A fluffy, glossy coat of fur is a cat’s crowning glory. It’s taken as a sign of health and vitality. So why do I have cats coming to the clinic with greasy fur, mats and dandruff? It’s not as simple as moisturizing dry skin in most cases. Here is the step-by-step process I follow when helping a cat overcome a coat problem.
The best ways to fix cat dandruff, greasy fur and mats are
• Improve her diet
• Help her with grooming
• Use a degreasing shampoo
• Be patient since coat changes take months, not days!
Improve the Diet for Less Dandruff
If you’re feeding a cheaper brand of cat food, try upgrading to a premium brand. Try adding canned or fresh cooked food to the rotation for added moisture.
Adding fish oil in the appropriate amount will balance the omega-6 fats prevalent in commercial cat food. An ideal dietary fat balance will increase the chances your cat will have a soft, shiny coat without excessive dandruff.
Learn how to use omega-3 supplements for cats in my article on fish oil.
Do a Food Trial
If your cat is itchy (overgrooming to the point of thinning hair, scratching the head area, etc.) food allergy is more likely to be part of the problem. You may notice a generally untidy appearance including greasy fur and dandruff.
For cats with suspected allergies, I recommend that food allergy trials use Royal Canin Limited Ingredient Diets or Purina HA.
You should feed the new food for at least two months. During this time, you must make sure the cat has no access to other food or treats, especially anything containing animal proteins.
Help Your Cat with Grooming to Control Mats
Older cats with mobility problems and overweight cats have trouble reaching all parts of their body with their tongue. By brushing your cat frequently, you will help him with his health and appearance.
Hopefully, your cat already enjoys grooming. If he doesn’t you’ll have to slowly get him used to it. Start with a soft bristled brush and use it lightly. Give lots of verbal praise and tidbits of delicious food like cooked chicken when he lets you brush him even for a second. I find it helps to have someone distract by gently stroking another part of the cat’s body like the cheeks or top of the head.
Furminator combs work great to remove dead hair. Be careful not to overdo it, though. I’ve seen cats who were a little bald after their owner went too far with the Furminator!
It may take weeks for you to work up to using a tool like a Furminator that will remove dead hair. The key is not to push the cat past it’s tolerance limit. When you start to see body language that he’s getting annoyed, stop and try again another day. Once you can brush your cat for a few minutes at a time, do it several times a week to help him keep his coat nice.
If your cat already has a lot of mats, the best solution may be to clip them off. If you’ve never used a clipper before, I recommend you let a professional help you. It’s super easy to cut a cat’s skin with scissors or clippers when they have mats. Most vet clinics will be willing to help remove mats or you can find a good cat groomer to consult.
Use a Degreasing Shampoo
No matter the reason for excessive oil in your cat’s coat, shampooing can help. Use a degreasing shampoo such as DermaBenSS (benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid) or Keratolux (salicylate, zinc and pyridoxine). These shampoos help decrease cat dandruff by normalizing the turnover of skin cells.
If you use any shampoo containing benzoyl peroxide make sure it’s 5% or less. The one I’ve used and recommend is only 2.5% benzoyl peroxide and it’s called DermaBenSS. Watch for skin redness and irritation when using degreasing shampoo on your cat. Stop its use if you see irritation and switch to a gentler shampoo.
If your vet suspects a bacterial or fungal infection, you’ll want to use antibacterial and/or antifungal shampoo like the one I use: MiconaHex+Triz. It has a couple of different ingredients from DermaBenSS and is a little gentler if your cat doesn’t have a seriously greasy coat.
I tell people to let the lather soak on the cat’s body for at least five minutes before rinsing. Depending on the severity of the problem, you may be instructed to bathe your cat twice a week to every other week.
If you’re having problems bathing your cat at home, see if the staff or groomer at the vet’s clinic can do it. Some cats need a sedative to be comfortable with bathing and grooming. That’s best done under a vet’s watchful eye.
