Cat Dandruff? The Surprising Parasite That Could Be Causing It

Introduction

Cat dandruff, also known as feline dandruff, is a skin condition that causes flakes of dead skin to appear in a cat’s coat. It can be caused by several factors, including dry skin, allergies, and infestation with parasites. While dandruff can be caused by relatively benign conditions like dry air, one of the most common culprits is a highly contagious parasite called Cheyletiella mites.

Cheyletiella mites are microscopic parasites that feed on the keratin layer of a cat’s skin, causing flaky skin and intense itchiness. An infestation with Cheyletiella mites is also called “walking dandruff” due to the mites’ ability to move around in a cat’s fur. Left untreated, these mites can cause significant skin irritation, hair loss, and secondary infections. Thankfully, Cheyletiella mites are very treatable once properly diagnosed by a veterinarian.

What is Cat Dandruff?

Cat dandruff, also known as “feline dandruff,” is a condition that causes a cat’s skin to flake. It is normally seen as gray or white flakes in a cat’s fur or on their bedding (WebMD, 2022).

Dandruff occurs when dead skin cells build up and begin shedding. This can cause itchiness and irritation. Symptoms of cat dandruff include:

  • Flaky, scaly skin
  • White flakes on the fur, skin, or bedding
  • Itchiness and scratching
  • Irritated skin

Dandruff is not a specific disease, but rather a symptom of an underlying skin issue. It can range in severity from mild to severe. Mild dandruff may not cause any discomfort for the cat. More severe cases involve inflammation, redness, and intense itchiness (Purina, 2017).

Common Causes

While the main cause of cat dandruff is a mite infestation called cheyletiellosis, there are a number of non-parasitic causes that can also lead to dandruff in cats:

  • Dry skin – Cats can experience flaky, dandruff-like skin if the air is too dry, or if they have underlying skin conditions. Keeping your home humidified can help prevent dry skin.
  • Allergies – Just like humans, cats can have allergic reactions to things like pollen, dust mites, mold, and food ingredients. Allergies cause irritation and itchiness leading to excess skin flaking.
  • Other skin conditions – Skin issues like seborrhea or dermatitis can also cause flaky skin resembling dandruff.
  • Excessive grooming – Overgrooming from stress or other factors can cause minor skin irritation and flakes.
  • Obesity – Overweight cats have difficulty grooming to reach all areas, allowing dead skin cells to build up.
  • Cold weather – Colder temperatures and lower humidity tend to dry out skin and fur.

While dandruff from these causes is usually harmless, frequent or excessive flaking could indicate an underlying medical issue. It’s a good idea to have your vet examine any persistent dandruff or skin flakes in your cat.

Cheyletiella Mites

Cheyletiella mites, sometimes called “walking dandruff,” are tiny eight-legged parasites that live on the skin and coat of cats (TodaysVeterinaryPractice). These mites are highly contagious and spread through direct contact between cats, as well as contact with contaminated bedding or furniture. Cats can also pick up cheyletiella mites from rabbits, dogs, and even humans. The mites cause flaky, scaly skin and an itchy rash as they feed on skin cells and keratin debris.

Cheyletiella mites go through four life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. The entire life cycle takes about 3 weeks to complete. Adult female mites lay eggs on the skin which hatch into larvae. The larvae mature into nymphs which then develop into adults. The adult mites are about 0.385 mm long and visible to the naked eye, appearing as moving white specs similar to dandruff. Signs of a cheyletiella mite infestation include flaky skin, hair loss, redness, and intense itchiness (PetMD).

To diagnose cheyletiellosis, vets will take skin scrapings and examine them under a microscope to look for mites, eggs, or mite feces. Treatment typically involves application of selamectin, lime sulfur dips, or topical anti-parasitic medications. All animals in contact with the infested cat should also be treated. To prevent reinfestation, bedding and furniture should be washed and vacuumed. Prognosis is good with prompt treatment, though reinfestation is common if the environment is not properly disinfected.

Life Cycle

The Cheyletiella mite goes through four life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. The adult female Cheyletiella mite lays eggs on the skin and hair of cats. These eggs hatch into six-legged larvae within 3-10 days. The larvae molt into eight-legged nymphs 5-12 days after hatching. After another 5-12 days, the nymphs molt again into adult mites that are about 0.385 mm long. The entire life cycle takes around 3-4 weeks to complete.

Cheyletiella mites spread easily between cats through direct contact. The mites can also spread by moving from the cat’s body onto places where the cat sleeps, rests or scratches. Since the eggs are sticky, they can attach to furniture, pet bedding and human clothing. This allows the mites to spread between households. Cats in close contact, such as in multi-cat households or shelters, are especially prone to transmitting Cheyletiella mites between each other.

