Cat Hair Loss - Why Your Cat is Going Bald!

Skin disease can be INCREDIBLY frustrating to tackle. To find out why your cat is losing hair, going bald or over-grooming there are a number of surprisingly simple tests that can be carried out.

Even then, the answer isn’t always obvious!

cat hair loss causes with a picture of a bald cat with no hair

I have two cats who are siblings and I have been struggling with hair loss on both of them for the past 1-½ years. My vet thinks that it most likely is the result of a food allergy so I have been trying to eliminate ingredients that I think could be causing a flare up (such as chicken and salmon). Unfortunately even after trying many different types of foods, nothing seems to be helping clear up the hair loss problems permanently. Occasionally it will seem like they are growing some hair back but then they will lose it again. My male cat seems to lose hair on his ears and the back of his neck the most (currently is only missing hair on his ears) and my female cat currently has significant hair loss on her ears and on a large area of her lower belly going in between her back legs. Any suggestions or help you can provide would be appreciated. - Natalie

Natalie writes to ask all about why her cats are losing their fur, and what can be done about it. A food allergy has been suggested as the cause but nothing seems to be helping.

I'll just start by saying that I really share Natalie's frustration!

Cat Hair Loss Causes

Skin conditions in cats and dogs can be incredibly frustrating to diagnose and then treat. Hair loss itself can be due to a number of different causes. These include parasites, allergies, hormonal problems, and even stress as well.

Is your Cat Itchy?

A big question to help with the diagnosis of hair loss in cats to start with is: is your cat itchy, do they seem to be scratching or grooming more than normal? If not then does the hair just seemed to be falling out without seeing them groom or without seeing them scratching?

This is important because hair loss due to itchy conditions is typically due to over grooming rather than the hair just falling out. Over grooming can also be due to stress in cats and that's something that I've discussed quite frequently in the past. If this could be your cat, it’s worth reading my article all about the signs of stress in cats.

Stress is really common in a multi-cat household, even with siblings. So stress and over grooming is definitely a cause of hair loss. Not necessarily in these cats though.

Skin Tests For Hair Loss

Diagnostic testing is then the next step. This can include a whole range of different tests. Your vet can take hair plucks, a little bit of hair which is looked at under the microscope. This can show us whether there’s broken hair shafts present, which would indicate over grooming causing that hair loss. Its a test that can also pick up mites occasionally as well.

We can take skin scrapes next. With this test, we can use a small scalpel blade to scrape the skin gently. Its a skin test that can generally be done conscious, in all but the least cooperative patients! Again we're looking for mites.

We can take tape preps, strips of sticky tape which are stuck to the skin and then looked at that under the microscope. This test looks for signs of a skin infection or overgrowth with bacteria and yeast.

We can also take a culture, again looking for fungal infections like ringworm and also bacterial infections.

And then we could do blood testing to look for hormonal problems, and also allergy specific tests as well, which are good for environmental allergies but really are useless for food allergies. There are tests that are available for food allergies despite the fact that they really are pretty much useless.

Diagnosing Food Allergy in Your Cat

If you think that a food allergy is the problem then a diet trial is the only effective way to diagnose it. Blood testing is really not worth giving the time of day. It may be in the future that we do get better tests, but right now a diet trial really is something that we need to be doing if we think that there's a food allergy involved.

Diet trial

What a food trial involves is feeding a novel protein and carbohydrate source. This means one that your pet has never come across before, has never eaten before. This can be really tough, especially if your cat has eaten a varied diet. Finding a meat and carbohydrate source that they've never eaten before is really challenging.

Having a really good food history is clearly important.

The other option is to feed your cat something called a hydrolyzed diet. This is where the components of the diet are broken down into smaller molecules. Ones that the pet’s immune system wouldn't recognize, even if they've eaten the original ingredient before.

Whichever diet you choose, you then need to feed this food and nothing but this food for 8 to 12 weeks. We would normally expect a response by about 8 weeks, but to be certain it’s best to keep going for 12 weeks. You also need to be aware that if your cat eats anything else in that time, then this means you need to reset the clock.

You could be doing really well for 5 or 6 weeks, they've eaten nothing but this food, but then they get into a bowl of another cat's food. If this contains any of the food your cat is allergic to then it undoes all of your hard work.

You can see that a food trial can be really challenging.

Another complication is that if your cat has a poor or no response to a food trial, then a diet allergy is unlikely to be the problem. However in some situations, pets with a food allergy will respond to one appropriate diet better than another. It may then be that trying a second diet is the next step, especially if your vet strongly suspects a food allergy is behind the problem hair loss or itching.

Infectious Skin Disease

With two cats being affected though we really need to think of infectious causes being the more likely suspects in general. So we'd think of mites, ringworm, and of course the ever present threat of fleas!

Allergies do though have a genetic, and so hereditary component. In this case where we've got siblings, there is the potential cause that an underlying allergic skin disease or food allergy is behind the hair loss. A food allergy is just one type of allergic skin disease. Cats can also develop flea allergic dermatitis, as well as atopic dermatitis which is an allergy to environmental factors.

So that I hope gives you a few ideas as to what the potential causes of your cat’s hair loss could be. Some additional investigations that could be done, and then how to go about undertaking a diet trial with clear goals, clear aims, and clear system of doing that to the best of your ability.

The above is a transcript taken from “The Dr Alex Answers Show”.

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