Be Patient Waiting for a Better Coat
Since the hair growth cycle requires time to complete, coat changes will take weeks to months to become visible. Don’t give up on any one strategy until at least three months have passed unless it’s causing major problems.
Abnormal Skin and Hair Cycles Cause Dull, Oily Fur
Cat fur has a normal cycle of growth occurring at all times. A hair grows in the follicle, stays there for a time, then is shed. After shedding, a new hair grows to replace the lost hair.
The reason cats don’t go bald is that all the millions of hair follicles on their body are not shedding hairs at the same time. Occasionally, we see cats that go somewhat bald from losing a lot of hairs at the same time. This usually happens after a severe illness or fever.
The hair follicle and surrounding skin have oil-producing glands to keep the skin from drying out. These glands are affected by diet, hormones and inflammation. Too much or too little oil production changes the way the coat looks. Anything that changes the normal turnover of skin cells or the normal production of skin oils can lead to cat dandruff, greasy fur and/or mats.
There are many reasons for a poor hair coat. Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step in restoring your cat’s luxurious, shiny fur. Let’s talk about causes, how each is diagnosed, and treatment options for a cat with greasy fur that looks separated.
Primary Causes of Cat Dandruff, Greasy Fur and Mats
The major issues veterinarians find in cats with dandruff and greasy, matted fur include skin infections, food problems, thyroid issues and decreased mobility. No amount of brushing or shampooing can fix a cat’s untidy coat if they have an underlying disease. Read on below to find out how we diagnose and treat these primary diseases.
Fungal Infections Cause Fur Loss and Dandruff
The most common skin fungal infection we see in cats is from ringworm. It’s not a worm, but a microscopic fungus that causes symptoms in this disease.
Ringworm organisms like Microsporum and Trichophyton are present in the environment, but most cats pick it up from another infected cat. The fungus infects the hair follicle and the top layer of the skin. Hair changes including increased dandruff, oil and mats, are common in ringworm infected cats.
Diagnosing Skin Fungal Infection in Cats
To diagnose ringworm in cats, your vet will collect fur samples and place them on culture media to see if the fungal organisms grow. We have to wait up to 10 days to see if there is any growth then look at a sample under a microscope to see if it’s the kind of fungus that infects the skin.
Treatment of Feline Ringworm
Treatment can be complicated because every hair shed by the cat is potentially infectious to other cats, humans and even the same cat can get re-infected. Hairs that are contaminated with the fungus can be infectious in the environment for up to 18 months (Miller, Griffin & Campbell, 2013)!
Thorough cleaning of the home is necessary to get rid of as much fur as possible. Washable items should be washed in hot soapy water. Clean hard surfaces with a dilute bleach and water solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) or a commercial cleaner with accelerated hydrogen peroxide (don’t mix the two).
Cats should receive treatment with a topical antifungal medication from your veterinarian twice a week until they have a negative ringworm culture. Miconahex Shampoo contains miconazole which can help with ringworm infections but probably isn’t strong enough to be used alone.
Depending on the situation, your vet may prescribe an oral antifungal medication as well.
Fleas, Mites, Lice Cause Ugly Cat Fur
Parasites love to get a free ride on a nice, warm cat’s body. Little creatures like fleas and mites can cause a lot of skin problems. Fleas you can see with the naked eye, but some kinds of mites are microscopic and also hard to find. There is one parasite that is famous for causing mystery skin and coat problems: Demodex cati or gatoi.
Demodex mites are a commensal parasite of many species. That means they live in the skin but don’t cause many problems in most normal animals. Some animals don’t have the right immune system response to keep the numbers of Demodex mites low. When Demodex undergoes a population explosion, the cat’s hair becomes unhealthy, falls out and the skin may become inflamed with increased oil and dandruff. Demodex cati and gatoi are spread between cats but these cat mites are not infectious to dogs or humans.
