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Causes of Hair Loss (Alopecia) in Cats
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
skin conditions
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Causes of Hair Loss (Alopecia) in Cats Causes of Hair Loss (Alopecia) in Cats

There are many diseases and conditions which can cause a cat to lose hair. Some of these may be considered normal, others can indicate a serious disease is present. Most of the conditions which result in hair loss are included in the table below, though some of them may be rare. This extensive list helps you understand why a quick diagnosis may be difficult to make, and various diagnostic tests may need to be performed. The most common conditions causing hair loss are color-coded gray in the table (some may be more common in certain geographical areas).


 
Condition Description Symptoms Diagnosis Treatment

Allergic and irritant contact dermatitis

An allergic reaction following exposure to antibiotics applied to the skin; metals such as nickel; materials such as rubber, wool, and plastic; chemicals such as dyes and carpet deodorizers; or inflammation caused by irritating substances such as poison ivy. Generally requires multiple exposures.

Red skin and small bumps or blisters on the areas of skin that are sparsely haired and directly exposed to the offending substance; itching; hair loss in chronic conditions

Patch test, exclusion trials

Restrict exposure to the allergen or contact irritant in the cat's environment; steroids, antihistamines

Alopecia areata Thought to be an autoimmune disorder Patches of hair loss especially on head, neck, and body; no itching Microscopic examination of hairs; biopsy Usually recover spontaneously
Apocrine sweat gland cyst Rare in cats Single, round, smooth nodules with no hair; may appear bluish; usually filled with a watery liquid; most common on head, neck, and limbs Physical exam; biopsy Surgical removal is optional

Atopy (allergic inhalant dermatitis)

Allergic reaction to something the cat inhales such as pollen, house dust mites, and mold

Licking of feet, inflamed ears, itching, redness, and hair loss; sometimes development of infection or hot spots

Intradermal or serologic (blood) testing for allergies

Reduce exposure to allergen (what the cat is allergic to), steroids, omega 3 fatty acid supplements, antihistamines, shampoos, immunotherapy

Bacterial infection (pyoderma)

See Folliculitis

Often occurs as a result of another condition such as a parasitic, allergic, or hormonal condition      
Chemotherapy Loss of hair due to chemotherapy is a concern for cat owners Cats lose guard hairs so coat becomes soft and fuzzy; may lose whiskers History None, hair will regrow after chemotherapy discontinued; may regrow in a different color or texture

Cheyletiella (rabbit fur mite) mange

Infection with the Cheyletiella mite

Itching, scaliness; some hair loss, if severe

Skin scraping and microscopic examination - the mite is often very difficult to find

Pyrethrin

Congenital hypotrichosis Congenital lack of hair Kittens born with little or no hair; any hair they are born with is lost by 4 months of age Physical exam; biopsy None
Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) Caused by an increase in corticosteroids in the body - either due to increased production by the body or as a side effect of high doses or prolonged therapy with corticosteroids Hair loss, thinning of skin, hyperpigmentation, easy bruising, seborrhea, comedones (black heads); lethargy, increased thirst and urination, pot-bellied appearance Adrenal gland function tests, urinalysis, chemistry panel, CBC If due to glandular tumors, selegiline, o,p-DDD (Mitotane), or surgical removal of tumor; if due to high steroid doses, withdraw use of steroids slowly

Demodectic mange

Infection may be localized or generalized; the generalized form occurs in cats who have a deficient immune system

Hair loss, scaliness, redness, sometimes itching

Skin scraping and microscopic examination

NO Steroids!

Rotenone, dilute Amitraz (Mitaban) dips, lime sulfur dips, ivermectin (off-label use*)

Drug or injection reaction Rare skin reaction to a drug which is inhaled, given orally, or applied topically; more common with penicillins, sulfonamides, and cephalosporins; usually occurs within 2 weeks of giving the drug Can vary widely and may include itching, hair loss, redness, swelling, papules, crusts, ulcers, and draining wounds History of being treated with a drug, symptoms, biopsy Discontinue offending drug; treat symptomatically
Erythema multiforme Hypersensitivity reaction to infections or drugs; may also be caused by cancer or other diseases Hair loss, 'bull's eye' lesions and vesicles often around mouth, ears, groin, and axilla; in some instances, ulcers develop; depression, fever History, clinical signs, rule out other diseases causing similar signs; skin biopsy Treat or remove underlying cause
Facial (preauricular) alopecia; normal hair loss above the eye Normal decreased density of hair between the eye and ear This decreased density of hair starts when cats are 14 to 20 months old; more prominent in short-haired, dark colored cats No diagnostics necessary unless signs of skin disease are present such as redness or scaling None - normal
Feline acquired symmetrical alopecia Rare; originally called 'feline endocrine alopecia'; cause unknown Symmetrical hair loss on back of thighs, abdomen, and genital areas; hair easily pulls out; no itching Skin biopsy; tests to rule out other causes of hair loss None

Flea allergy dermatitis (flea bite hypersensitivity)

Severe reaction by the cat to the saliva of the flea

Intense itching, redness, hair loss papules, crusts and scales; sometimes development of infection or hot spots

Presence of fleas; reaction to intradermal testing

Flea Control in the environment and on the cat; steroids and antihistamines for the itching

