Whenever we see our cats itching and scratching, one thought immediately comes to mind: FLEAS!
Fleas are a common parasitic infection that cats can easily contract. However, my cat keeps scratching but doesn’t have fleas. So, what’s the cause for her excessive itching?
Although fleas are the most common cause of scratching in cats, several other medical conditions also cause this behavior. Your cat might suffer from allergies, have a skin infection, or have contracted a different parasitic infection. Insect bites and stings can also lead to compulsive itching.
Many people don’t realize, but over-grooming is also closely tied with psychological issues. Boredom, stress, and depression can cause cats to groom obsessively. This is often accompanied by excessive scratching, itching, and chewing. It can even lead to fur loss!
I run through all these conditions in more detail in this article. Have a read and see which one you think applies, but always consult with your vet for confirmation. I also share some tips on how to stop your cat from scratching and itching, but your vet will offer more advice on the best course of action.
Why Does My Cat Keep Scratching and Itching?
After fleas, allergies are an extremely common cause of scratching and itching in cats. It also has remarkably similar symptoms, and if your cat has scabs on its neck but no fleas, allergies are probable. This is because allergies trigger an immune response, causing inflammation of the skin. The skin then becomes itchy, leading to scratching, broken skin, and scabbing.
Aside from scratching and itching, other symptoms of allergies in cats include:
- Sneezing, coughing, and wheezing
- Discharge from the nose and eyes
- Swollen paws and red skin
- Vomiting and diarrhea
The precise symptoms your cat has typically depends on the type of allergy. Airborne allergens generally cause more respiratory symptoms. On the other hand, if your cat has diarrhea but seems fine, it’s more likely to suffer from a food allergy or has eaten something else it’s allergic to.
2. Skin Infections
My cat keeps scratching but she doesn’t have fleas, so I took her to the vet and it turns out she has a skin infection! These usually result as a secondary infection to an underlying parasitic infection, allergy, or wound. This is because these can all lead to the skin barrier being broken, thus making it more prone to infection.
There are three main types of skin infections in cats:
- Bacterial infections which need to be treated with antibiotics
- Yeast infections that usually occur in the ear and are treated with antifungal medication
- Ringworm is another fungal infection, usually affecting cats under the age of 1
Of these three, ringworm is the most contagious and can easily be passed between cats. The main sites for the fungal infection are on the head, chest, forelegs, and along the back. So, if you notice your cat losing hair on the back near its tail, check for ringworm. You’ll usually be able to spot skin lesions at the infected site.
If your cat does has a skin infection, it’ll need to receive treatment from a vet. In the meantime, only brush your cat using brushes for cats that hate to be brushed. The infection site will be very sore, but these brushes are gentler on the skin and will cause minimal irritation.
3. Insect Bites & Stings
Insect bites and stings are another possible cause of itchy skin in cats. Just like in humans, stings from bees and bites from midges and other bugs lead to sudden inflammation. This causes the skin to feel extremely itchy, and your cat won’t be able to resist scratching their persistent itch!
Some cats will be more sensitive to bites and stings than others, and the bite can even elicit an allergic response. If this happens, the itching sensation will worsen still. However, the itch should be short-lived and will soon stop once the bites have had a chance to go down.
Insect bites and stings are much more common in the summer months. This is the time of year that most bugs are active and out exploring. They’re also more likely for outdoor cats than indoor-only kitties. However, don’t rule insect bites out if your cat stays inside – bugs can easily find their way in through an open window. Check for small red bumps on hairless areas such as the ears and nose.
4. Other Parasitic Infections
Fleas may well be the most common parasite to infect cats, but they’re not the only ones! Mites and ticks can also live in your cat’s fur and bite on their skin:
- Ticks: Dogs are much more at risk of ticks than cats, but our furry feline friends can also be carriers. Like fleas, these pesky parasites feed on your cat’s blood and cause itching. They also carry bacteria and other microbes, and so can transmit secondary skin infections to your cat. These infections need to be treated with medication and make itching far worse.
- Ear Mites: These are specific types of mites that live inside cats’ ears. This is a pretty common infection in cats and causes the ear canal to become inflamed. You’ll know if your cat has ear mites as it’ll scratch and itch its ears only. It’ll also shake its head in an attempt to satisfy the itch, and you might see black discharge from the ears.
- Scabies: There are both feline and canine scabies, both of which are caused by mites. Despite the name, both types can infect cats. The mites burrow into the skin and lay eggs and multiply quickly. Their presence on your cat’s skin causes sudden and intense itching and small bumps under the skin. Secondary infections are common in damaged areas.
5. Psychological Issues
Your cat’s obsessive scratching could be linked with psychological distress. Cats love self-grooming and often use it as a coping mechanism whenever they are feeling stressed. It helps them to calm down and relax. Similarly, cats that are bored with often compulsively groom – they’ve nothing else enjoyable to do, so grooming it is!