Diagnosis of Demodex Mites in Cats
Demodex mites can only be seen with the aid of a microscope. A sample of fur and skin is collected by plucking fur and scraping the skin with a blade. Demodex mites are pretty difficult to find, so your vet might recommend some other tests like a fecal test or a skin biopsy if they’re suspicious your cat has this mite. Sometimes when we are suspicious but can’t find mites, we go ahead and start treatment and see how the cat responds.
Treatment of Cat Demodicosis
Topical medications like lime sulfur dip are effective against feline Demodex, but bathing cats is stressful for both cats and humans. Luckily, oral medications work well, too. Oral medications include ivermectin and milbemycin. Some of the newer anti-flea medications like Bravecto may work, but you’ll want to get your vet’s help with this.
Greasy Fur, Dandruff from Poor Nutrition and Food Allergy
Have you ever seen an alley cat who lives his life outside, snatching food wherever he can find it? Most alley cats have greasy, clumpy hair coats with excessive dandruff and it’s due in part to an unbalanced, insufficient diet.
If you’re feeding your cat a high-quality, balanced cat food and she still has greasy, clumpy fur, it’s possible the diet is not right for that particular cat. Some cats do better with different proteins, different levels of fat and different mixes of vitamins and minerals.
Diagnosing and Treating Food-Related Issues
The main way to know if your cat’s separated or oily hair coat is due to poor nutrition is to do a food trial.
Choose commercial cat food that has a label statement that it’s been through a feeding trial. That means it’s been tested in live cats and has proven sufficient for their needs. Most smaller and regional brands do not do feeding trials because they’re expensive, but it’s the best way to know if the food will work for cats.
Food allergies are found in up to 20% of itchy cats (Resnick, 2019). Inflammation in the skin from food allergies added to a cat’s overgrooming wreaks havoc on a cat’s formerly shiny, fluffy coat.
Do a food trial with hypoallergenic food if you and your veterinarian suspect your cat has food allergies. If I had to choose one food to recommend, it would be one from the Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Selected Protein line of foods.
Another option is a hydrolyzed protein diet like Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diets Feline Hypoallergenic HA. Hydrolyzed protein has been processed so the immune system won’t attack it as an allergen.
Is Raw Food a Cure for Cats with Skin Allergies?
I’ve worked with many clients who prefer to feed their cats a raw food diet. Some cats seem to have nicer coats and better digestion while eating raw food. There are a lot of pitfalls to avoid if you decide to try feeding a raw diet to your cat.
I strongly recommend you choose a reputable commercial brand that has been tested in feeding trials. At the very least, call the company and make sure they have a veterinary nutritionist on staff. Then follow all the recommended hygiene habits like washing the food dish plus any preparation tools with soap and water after every feeding.
Be sure to allow at least two months before you conclude whether the new food is helping your cat’s coat. It could take up to six months to see a major change in a cat’s coat quality.
Feline Thyroid Disease Leads to Greasy, Clumpy Fur
The thyroid gland is part of a cat’s endocrine system. Located in the area of the “Adam’s apple,” the thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones that help control many metabolic activities in the body.
The most common thyroid disease cats get is hyperthyroidism. Nodules from within the gland and produce excessive thyroid hormones. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include weight loss, scruffy fur, and changes in behavior–often that means your cat gets grouchier.
Hypothyroidism, when too little hormone is produced, is uncommon in cats. Symptoms of low thyroid function in a cat include weight gain, greasy fur and dandruff. You can see that hyper– and hypothyroid symptoms can look similar.
Diagnosis of Feline Thyroid Disease
Although your veterinarian might be able to feel a nodule on your cat’s thyroid gland, the best way to diagnose thyroid disease is with a blood test. I like to check T4 and free T4 levels in cats with thyroid symptoms.