Folliculitis Infection of the hair follicles; symptoms usually appear on face, neck, and head Pustules develop in the hair follicles and open and form crusts; may itch and develop hair loss Skin scraping; culture; biopsy; look for underlying condition such as allergy or FIV Antibiotics, usually for 3-4 weeks; treat any underlying condition

Food allergies

Allergic reaction to something in the diet

Licking of feet, inflamed ears, itching, redness, and hair loss; sometimes development of infection or hot spots

Food elimination trials

Change in diet

Granulomas May be due to infections; the body's reaction to foreign material such as plant material (e.g., foxtail) and suture material; other constant irritation; or unknown causes Solid, firm nodules of varying sizes; those due to foreign bodies often have draining tracts; may develop hair loss, ulcers, and secondary infections History, clinical signs, biopsy, surgical exploratory Surgical removal of the foreign body (in the case of plant material, tracts may be extensive and require major surgery); antibiotics if infected; treat any other underlying cause
Hair loss during pregnancy and nursing ('blowing her coat,' telogen effluvium) Excess shedding that can also occur in other stressful circumstances such as illness or surgery Sudden and widespread hair loss History, clinical signs Treat any underlying condition; hair will grow back
Hyperthyroidism Approximately 1/3 of cats with this disease will have skin lesions; caused by excess secretion of thyroid hormone Hair loss; hair easily pulled out; seborrhea; cats may overgroom and cause 'hot spots' Physical exam; blood testing for thyroid hormones Remove part of thyroid; radioactive iodine therapy; methimazole
Injection site alopecia Hair loss at the site of an injection of a medication or vaccine; skin may become thickened; in cats, ulcers may develop Hair loss occurs several months after injection; area may become hyperpigmented History and physical examination None; the condition is permanent

Lice

Infection with several species of lice

Variable: itching, hair loss, crusts, rough hair coat

Finding lice or nits on skin or hair

Pyrethrin, ivermectin (off-label use*)

Malassezia

Usually follows some other underlying disease

Itching, redness, hair loss, greasy scales; if chronic develop hyperpigmentation

Skin scraping/smear and microscopic examination, culture

Treat underlying disease; oral ketoconazole; miconazole shampoos

Psychogenic (neurogenic) dermatitis

Self-licking in cats results in self-trauma; possible causes include anxiety, boredom, stress (e.g., new member in household)

Symmetrical hair loss, sometimes ulcers, on abdomen, groin, along the back

Exclude other causes; history important

Relieve underlying cause e.g., anxiety; restrict licking; behavior modifying medication may be necessary

Pyoderma-superficial

(see Folliculitis)

       
Ringworm

Infection with several types of fungus

Hair loss, scaliness, crusty areas; some itching

Culture

Miconazole, lime sulfur dips; oral griseofulvin or itraconazole

Sebaceous adenitis Sebaceous glands are destroyed, cause unknown; very rare in cats Circular areas of crusts and scales on head, ears, and neck; hair pulls out easily, leaving skin exposed Clinical signs, skin biopsy Antiseborrheic shampoos, fatty acid supplements; in more severe cases, steroids, retinoids
Seborrhea Can be primary (inherited) or secondary (resulting from other disease processes such as FeLV, FIP, FIV, ringworm, and parasites) Scales; depending upon the type, may have a dry or oily coat; odor; some scratching; may see hair loss Blood tests, skin scrapings, etc. to find underlying cause Treat underlying cause if present; antiseborrheic shampoos; fatty acid supplements
Solar dermatosis (sunburn) Skin reaction to sunlight; more common in cats with white ears Redness, hair loss, and scaling on nose and ears, later crusts and ulcers History, breed, physical exam, skin biopsy Must avoid further sun exposure, especially 9 am - 3 pm; sunblock, steroids
Stud tail (tail gland hyperplasia) A sebaceous gland (on the top of the tail near its base) enlarges; most often occurs in confined, unneutered males Oily area, hair loss, and crusts on area over gland; may become hyperpigmented Clinical signs Castration usually does not resolve the condition; antiseborrheic shampoos, retinoids; if confined, allow cat more freedom

* off-label use: medication used to treat a condition for which it was not developed (or licensed). A large number of medications fall under this category. Research has almost always been performed to determine the effectiveness and safety of the product, but the manufacturer has not undertaken the lengthy process required for licensure.

References

Birchard, SJ; Sherding, RG (eds.) Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 2000.

Greene, CE (ed.) Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1998.

Griffin, C; Kwochka, K; Macdonald, J. Current Veterinary Dermatology. Mosby Publications. Linn, MO; 1993.

McKeever, PJ; Harvey, RG. Skin Diseases of the Dog and Cat. Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa; 1998.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Cat. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 2000.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Dog. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 1998.

Scott, D; Miller, W; Griffin, C. Muller and Kirk's Small Animal Dermatology. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 2001.

 
References and Further Reading

Birchard, SJ; Sherding, RG (eds.) Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 2000.

Greene, CE (ed.) Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1998.

Griffin, C; Kwochka, K; Macdonald, J. Current Veterinary Dermatology. Mosby Publications. Linn, MO; 1993.

McKeever, PJ; Harvey, RG. Skin Diseases of the Dog and Cat. Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa; 1998.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Cat. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 2000.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Dog. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 1998.

Scott, D; Miller, W; Griffin, C. Muller and Kirk's Small Animal Dermatology. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 2001.

Click here for a pdf version of this article.  See related products at DrsFosterSmith.com Pet Supplies  
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