Coat and Skin Appearance in the Healthy Cat

By 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 he or she has.selkirk_rex


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

Selective breeding has led to cats with a number of coat characteristics:

  • hairless Sphinx,
  • curly-coated minimally-shedding Rex cats,
  • smooth-coated Oriental breeds with sparse undercoats,
  • domestic short-haired 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), or
  • long-haired cats with fine silky hair that tangles easily.

Some cats that live in cooler climates, particularly if they frequently venture outdoors, will 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 hair in low levels all year round.

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

The skin is the largest organ of the body and the cells of the skin turn over rapidly. For most cats, virtually all of the skin is covered with hair that is being shed and replaced several times per year. In order 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, as well as provides the appropriate number of calories to meet its energy needs.

"The ideal diet should be individualized to your cat's specific life stage."

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. 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 will often shed excessively.

For more information about cat nutrition related to specific conditions or life stages, it is recommended that you read the appropriate it is recommended that you read the appropriate client education handouts and discuss the best nutrition plan for your cat with your veterinarian.

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

Illness or stress, especially if it is 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, digestive disturbances such as chronic diarrhea, parasites, both internal (intestinal worms) and external (fleas, ticks, mange mites), and cancer. Even arthritis or obesity can cause skin problems such as dandruff or matting if the cat is unable to groom itself properly.

Many skin conditions affect both the shininess and the appearance of your cat’s fur. 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.

If your cat's skin or coat problem is caused by an underlying health issue, the general health of the skin and the quality of the hair often 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? cat_brushing

All cats benefit from regular brushing to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells, to keep the coat free of dirt, debris and external parasites, and to 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 or along the back of the legs. Cats with short hair coats may require less frequent brushing.

"All cats benefit from regular brushing."

Daily brushing will cut down on the amount of hair that a cat swallows during the course of self-grooming with its tongue, therefore helping to reduce the number of hairballs your cat may develop.

In addition to benefitting your cat, daily brushing will cut down dramatically on the amount of loose hair and cat dander floating around the home. For some people with mild cat allergies, daily brushing may even reduce the amount of airborne allergens enough that they can share their home with a cat.

Regardless of the type of hair coat, you should inspect your cat's coat every day to make sure there are no tangles or clumps that have developed 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 particular 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 that has difficulty grooming itself 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.

"Most healthy adult cats are fastidious groomers and rarely require a bath."

Cats should only be bathed with a shampoo that is formulated for use on cats - their skin has a different thickness and pH (acidity) than human skin. Human shampoo, including baby shampoo, is far too harsh for their skin. For routine bathing, a hypoallergenic shampoo without any added perfumes is the best choice. For optimum results, a conditioning product should be applied afterwards to restore any lost moisture to the skin and minimize the development of dandruff after the bath. Since all cats will groom themselves vigorously after a bath, it is extremely important to completely rinse out any shampoo or rinse thoroughly so that your cat does not swallow any residues that could cause digestive upset or other harm.

"It is extremely important to completely rinse out any shampoo or rinse thoroughly so that your cat does not swallow any residues that could cause digestive upset or other harm."

If you find that your cat requires frequent bathing, your veterinarian may recommend the use of a 'dry shampoo' or a special therapeutic shampoo and conditioning rinse so that your furry friend does not develop skin problems associated with the repeated baths.

For specific information about grooming or bathing your cat, see the handout "Grooming and Coat Care for your Cat".

My cat seems to only have 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, particularly from lack of humidity in our homes. Other cats that have allergies to pollens from trees, plants, or grass may develop skin problems during pollen season - this may occur in the spring with tree pollens 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 even a single insect bite.

If you bathe or groom your cat and the skin or coat problem returns quickly, you should bring him or her to the veterinary clinic for an examination. Sometimes, skin problems such as a skin rash, itchiness, excessive dandruff, heavy shedding, a greasy coat, or an unpleasant skin odor can indicate a serious underlying problem. In many cases, this underlying problem will be easy 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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