Treatment for Cats with Thyroid Problems
Most cats with hyperthyroidism are treated with an oral medication called methimazole that suppresses the production of thyroid hormone. Methimazole can also be made into a transdermal medication so all you have to do is rub a bit of cream on the cat’s ear. I find the effects of transdermal methimazole are much less predictable than the oral form, though.
Radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroid cats is available in many locations. The treatment involves injecting a small amount of radioactive iodine that destroys abnormal thyroid tissue. After treatment, most cats no longer have an overproduction of thyroid hormone and don’t need daily medication.
Hill’s company developed a very low iodine food called y/d to help cats with hypothyroidism. I’ve seen it help cats who live in a one cat home, but they can’t eat any other food or treats or the food won’t work.
Treatment of hypothyroidism in cats requires daily administration of synthetic thyroid hormone. The good news is that the medication is inexpensive and most hypothyroid animals respond well and stay stable over long periods.
Cats Get Matted Fur Near Tail Due to Decreased Mobility
Have you ever paid close attention to how your cat grooms himself? It’s amazing how flexible cats are–bending their legs over their head or twisting to reach their lower back with their tongue. Whenever a cat has a decrease in mobility, their appearance suffers.
Cats over the age of ten or so commonly have some degree of degenerative changes in the bones of their spine. Twisting and bending become difficult, even painful for many older cats.
Another source of pain that interferes with a cat’s grooming ability is mouth pain. Dental disease is super common in cats, especially older kitties. If their mouth, tongue and gums are sore they won’t want to lick their fur the way they used to.
Obesity in cats is so common these days people have come to see it as normal. Having too much abdominal and body fat seriously limits a cat’s ability to groom every part of her body. It’s very common for overweight cats to have poor hair coats, especially the back half of their bodies.
Diagnosing Mobility Problems
Your vet will be able to tell you if your cat’s weight is causing a problem just by examining her. Diagnosing spinal problems requires an x-ray/radiograph. Dental and mouth problems sometimes need radiographs, too, since problems may be hidden under the gum line.
Treatment for Pain and Mobility Problems
Cats with spinal pain can benefit from fish oil supplementation, oral glucosamine supplement, or injected glucosamine. For those with more serious pain, prescription medications like gabapentin or the feline NSAID Onsior can offer a lot of pain relief.
The best obesity treatment, obviously, is a weight loss diet. If you’re overfeeding your cat, start by measuring out his food instead of filling his bowl when it’s empty. If you’re already measuring the food, try cutting back by 25% or ask your vet to prescribe a special weight loss diet.
Treatment of oral pain and dental disease often requires anesthesia and possibly tooth extractions. Some cats with generalized mouth inflammation need to take immune-suppressive medications to make them comfortable.
Cat Dandruff Due to Skin Allergies
Cats can develop allergies to pollen, dust, and even things they come in contact with. When the immune system responds to these normal substances as an invader, inflammation, and itchy skin develops.
The classic symptoms of skin allergy in cats are the presence of tiny scabs on the skin, hair loss, and changes in the coat quality. You may or may not see your cat licking and grooming more often. Dandruff can be severe due to scratching inflamed skin.
Skin allergy symptoms tend to be seasonal and are worse in the spring and fall when pollen counts go up. If you live in a warm climate or your cat is allergic to something in your home, symptoms may persist throughout the year.
How Skin Allergies Are Diagnosed in Cats
Two options vets use to diagnose skin allergies in cats are blood allergy tests and intradermal allergy testing. Blood tests are easier and less costly, but they might not be as accurate as intradermal testing. Intradermal testing is usually done by a veterinary dermatologist, so you’ll need a referral from your regular veterinarian.
Treatment for Cats with Skin Allergies
Once your cat’s allergies have been identified, treatment with immunotherapy should decrease the skin symptoms. Immunotherapy involves injecting a tiny amount of the substance causing the allergy and slowly increasing the amount over time to build your cat’s tolerance to it.
