My Itchy Cat

My Itchy Cat

The story of my itchy cat Oreo began the second week of January when he started to excessively groom himself. At first, I thought he was just unhappy that his best friend and my youngest son Sam went back to college. I must admit, Oreo is an emotionally sensitive cat and thought, if I give him a little more attention, it would resolve. But, unfortunately it only intensified.

Over the course of the next week, his slight increase in grooming led to him pulling tufts of hair out and leaving bare patches of skin behind. Not overly confident that my son’s departure triggered his excessive grooming, I began to investigate other causes.

There were two additional variables to consider. In this same month, I switched litter material after my other cat Lemon decided she no longer liked using clay litter. After investigating five products, I finally landed on a litter material containing a “natural herbal attractant” that both cats consistently used. Could it possibly have been this new herbal scented litter material that triggered Oreo’s obsessive grooming? I immediately discontinued it and switched to a hypoallergenic product.

The third potential trigger for Oreo’s excessive grooming was an unintentional diet change. My local pet store temporarily ran out of his turkey and rice food, so I bought a bag of trout and rice food by the same company. Did a food allergy trigger this compulsive grooming? Inpatient for his response to a change in cat litter, I simultaneously stopped this new food and returned to his original diet.

In the end, I had three potential triggering factors for Oreo’s excessive grooming: stress of my son’s departure, change in litter material, and change in diet. Given his red irritated skin, I treated him with an anti-inflammatory drug to provide him some instant relief. To my delight and Oreo’s relief, his excessive grooming reduced and today, I see new stubs of hair growth on his back.

If you have an itchy cat, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Diet: Did I change my cat’s food? Introduce a new treat?

2. Environment:

a. Anything new in my home? New furniture? New rugs? Recent construction? Recent painting? New cat bed?

b. Did I purchase any new plants for the home?

c. Did I change cleaning products?

d. Did I purchase a new air-freshener?

e. Did I light scented candles?

f. Did I clean the rugs recently?

g. Did I use any carpet or fabric deodorizers?

3. Parasites: Does my cat have fleas or other parasites on its skin? Indoor pets can acquire parasites.

4. Stress:

a. Did I introduce a new pet into the family?

b. Did anyone leave the home? Did my cat’s best friend go off to college? Is my cat mourning the loss of another pet?

c. Any new guests recently in my home?

d. Am I traveling and leaving my cat home alone more frequently?

e. Am I recently more stressed about my job, my health, or something else? Your stress can trigger a stress response in your cat.

f. Do I have loud neighbors or noisy construction nearby that may be frightening my cat?

5. Seasonality: Has this happened before? Did I notice my cat itching last year around the same time as this year? Indoor cats can have pollen and grass allergies, too!

6. Litter material: Any change in litter material? Have I cleaned the litter box with a new cleaning product? Did I add any deodorants to the litter material? Is the litter material scented? Perfumed products can aggravate allergies in cats.

If you cannot discover the cause nor resolve your pet’s itching, please quickly see your veterinarian to relieve your cat’s discomfort.

At your veterinarian’s office, your doctor will try to uncover the triggering factor to your pet’s itching behavior by taking a complete history and performing a thorough physical examination. Using a scalpel blade, a skin scrape may be performed to detect mites on your pet’s skin. A fungal or bacterial culture may be performed if there are skin lesions present that suggest an underlying infectious element.

To help reduce your cat’s excessive grooming, there are a few medicinal products available. The actual drug selected will be dependent on the suspected cause. If it’s stress, I obviously recommend eliminating or reducing the stress factor. Sometimes I prescribe an anti-anxiety medication, (like fluoxetine, trazodone or Solliquin), to help console a pet’s anxiety and quicken recovery. Sometimes medicating a cat for a few weeks to months is all that is necessary to overcome this issue.

I recognize that medicating a cat can be extraordinarily challenging and therefore, I purposefully select products that can be easily administered. I frequently prescribe fluoxetine as a transdermal ointment that you simply paint daily on the inside your cat’s ear flap. The daily act of pilling a cat has the unfortunate potential to intensify your pet’s stress level.

If you suspect your cat is allergic to an ingredient in its food, I recommend an 8 to 12-week prescription food trial with a diet containing a single unique protein to your cat. Regrettably, there is no blood test on the market today that accurately tests for food allergies in pets. The selection of this unique protein diet is crucial to the success of the food trial. I strongly recommend consulting with your veterinarian on which limited ingredient diet is best for your cat.

Beware that a number of over-the-counter diets list only a single protein ingredient in their food but the equipment that the manufacturer uses is frequently contaminated with other ingredients. Remember the Dunkin Donut drive-thru window sign that says something like: “Please be advised that any of our products may contain, or come in contact with, allergens including eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat.” If I had a peanut allergy, this sign would definitely stop me from buying a glazed donut that I would have presumed to be nut-free. For this reason, I strongly recommend only using veterinarian prescribed limited ingredient prescription diet foods for the your pet’s food trial.

If your pet has fleas or mites, ask your veterinarian to recommend the safest and most effective anti-parasitic product for your cat. Please do not go to the pet store and ask the store clerk what they recommend: they do not know all the nuances of all the anti-parasitic products available today. Many flea products available on your pet store’s shelves can be safely used on dogs but have the potential to kill or make your cat extremely ill. Take advantage of your veterinarian’s wealth of knowledge and ask them for advice.

If you suspect your cat is having an allergic reaction to something in its environment, your veterinarian can allergy test your cat and uncover the allergens. By performing an allergy blood or an intradermal skin test, your pet’s allergens can be identified. If the allergen is discovered, like house dust, molds or pollens, your veterinarian can recommend a desensitization program to reduce your pet’s allergic symptoms by up to 70%. In addition, there are anti-inflammatory (steroids) and immune-modulating drugs (like Atopic) that help relieve your cat’s itching. I find using anti-histamines, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) rarely effective in reducing cat’s allergic symptoms.

Although Oreo is not 100% back to normal yet, I’m seeing weekly improvement. In 2-weeks, I’m hoping my son’s arrival home for spring break will be the final prescription for Oreo’s return to good mental health. I definitely know it will make me happy!

Dr. Donna Solomon is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Center of Chicago and invites you to email her your questions or future topic ideas to

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