References:

https://wcvm.usask.ca/learnaboutparasites/parasites/cheyletiella-species.php

https://capcvet.org/guidelines/hairclasping-mite/

Diagnosis

Cheyletiellosis is diagnosed through a combination of a detailed history, physical exam, and laboratory testing. Vets will look for key signs during the history and physical, such as excessive scaling and itching. However, a definitive diagnosis requires laboratory testing.

The most common diagnostic tests for confirming cheyletiellosis include:

  • Skin scrapings – Using a scalpel blade, the vet scrapes areas of crust, scale, or hair loss onto a glass slide. This sample is then examined under a microscope for evidence of mites.
  • Tape preps – Clear tape is pressed onto areas of hair loss or scale and then mounted on a slide for microscopic examination.
  • Flea combings – A fine-toothed flea comb is brushed across the cat’s coat and the collected debris is examined under a microscope.

Skin scrapings and tape preps allow visualization of the adult mites, eggs, or fecal pellets. Flea combings tend to pick up eggs and fecal pellets better than adult mites. Multiple samples may need to be examined, as mites can be difficult to find.

In some cases, a diagnosis can be made based on clinical signs and history alone. However, lab tests are recommended to definitively confirm cheyletiellosis and rule out other causes like allergies or ringworm.

Treatment

There are several treatment options for cheyletiellosis in cats. Topical medications containing selamectin or fipronil are often effective. Selamectin is available as Revolution, which can be applied between the shoulder blades monthly. Fipronil is the active ingredient in Frontline products and can be applied topically every 2-4 weeks. These topical flea and tick preventatives have been shown to kill cheyletiella mites and provide relief from symptoms when used consistently for 2-3 months.

Lime sulfur dips may also be recommended, especially for severe infestations. Lime sulfur is applied topically as a diluted rinse or dip every 3-7 days for several weeks. This helps kill mites on the skin and coat. For severe crusting and scaling, antimicrobial shampoos may be prescribed to improve skin health.

Oral ivermectin is sometimes used off-label to treat cheyletiellosis in cats, though this medication can be toxic in some breeds. Oral antibiotics may be prescribed if secondary skin infections are present. Elizabethan collars can help prevent self-trauma from intense itching and overgrooming.

Treatment should continue for at least 2-3 weeks beyond clinical resolution to ensure all life stages of the mites are killed. All in-contact pets should also be treated to prevent reinfestation.

Sources:

https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/parasitology/cheyletiellosis-in-cats/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC339606/

Prevention

There are several steps cat owners can take to help prevent cheyletiellosis infestations:

Regular grooming and brushing can help remove eggs and mites from a cat’s fur before they have a chance to spread. Gently combing through the fur with a fine-toothed flea comb is recommended at least once a week.

Keeping the home clean is also important. Vacuuming floors, furniture, cat trees, and bedding frequently helps remove eggs and larva. Any bedding should be washed weekly in hot water if a cat has an active infestation.

Using monthly flea and tick prevention medication is highly recommended, as cheyletiella mites can spread more easily to cats already infested with fleas. Products containing selamectin, fipronil, or imidacloprid are effective.

Treating any other pets in the household is also advised, even if they do not show symptoms, to prevent reinfestation.

Avoiding contact with stray or infested cats can reduce exposure risk. New cats should be quarantined and checked for mites before introducing them to a household.

With diligent grooming, sanitation, and parasite prevention, cat owners can help protect their pets against problematic cheyletiellosis outbreaks.

Prognosis

The prognosis for cats with cheyletiellosis is generally good with proper treatment. Most cats will make a full recovery within a few weeks after receiving an appropriate medication like selamectin or ivermectin (Cheyletiellosis in Cats). The lesions and itchiness caused by the mites typically start to improve within the first week of treatment as the medication kills off the mites.

However, reinfection is common if the cat’s environment has not been properly treated. Eggs and larvae can survive in the home environment for up to 10 days. All bedding and fabric items should be washed in hot water and the home should be thoroughly vacuumed and cleaned. Any other in-contact cats should also be treated to prevent reinfection (Cheyletiella blakei Infection in Cats). With diligent treatment of the cat and its environment, prognosis is good for full recovery and prevention of recurrence.

When to See a Vet

Most cases of mild dandruff can be treated at home with frequent grooming and anti-dandruff shampoos. However, it’s important to see a veterinarian if the dandruff persists or worsens despite treatment.

Some signs that warrant a trip to the vet include:

  • Dandruff that does not improve after 2-3 weeks of at-home treatment
  • Intense itching, scratching, skin irritation, or signs of pain
  • Red, inflamed, or scabbed skin
  • Hair loss
  • Changes in behavior like lethargy or appetite loss
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

A vet can properly diagnose the underlying cause of stubborn dandruff cases. They may run tests to check for skin infections, parasites like cheyletiella mites, allergies, or other medical conditions. The vet can provide prescription shampoos, antibiotics, anti-parasitics, or allergy shots as needed. Don’t try to treat severe or chronic dandruff at home without guidance from your veterinarian.

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