Other skin allergy treatments include immune-altering medications like prednisone. This method of treatment is very inexpensive and also pretty effective. However, the side effects of steroids make it a bad choice for cats who have allergy symptoms for more than a few weeks per year. Cyclosporine is an immune-modulating drug that doesn’t have the bad side effects of steroids, but it’s more expensive.
Seborrhea Causes Cat Dandruff
Seborrhea is a rare condition in cats that causes greasy, matted fur and increased dandruff. The disease is another manifestation of an abnormal normal skin cycle. When a cat has seborrhea, the normal shedding of dead skin cells is interrupted (Campbell, 2012). You will often see a lot of dandruff plus or minus an oily coat when a cat has seborrhea.
Persian cats sometimes have an inherited form of this skin disease, called primary seborrhea. It’s often most noticeable as a “dirty” appearance in the facial folds of the short-nosed breed.
Secondary seborrhea occurs as a result of some other disease causing changes in the skin. Some diseases that can trigger secondary seborrhea are a type of tumor called thymoma, skin allergies, skin infection and diseases of the endocrine system.
Diagnosing Feline Seborrhea
For most cases of seborrhea in cats, the goal is to identify the underlying cause. Most of the diseases listed earlier could potentially cause secondary seborrhea. Cats with primary seborrhea may need a skin biopsy for a definitive diagnosis.
In most cases, treatment of the underlying cause of seborrhea will greatly improve the skin condition. Cats with primary seborrhea are treated with medicated shampoo baths. You should get your vet’s help with choosing the best shampoo as cats with seborrhea tend to have sensitive skin.
Other topical products that can help seborrheic cats include antimicrobial foams and spot-on fatty acid products. Douxo Chlorhexidine Foam is a great alternative because you won’t have to fully bathe your cat to treat bacterial skin infections (your cat will thank you).
Oral supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids seems to help some cats but is not a cure-all. If you’d like to try supplementing your cat with omega-3’s, I recommend liquid Omega-3 Pet supplement from Nordic Naturals.
Other Underlying Diseases Affect a Cat’s Coat Quality
A cat’s fur is kind of like the tip of the health iceberg. When something is going wrong inside the body, it will eventually show up as changes in the coat. Processes like inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, dental disease, cancer, liver disease, kidney disease can all change the metabolism or cause enough pain to affect coat quality. Either nutrients aren’t being absorbed the way they should, or toxins are building up in the body as a result of the primary disease.
By the time we see changes in a cat’s coat, the primary underlying disease has likely been present for at least several months. If you’ve recently noticed your cat’s coat quality is poor, start looking for other symptoms. How is her appetite? Is she drinking more or less than she used to? How is the stool quality and frequency? Is there more or less urine in the litterbox than before? Does she feel like she’s lost weight?
All these clues will help your vet get started in the right direction in solving the mystery.
Diagnosis of Underlying Health Conditions
When we don’t have a lot of specific symptoms, we usually start with a basic blood panel that will include a blood chemistry profile, a complete blood count, a thyroid level and a urinalysis. We can learn a lot with this handful of tests. Sometimes your vet will also want to take x-rays to see if any organs inside the body are abnormal. If an answer isn’t uncovered with the basic tests, more specialized tests like ultrasound imaging and biopsies are required.
Your vet will recommend appropriate treatment once a diagnosis has been made. Each disease has a different treatment, but your vet can make some general recommendations about nutrition and lifestyle that will help your cat’s health. Improved general health will help the underlying disease and also lead to a soft, shiny coat of fur.
Campbell, K. L. (2012). An approach to keratinization disorders. In BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Dermatology (pp. 46-52). BSAVA Library.
Miller W H, Griffin C E, Campbell K L: Congenital and hereditary defects. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology, 7th ed. Saunders Elsevier, St. Louis 2013 p. 232.
Resnick A W: Food Allergy: Dr. Google Debunked. Wild West Veterinary Conference 2019.
Last update on 2020-11-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API