of the treatment regime.

" arthritic or overweight cat with difficulty grooming may need the occasional bath to remove loose hair and objectionable odors."

Suppose you find that your cat requires frequent bathing. In that case, your veterinarian may recommend using a 'dry shampoo' or a special therapeutic shampoo and conditioning rinse, so she does not develop skin problems associated with repeated baths. For information about grooming and bathing your cat, see the handout "Grooming and Coat Care for your Cat".

My cat only has skin or coat problems at specific times of the year. Why is this?

Some cats may suffer from skin irritation related to dry winter conditions, mainly from the lack of humidity in our homes. Other cats that have allergies to pollen from trees, plants, or grass may develop skin problems during pollen season, which may occur in the spring with tree pollen or during summer or fall for plant pollen allergies. Some cats are allergic to fleas or other biting insects and can develop a rash or patchy hair loss with a single insect bite.

If you bathe or groom your cat and the skin or coat problem returns quickly, you should bring her to the veterinary clinic for an examination. Sometimes, skin problems, such as a rash, itchiness, excessive dandruff, heavy shedding, a greasy coat, or unpleasant odor, can indicate a serious underlying problem. In many cases, this underlying problem will be simple to diagnose and treat, but occasionally, the underlying disorder can present a diagnostic challenge and might even require referral to a dermatologist. Once the underlying problem is diagnosed, the appropriate treatment can be prescribed to control your cat's symptoms.

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