Seborrhea in Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

What is seborrhea?

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: 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 like dandruff that can be seen on the cat's sleeping areas. Some skin areas may be red and inflamed, with either a dry or oily feel to the lesions, and 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, mites
  • Bacterial or yeast infections
  • Dietary abnormalities or diets containing low omega-3 fatty acids
  • Environmental factors (e.g., temperature, humidity changes)
  • Obesity or musculoskeletal disease or pain making the cat unable to groom properly

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 to look for subclinical or hidden underlying conditions or imbalances
  • Skin cytology and biopsy to look for inflammatory cells, bacteria, yeast, fungus, or abnormal cells
  • Skin scrapings and hair pluckings to check for external parasites
  • Skin culture to assess for bacterial and fungal infections (i.e., ringworm)
  • Testing for underlying feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) 
  • Hormone testing to check for hormonal imbalances (i.e., thyroid disease)

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
  • Anti-seborrheic shampoos and topical treatments
  • Corticosteroids
  • Retinoids
  • Oral cyclosporine (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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