You’ve heard of people being allergic to cats, but did you know cats can be allergic to people … and dogs … and dust … and food … and themselves? Allergies in cats are extremely frustrating during the diagnosis period. The good news: Once you determine the cause and find a management plan that works, the hardest part is over.
When an allergen is present, a cat will get small, fluid-filled lumps on her skin that are really itchy, most commonly on the neck area (not so much the back, but I couldn’t resist this title). While the lumps aren’t a problem, the itchiness is, because if the skin breaks, there is a risk for a secondary infections, which requires treatment.
Let’s breakdown the three categories of allergies in cats: Flea, food, and environmental; their symptoms; cost associated; and recommended treatments. It’s very important to find a quality vet who can rule out behavior as a reason for the cat’s symptoms, and work with you to find a low stress and affordable solution.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD) in Cats
Culprit: Flea saliva
- Itchiness around face, especially eyes and ears and legs
- Red skin
- Possibly open wounds and sores
- Skin sensitivity
- Must: Flea meds
- Optional: Steroid for inflammation
- Optional: Gabapentin for pain
Maintenance Level: Easy Peasy
Cost: $20-30/month for prescription flea treatment
Long-Term Treatment: Ongoing flea meds from your vet. Many fleas are resistant to OTC flea meds.
Case Study: Miss Lucy
My foster Lucy had an absolutely horrific case of FAD, and likely caused permanent nerve damage, especially on her flank. After receiving flea meds, she was still itchy, and kept scratching open sores that were all over her body. She eventually received a steroid injection, which got her to stop scratching, and allowed her many wounds to heal. Eventually, her fur grew back, but her multiple vets and behaviorist decided it would be best to keep her on gabapentin long-term to help with any nerve damage pain (and manage her high anxiety). While Lucy would make a great barn cat, she cannot be without flea medicine, which means she’ll likely have to always live indoors where she can be easily treated.
Food Allergies in Cats
Culprit: Common proteins and/or veggies found in pet food.
- Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and egg
- Wheat, barley, and corn.
- Skin lesions
- Loss of hair
- Coat deterioration
- 10-15% experience vomiting and/or diarrhea
Short-Term Treatment: 6-8 week food trials with less common proteins and vegetables.
- Rabbit, venison, bison or kangaroo
- Cannot be given any other food or treats during trial – only the trial food
- For single pet homes
- For multi-pet homes, put all pets on food with unoffending protein to prevent any risk of contamination
- If pets must eat different foods, feed separately, and collect and wash bowls immediately
Cost: $20-60/bag of food
- Food that doesn’t spark allergy symptoms.
- Remove access to other types of food (including human food) or treats.
- Again, for multi-pet households where pets have different diets, feed separately and collect and wash bowls immediately.
Food Trials: Often Failed, But Almost Always Needed
Although food allergies are very rare, they are easy to rule out because they require a food trial. Purchasing a bag of food and monitoring is much less expensive or stressful on your cat than paying a vet to do tests for environmental allergies. A food allergy must be ruled out before you can proceed with any other tests.
How do you even manage a food trial? Very carefully.
- Feel one type of food, which MUST have a protein she’s never been exposed to before. Hydrolyzed protein diets are often recommended, but Ultamino by Royal Canin really the best. The protein is so pulverized, the body doesn’t recognize the original source.
- No other food, no treats, and no people food.
- Use clean bowls that don’t have remnants of the previous food.
- Run the trial for 6-8 weeks (you will likely know by weeks 3-4, but most vets will recommend 6-8 weeks on the food, and they have more education than I do, so listen to them:-)).
- If she’s still scratching, it’s not a food allergy. Don’t get upset: Most cats fail food trials, because food allergies are VERY rare, but it’s good because you can rule out food as the culprit.
I’ve met people who insist pet allergies must be from all the “crap” they put in pet food. This mindset is shortsighted, and it ignores the actual facts that food allergies are rare, and flea and environmental allergies are more likely. Accept the results of the trial, and move on to our next category.
Environmental Allergies in Cats
Culprit: Dust, dogs, people, pollen – literally anything. Some cats are even allergic to themselves!
- Itchiness around face and neck, sometimes legs
- Red skin
- Puffiness around the eyes
- Possibly open wounds
- Prednisolone (steroid)
- Zyrtec (per multiple vets, it works better in cats than Benadryl or Claritin)
- Antibiotic (if infected wounds)
- Plastic nail caps
Maintenance Level: Easy, but fluid
Cost: Varies. Minimal for meds; more expensive for dermatology appointments and allergy shots
Long-Term Treatment: Medicine and/or shots to control symptoms and nail caps to prevent injury.
Case Study: Ava
Ava is a gorgeous 3.5 year-old tortie who has been scratching her neck since she was a kitten. Her former owners had recently bought a dog, and the intro did not go well. Ava ended up hiding in the basement, terrified, scratching her neck and screaming. They assumed it was behavioral, and so did I. When I met Ava, she was scared and had a large infected wound on her neck from self harm. I convinced her owners to let me bring her to Kitty Boot Camp and treat her.
So Itchy … But Confident!
I saw multiple vets who kept doing the same thing. Injectable antibiotic for the infection and I’d administer a liquid steroid for inflammation that was tapered quickly. They’d suggested a food allergy, so I tried numerous food trials, but when the steroid ran out, she’d scratch her neck open again, and back to the vet we’d go – regardless of her diet.
My initial thoughts of a behavioral trigger changed. Over the months, her fearful side disappeared and she stopped hiding. She purred and played, and wanted to be around me and my other cats, even seeking affection. Her confidence was growing, but she would not stop scratching. When I scratched her neck, she would lean into it and close her eyes. It felt good to her.
My guess: Environmental allergies, made worse by stress (ex. a new dog), just like any other chronic problem. When one vet suggested it was a habit and we should try Prozac, I decided it was time for a 4th vet’s advice.
Answers & Allergy Management
While examining Ava, she remarked on redness in her ears and above her eyes, and mentioned random eye puffiness I’d noticed a few days before. The skin around the cut on her neck was also red. “That’s environmental allergies.” she said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t crazy, even though the vets before made me think I was.
Since Ava had problems in her previous home and mine, it was unlikely that I could remove the allergen from the environment. I could take her to a dermatologist for allergy testing shots, but that would be costly, stressful for her, and not guaranteed to be effective.
Mission #1: Get her skin to heal. Open sores come with a risk of infection, plus they can be painful and uncomfortable. The smartest course of action was to keep her on Prednisolone (steroid) for longer than in the past. Now, we’d wait for the neck to fully heal and all the redness to be gone before we tapered the steroid. I’d also put nail caps on her back leg to protect her from scratching the skin open as easily.
Steroids in Cats – Less Side Effects Than Dogs or Humans
Within a few weeks, Ava’s neck was 100% healed.
Cats tolerate steroids better than most species, and many don’t have side effects. The best thing to do is:
- Treat the immediate problem
- Find the lowest dose necessary
- Visit the vet 2x a year
- Get blood work 1x a year
Possible side effects in a healthy cat are increased chance of urinary tract infections and upper respiratory infections (URIs), and in overweight cats, an increased chance of diabetes (Ava isn’t overweight).
Ava is pretty much a normal cat – she’s just a cat that needs allergy meds once a day! She was adopted by an amazing person who loves her to pieces.
My Neck, My Back, There’s Hope for Your Allergic Cat
Allergies in cats are extremely frustrating to diagnose and begin to treat, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Partner with a quality vet and you will eventually find a treatment that works for you and your cat. I also suggest reaching out to pet and foster pages on social media so you can connect with others who’ve gone through it and talk it it out.