Help! My Cat Has Atopic Dermatitis!

S.O.S. 🚨

Itchy cat

Your cat’s licking herself more than normal, and you’re starting to worry about her.

There could be a ton of reasons for your cat’s random excessive grooming behavior, so you’ll need to visit your vet for an official diagnosis — but one possibility you should know about is atopic dermatitis in cats.

The Dodo reached out to Dr. Lydia Harbour, a veterinary dermatology resident at Dermatology for Animals in Phoenix, Arizona, to find out what atopic dermatitis in cats is and how to treat it.

What is atopic dermatitis in cats?

Atopic dermatitis is a common skin disease in cats (as well as dogs and humans) that’s caused by an allergic reaction to things in the environment — like pollen or dust.

And it’s the second-most common type of allergy in cats, behind flea allergy dermatitis.

Cats with atopic dermatitis have defects in their skin’s barrier, which increases their exposure to environmental allergens, effectively making their reactions worse — and even causing new allergies to develop.

In other words, your cat’s skin is way more sensitive to things on her skin that wouldn’t bother most cats.

“Skin barrier defects lead to allergens going through the small ‘holes’ in the skin,” Dr. Harbour told The Dodo.. “The immune system recognizes it (pollen, for example) as something foreign — then the immune cells in the skin go to the lymph nodes and teach the cells there (lymphocytes) to make antibodies against that pollen.”

When your cat is exposed to the allergen again, the cells create antibodies that then bind to the immune cells in the skin, which create inflammatory and itch mediators (aka microscopic substances that make you itchy).

“So essentially, these patients have eczema — we think there is a genetic basis to this, as we see in humans — and the genetic changes in the skin barrier leads to development of allergy,” Dr. Harbour added.

This is actually the simple version, Dr. Harbour explained, “as this is a very complex topic and we are still learning about this, just as in humans.”

Symptoms of atopic dermatitis in cats

Your cat might have atopic dermatitis if she’s showing signs of environmental allergies, which include:

  • Itching, chewing and overgrooming
  • Inflammation
  • Patchy, red skin
  • Secondary infections

Cats usually develop environmental allergies before they reach 3 years of age, so you might notice these symptoms around that time period.

These signs are very similar to allergies to food or fleas, so it’s likely your vet will diagnose atopic dermatitis by process of elimination — specifically, by administering a reliable flea and tick medication to rule out fleas, and running a food trial (which eliminates common allergens from your cat’s diet) to rule out food allergies.

Treatment of atopic dermatitis in cats

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to help treat atopic dermatitis in cats — including immunotherapy, steroids, prescription medication, antihistamines, supplements or topical therapy.


One method of treatment is allergen specific immunotherapy (ASIT) — aka allergy shots. “This works by giving the patient small doses of what he/she is allergic to,” Dr. Harbour said. “Over time, the immune system starts to change how it responds to the allergen and develops ‘tolerance.’”

There is a 60 to 79 percent success rate for immunotherapy in cats, and the reported incidences of side effects are low.


Steroids are “very potent anti-inflammatories and used for acute and severe cases to ‘put out the fire,’” Dr. Harbour said.

There are potential long-term side effects associated with steroids, so vets avoid using this treatment for a long period of time.

“Sometimes if nothing else works or if financial limitations prevent the use of other drugs, these can be used for maintenance control,” Dr. Harbour said.

Prescription medication

Your veterinarian can also prescribe Atopica (aka cyclosporine).

Atopica manages the immune system and helps with the itch and inflammation.

Antihistamines and supplements

A cat-safe, over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine might also help with some of her symptoms.

Try this pet-friendly antihistamine from Amazon for $4.25

Dr. Harbour recommends using OTC antihistamines along with an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help with skin issues.

Try the Zesty Paws Alaskan salmon oil supplement for cats on Amazon for $14.97

Shampoos, creams and lotions

There are also anti-itch shampoos, creams and lotions that can help heal your cat’s skin issues from allergies.

Dr. Harbour recommends products that include both chlorhexidine and ceramides — which won’t require a prescription from your veterinarian.

Try these chlorhexidine wipes for cats from Amazon for $20.99

Air filters and house cleaning

Reducing the amount of allergens in your home can definitely help manage your cat’s allergic reactions (especially when the allergen is dust mites).

In addition to keeping her bedding washed (and yours, if she sleeps with you) and your carpets vacuumed, you might want to consider adding an air filter in your home.

Try this LEVOIT air purifier for home allergies from Amazon for $89.99

Atopic dermatitis isn’t fun for cats — but by following a treatment plan from your vet, your cat doesn’t have to suffer. Soon enough, she’ll be back on her way to good health.

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