Seborrhea in Cats

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

What is seborrhea?skin_layers_sweatglandshairsebaceousglands_2018

Seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis is a skin disorder in which the sebaceous glands of the skin produce an excessive amount of sebum causing scaly, flaky, itchy, and red skin. Seborrhea typically affects the back, face, and flanks and is worse in the folds of the skin.

There are two types of seborrhea, called seborrhea sicca (meaning dry seborrhea), and seborrhea oleosa (meaning oily seborrhea). Most cats with seborrheic dermatitis have a combination of dry and oily seborrhea.

What are the clinical signs of seborrhea?

In cats, seborrhea usually affects skin areas that are rich in sebaceous glands, especially the skin along the back. The affected areas of skin often flake off in whitish scales (dandruff) that can be seen on the cat's sleeping areas.

"Many cats will have an odor associated with seborrhea."

Some skin areas may be red and inflamed, with either a dry or an oily feel to the lesions. The dermatitis may be worse in areas with skin folds such as the feet, neck, lips, armpits, thighs, and underside. Many cats will have an odor associated with seborrhea. This odor is usually worsened if the seborrhea is complicated by a secondary bacterial or yeast skin infection.


What causes seborrhea?

Seborrhea can be a primary or secondary disease. Primary seborrhea is inherited and occurs in breeds such as Persian cats. Secondary seborrhea is more common with the exact cause not always determined. In these cases it is called idiopathic seborrhea. Secondary seborrhea is often related to an underlying medical problem, such as:

  • hormonal imbalances (especially hyperthyroidism)
  • allergies
  • parasites (internal and external) - fleas, ticks
  • fungal infections - especially ringworm
  • dietary abnormalities - poor diets containing low omega-3 fatty acids
  • environmental factors (temperature, humidity changes)
  • obesity
  • musculoskeletal disease or pain - the cat is unable to groom itself properly along the back and tail base


How is seborrhea diagnosed?

Tests that can aid your veterinarian in diagnosing your cat's seborrhea include:

  • Complete blood cell count (CBC), serum chemistries and electrolytes. Looks for subclinical or hidden underlying conditions or imbalances.
  • Skin cytology and biopsy. Looks for inflammatory cells, bacteria, yeast, fungus, and abnormal cells.
  • Skin scrapings and hair pluckings. Looks for parasites such as mites.
  • Skin culture. Looks for bacterial and fungal infections, including ringworm.
  • Hormone tests. Looks for hormonal imbalances (e.g., thyroid disease testing).


How is seborrhea treated?

Treatment is aimed at the underlying cause. If no underlying cause can be found, then a diagnosis of primary or idiopathic seborrhea is made. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for primary or idiopathic seborrhea. In general, treatments that help manage seborrhea include:

  • omega-3 fatty acid supplements
  • antiseborrheic shampoos and topical treatments
  • corticosteroids (e.g., prednisone)
  • retinoids
  • oral cyclosporine (e.g., brand name Atopica®)
  • antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections


What is the prognosis for seborrhea?

The prognosis for seborrhea is based on your cat's specific condition and severity. The prognosis is better if an underlying cause is identified and treated. Your veterinarian will discuss a diagnostic and treatment plan for your cat to help you manage this common and often frustrating condition.

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