When we think of grooming, we usually think of cats licking themselves with their specialized tongues. However, cats will also itch, bite, and scratch when removing persistent bits of dirt. So, if your cat keeps scratching but has no fleas they could be stressed or bored. Over-grooming is also one of the pre-labor signs in cats.
With that being said, a stressed cat licking its fur off isn’t always seen. Some cats respond to stress differently and may stop self-grooming altogether. This can have the opposite effect, leading to matted cat fur and an unkempt coat. Assess your cat’s home environment and see whether you think boredom or anxiety could be the trigger.
How Do I Get My Cat to Stop Scratching Itself?
If your cat keeps scratching, you probably want to get her to stop. For one, you know that your kitty is uncomfortable – imagine how frustrating having a persistent itch is!
But secondly, scratching will only make matters worse. It causes additional inflammation and makes the skin more prone to secondary infections. What’s more, your cat will ingest a lot more hair when she’s constantly scratching and biting at her coat. This can lead to your cat throwing up hairballs daily, yet another unpleasant issue for you and your cat.
Thankfully, there are some methods you can implement to help soothe your cat’s scratching. Be sure to speak to your vet first though. They’ll be able to let you know the cause of all the itching and advise you on the next best steps to take.
Though for now, try these tips:
1. Eliminate Parasites
Although my cat keeps scratching but doesn’t have fleas, it doesn’t mean I’m off the hook with parasites. As mentioned, ticks and mites are two other pesky creatures that live in your cat’s coat, feed off their blood, and cause skin irritation.
Therefore, your first step to soothing your cat’s scratching should be to eliminate any parasites that are present. If you’re sure your cat is clean, you’ll want to think about administering preventative medication instead. This is typically applied monthly and stops your cat from contracting parasitic infections in the future.
2. Change Their Food
Did you know that cat food is one of the biggest causes of allergies in cats? And interestingly, it is usually the protein source inside that cat food that cats have an insensitivity to. Common examples include chicken, beef, and fish.
As such, changing your cat’s food might be all it takes to soothe their itching skin. Try putting your cat on a food elimination diet for several weeks where you cut out one major protein source and see if their symptoms improve. If so, reintroduce the food – do their symptoms return?
If you’ve answered yes again, this is most likely the food source triggering an allergic response. Switch to new cat food that doesn’t contain this substance. Your cat should stop having itchy skin, alongside fewer tummy troubles and other allergy symptoms. If you do switch up your cat’s diet, always consult your vet first. Also, make the change gradual as to not cause further issues.
3. Treat Infections
Nasty skin infections can arise, usually as a result of another unnoticed condition weakening your cat’s skin barrier. For your cat’s scratching and itching to subside, they’re going to need to have these infections treated. Most bacterial infections require antibiotics, whereas yeast and fungal infections are treated with antifungal medications.
Speak to your vet regarding treatment options. Also, be sure to keep your cat away from any other cats you own while they’re recovering. Infections, especially ringworm, can be contagious and you don’t want the same one continually passed around your home.
4. Remove Stressors
Because stress and anxiety lead to over-grooming, a quick fix for itchy skin is to make your home as calm as possible. Assess your household and remove any stressors that your cat seems bothered by. Cats are sensitive creatures, so make sure to notice all of the little things.
Below are some common household stressors that can easily be eliminated:
- Cleaning their litter box more regularly
- Moving food and water bowls away from loud appliances and high-traffic areas
- Not allowing friends to bring dogs or other pets over
- Feeding cats in separate foods to avoid conflict over meal times
- Having double of all essentials in multi-cat households (two bowls, two litter trays, etc.)
- Sticking to a strict feeding schedule
Cats also don’t respond well to change, so any changes you do need to make must be done gradually. This does require a little time and patience, but it’s worth it in the long run. Smooth integrations dramatically improve your cat’s tolerance to coping with change and prevent unwanted behaviors from arising.
5. Provide Stimulation
Providing stimulation for your cat is a great solution for cats dealing with boredom. Although cats are independent creatures, they do still need to be entertained. This is especially true if you have an indoor cat, who should have cat trees, scratching posts, and plenty of toys to keep her happy.
It’s also recommended that you take at least 15 minutes each day to play with your kitty. For the busy owner, automatic motorized cat toys are a godsend and can keep your cat entertained while you’re away from home. Food puzzles are another option to provide mental stimulation and help stop all that scratching!
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
If your cat keeps scratching but doesn’t have fleas, there’s probably something else irritating her skin. Get your cat to the vet as soon as possible so they can diagnose what is wrong. Most skin conditions, parasitic infections, and allergies can be dealt with easily and don’t pose any major threat.
Keeping your cat happy and entertained can also go a long way in alleviating itching. Turn your home into a cat sanctuary and provide plenty of stimulation. When your cat is happy on the inside, it’ll look better on the outside too!