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Causes of Pigment & Color Changes in the Skin & Coat of Cats
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
skin conditions
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Causes of Pigment and Color Changes in the Skin and Coat Causes of Pigment and Color Changes in the Skin and Coat

The skin and coat of a cat may sometimes change color or become lighter or darker. This may be a normal process, or may be due to a serious disease. If the skin or coat has a color other than white, it is said to be 'pigmented.' Colors include brown, black, red, purplish-blue, and yellow. If the skin is a darker color than normal, it is said to be 'hyperpigmented.' The table below provides a list of the majority of the conditions which are associated with pigment change. This extensive listing 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 pigment or color changes are color-coded gray in the table (some may be more common in certain geographical areas).

 
Condition Description Symptoms Diagnosis Treatment
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
Basal cell tumors Most common skin tumor in cats; benign tumors; may become cancerous, slow-growing tumors which rarely metastasize Single, sometimes fluid-filled nodules which may ulcerate; usually on the head, neck, and chest; may be hyperpigmented Biopsy Surgical removal (if benign, surgical removal is optional)
Bowen's disease A rare type of squamous cell carcinoma in which multiple lesions develop Lesions start out as thickened, dark, raised, and well-delineated; progress to ulcers and crusts and bleed easily; found on the head, neck, shoulders, and forelegs Biopsy Lesions may come and go and are not always treated; some anti-cancer drugs and radiation have been tried with mixed results
Bruises Generally the result of trauma; may indicate abnormally low platelets, clotting problems, or hormonal problems Areas of bluish black discoloration of the skin Medical history very important; blood tests if abnormality expected None, if the result of trauma; in other cases, treat underlying cause
Chronic irritation/inflammation Chronic atopy, allergies, bacterial infections Darkening and sometimes thickening of the skin History, physical exam; blood tests to determine cause Treat/remove underlying cause
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
Epitheliotropic lymphoma (mycosis fungoides) Rare cancer of T lymphocytes seen in older cats; may be associated with FeLV Redness, itching, scales, ulcerated nodules Needle or other biopsy Poor response to treatments which include chemotherapy, surgical removal, retinoids, fatty acids
Follicular cyst Most common cyst; may be called "sebaceous cysts" by some veterinarians Single, round nodules on or underneath the skin; may appear bluish; may contain a thick, yellowish to gray material; usually found on the head, neck, and trunk Biopsy Surgical removal optional; do NOT squeeze these cysts since a severe skin reaction will occur
Hemangiosarcoma Malignant, invasive tumor more common on sun-damaged skin Blue to reddish black nodule; usually on ears, head, legs, groin, and axillae; often ulcerate Biopsy Surgical removal; need to remove large area around the tumor; if tumor is on a leg, amputation of the leg is commonly recommended
Hypothyroidism Decreased production of thyroid hormone; uncommon in cats Dry and brittle hair, seborrhea; secondary bacterial and yeast infections; lethargy, obesity, slow heart rate; changes in skin pigmentation may occur Thyroid gland function tests, chemistry panel, CBC Lifetime thyroid supplementation
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
Jaundice Generally results from liver disease Yellowing of the skin, mucous membranes and whites of the eyes Physical exam; blood tests to assess liver function Treatment of underlying liver disease
Lentigo Common on the lips and nose of orange cats Circular brownish-black areas of coloration Physical exam; skin biopsy to rule out other causes of hyperpigmentation None

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

Mast cell tumor Common cancer which is graded from 1-4: Grade 1 is one slow-growing tumor, and Grade 4 is rapidly growing malignant tumors with metastasis; in cats, most are Grade 1 Tumors may be of various sizes, appearances, and numbers Biopsy to grade the tumors which determines treatment and prognosis Depends upon grade; surgical removal, taking large area around tumor; chemotherapy; prednisone; radiation
Melanoma Malignant tumor; uncommon in cats Usually single, dark-colored nodule which often ulcerates Biopsy Surgical removal, taking large area around tumor
Mosquito bite hypersensitivity Severe allergic reaction to mosquito bites; lesions most common on nose and ear tips - also footpads, lips, and chin Acute lesions are red, raised, and oozing; with time develop hair loss, scales, nodules and pigment changes; some cats develop fever and swollen lymph nodes History of exposure to mosquitoes; lesions resolve when cat is hospitalized or otherwise restricted from exposure to mosquitoes Restrict exposure to mosquitoes, insect repellents, prednisone
Pemphigus foliaceus The most common form of pemphigus in the cat; an autoimmune disease Often affects feet and head; starts with pustules and progresses to severe crusting; depigmentation of the nose is common; itching may occur; if footpads and nails affected often see lameness; symptoms wax and wane; severely affected cats may have fever and loss of appetite History, physical exam, skin scraping and biopsy Corticosteroids, other immunosuppressive therapy, gold injections
Post-clipping change in hair color (feline acromelanism) More common in Siamese, Burmese, Himalayan, and Balinese; in these breeds, skin at higher temperatures has lighter colored hair, and cooler areas have darker hair; when area is clipped, it is cooler and hair grows in darker Hair in a clipped area grows in with a darker color; after the next shed the hair returns to its normal color Breed, history None
Red/brown staining of hair Often caused by body secretions such as tears and saliva from licking Light colored hair turns a reddish brown Clinical signs, history Treat underlying condition
Skin cancer See specific type, e.g., Basal cell tumor, Mast cell tumor, Melanoma      
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
Vitiligo (decreased pigment) Can be hereditary or caused by an autoimmune reaction Loss of pigment which may be temporary or permanent; usually on nose, lips, and face Clinical signs, skin biopsy None

* 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; 1994.

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; 1995.

 
References and Further Reading

Birchard, SJ; Sherding, RG (eds.) Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1994.

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; 1995.

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