Cat Dander

Dr Pippa Elliott
cat licking paw

You might know cat dander as dandruff in your feline friend's coat, but do you know it's also a component of house dust? Whether the dander is a sign your cat has a health problem or it triggers your allergies, understanding more about cat dander is the key to controlling it.

What Is Cat Dander?

The Spruce explains cat dander is microscopic flakes of shed skin. The skin has a layered structure much like a brick wall. At the base are baby skin cells which mature over time, travel upward, and eventually slough from the surface. This means a certain amount of dander is normal as a part of the life cycle of the skin.

When a cat grooms, she conditions her skin and coat, which helps keep dander to a minimum. However, if the cat is unwell or suffers a dietary deficiency, this is reflected in her skin. The cells are less firmly glued together and slough off more easily, resulting in an increased amount of dander.

In addition, cat skin produces natural oils that keep her coat and skin in good shape. The New Scientist explains these oils contain a glycoprotein called Fel D1, which is highly allergenic to many people. It is actually the Fel D1 on shed dander and hair which triggers the sniffles for those people allergic to cats.

For most cats dander is purely cosmetic, but be aware that excessive dander can be an indication the cat is sick or has bad skin. Whether it's the for the health of the cat or to allow an allergic person to keep a feline friend, controlling dander is important.

What Dander Looks Like

Cat dandruff

Flea Science elaborates on how the appearance of cat dander can be mistaken for flea eggs. Both are tiny (smaller than a pinhead), white and shiny. However, whereas flea eggs are oval, dander is usually a small flat square. In addition, flea eggs fall out of the coat, while dander often becomes trapped among the hairs. This gives the coat a flaky appearance.

Dander comes in different sizes from microscopically small to visible flakes. Again, a word of caution. Petful explains there is a mite, cheyletiella, with the nickname "walking dandruff." Just because something looks like dandruff, doesn't mean it is.

Causes of Cat Dander

Cat World writes there are many reasons for excessive dander to develop, from lack of grooming to serious health issues.

Diet-Related

Cats need a high quality, protein-rich food for good health. Poor quality food, that is low in omega- and omega-6 oils or has depleted vitamin levels, can result in poor coat condition. The essential fatty acids (such as fish oils) have a special role in maintaining plump, healthy skin cells. Pet Education explains this is why many skin nutraceutical products are rich in omega oils.

Environmental Factors

Lack of moisture in the superficial layers of the skin leads to flaking and increased dander. Consider using a humidifier, and turning the thermostat down on the heating.

Parasitic

Willows Referral Services records how the parasites most often linked with cat dander are:

  • Fleas
  • Cheyletiella (walking dandruff)
  • Demodex

The first two parasites live on the surface of the skin and can be spotted by the sharp-eyed pet parent. The third parasite, Demodex, lives within the skin and it requires skin scrapes and a microscope to find it. A good starting point is regular use of a product licensed to kill external parasites. However, not all products kill all parasites, so you may still need to go to the vet.

Fungal

The Merck Veterinary Manual outlines two common types of fungal parasites which may invade the skin:

  • Ringworm: Typically this produces patches of hair loss and increased skin scales. The areas most commonly affected include the toes, muzzle and ear tips. Ringworm can be transmitted to people, so get to the vet as soon as possible.
  • Malassezia: This is a yeast which makes up part of the normal flora and fauna of cat skin. However, sometimes the Malassezia overwhelms the skin's ability to keep it in check and reproduces out of control. The end result is a greasy feel to the skin which becomes very flaky.

Your vet may prescribe an oral antifungal medication for ringworm or an antifungal shampoo for Malassezia.

Pain

Discomfort in the form of dental disease or arthritis means the cat is less likely to groom. Without regular care, the natural conditioning oils are not spread over the surface and the coat becomes dry and brittle. In addition, that licking tongue massages the skin and improves the blood supply. When this benefit is lost, the skin has a tendency to dryness.

The answer here is twofold. Try to brush the cat each day, if even for a short time. The benefits include removing knots, conditioning the fur, and massaging the skin for better all round coat condition.

Ill-health

Health conditions such as diabetes mellitus or overactive thyroid glands may cause a general dip in immunity. This makes the skin less able to fight off bacterial invaders resulting in low-grade infections that cause flakiness. In addition, the skin's hydration often dips, which again results in dry, flaky skin. The crucial thing here is to identify the underlying condition and get it treated.

Treating a Cat With Dander

Where possible, the underlying cause of the dander should be identified and treated. For example, the cat that isn't grooming due to arthritis should be prescribed pain relief. Whereas a cat with parasitic disease needs the regular use of a product effective at killing that parasite.

In addition, it is beneficial to provide a healthy, balanced diet rich in essential fatty acids, and a living environment that is neither too hot or too cold. Regular brushing also stimulates the circulation to the skin and improves the immune system, making the skin more resilient.

Minimizing Cat Dander

woman blowing nose

If you suffer from allergies, then minimizing dander is a priority. A broad strategy for removing dander includes:

  • Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. Vacuum daily, not just carpets but soft furnishings and curtains.
  • Wet wipe the walls and ceilings at least once a month.
  • Replace carpets with laminate flooring where possible.
  • Wash bedding (including the cat's bedding), regularly.
  • Bathe the cat once a week, and wipe her down with anti-allergy wet wipes in between baths.

KittenTesting explains that some people are deeply affected by cat dander. Those with an allergy to the Fel D1 antigen will develop the streaming nose, watery eyes, and constant sneezing associated with a cat allergy.

Be Realistic About Cat Dander

Unfortunately, dander is a fact of life when living with cats. Even kittens bred as 'hypoallergenic' may still trigger allergies. While you can do a lot to minimize normal dander, it's often not possible to do away with it altogether. If your cat has excessive dander, this is a clue that all is not well. Do your fur friend a favor and get her checked by a vet.

Cat Dander