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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

My cat, Lily, is about 3 years old. When my daughter got her as a kitten she was flea-ridden. We had her bathed and cleaned up. But since then, she constantly cleans herself to the point where she has scabs and a couple of almost bare patches by her back end. She doesn’t have fleas any more. She eats Iams hairball formula cat food seeing as she has long hair. She’s very affectionate and cuddly, and I can’t see any way she could be stressed. Could her over-grooming be a hangover from wanting to be clean because of when she was so flea ridden? And is there any way I can stop this behavior?

~ Susan

Siouxsie: Susan, the first step to solving this problem is to bring Lily to the vet and have her skin condition checked out by a professional. Once you’ve got a diagnosis and some professional counsel, you’ll have the tools you need to treat her condition effectively. And here are some tips that might also help.

Thomas: A lot of vets believe that a severe flea infestation can result in allergic reactions that continue after the fleas are gone. This is particularly true for cats that have a high sensitivity to the toxins in fleas’ bites.

Feline miliary dermatitis. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Feline miliary dermatitis. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Dahlia: Feline miliary dermatitis, as this allergic condition is known, can cause excessive grooming and biting because of the itching of the skin. Most of the over-grooming from this condition takes place on the back near the hips. Flea bite allergy is the most common cause of miliary dermatitis, but cats without fleas should be checked for other allergies, parasites, or infections.

Siouxsie: One thing you should ask yourself is, “Am I sure Lily doesn’t have any fleas?” Cats are really good at grooming away the occasional flea, but even one bite can cause a ferocious allergic reaction. If you’ve kept up on your flea prevention, you can be pretty sure she’s clean.

Thomas: If you’ve been seeing black specks where she sleeps or sits, touch them with a damp paper towel. If you see a rust color, those black specks are flea poop.

Dahlia: But if your vet checks her out and doesn’t find any fleas, it’s time to consider other causes for her condition.

Siouxsie: Dr. Richard Pitcairn says in his book Natural Health for Dogs & Cats that about a third of all allergies are causes by substances in food. The reason for this is because a lot of the stuff in cat food is really not stuff we’re designed to eat.

Thomas: Corn and wheat, for example, are often used in dry cat foods, and as obligate carnivores (we have to eat meat to stay alive), our bodies just can’t tolerate that stuff for a long time and stay healthy.

Dahlia: A lot of “hairball formula” foods have additional plant-based fiber ingredients, which is how they’re supposed to keep hairballs moving through the digestive tract rather than being hacked up by your cat.

Siouxsie: But really, the best way to keep Lily from getting hairballs is to groom her regularly. Long-haired cats need to be brushed at least twice a week; Persians and other fine-haired cats should be brushed daily.

Thomas: This article gives instructions for grooming a long-haired cat. A groomer can show you the tools you need and the process of proper brushing and combing.

Dahlia: Anyway, back to the food issue. We’d recommend that you try feeding Lily a product that has meats you don’t usually find in cat foods such as venison, rabbit, or duck. (Chicken, beef, turkey, and seafood, on the other hand, are very commonly used.)

Siouxsie: Thomas has a very sensitive stomach, and his food sensitivity was causing him a lot of discomfort due to diarrhea and cramping. After a lot of experimentation, Mama found some dry food and wet food that he can eat, enjoy, and not have the runs.

Thomas: It does take time to find the right foods for a cat with allergies or food sensitivities, so if you go this route, be patient.

Dahlia: Other things that commonly cause skin allergies include chlorine and other contaminants in water, household cleaning chemicals (including air fresheners), outgassing of formaldehyde from furniture or newly installed carpets, cigarette smoke, synthetic carpet and upholstery, plastic dishes, and even the soaps or lotions you humans use on your own bodies!

Siouxsie: So the best thing you can do to help Lily stay itch-free is to minimize the chemical load in your environment. Give her water filtered through one of those charcoal-filter pitchers. Use natural and scent-free laundry products. Get rid of chemical air fresheners. Make sure you have plenty of fresh air in your house when you bring in new furniture or new carpets. Don’t smoke indoors.

Thomas: And be sure to give her the highest-quality food you can afford. When it comes to pet food, you do get what you pay for. For the record, the foods Mama found that work for me are Blue Buffalo Healthy Living kibble and Evo venison gooshy food. Boy, it feels great not to have the runs and a sore bum anymore!

Dahlia: Ewwww, Thomas! TMI! …. Anyway, Siouxsie and I like those foods too!

Siouxsie: We don’t think you’ll need hairball formula food as long as you groom Lily regularly. She’ll be healthier on a diet that includes canned foods as well as kibble.

Thomas: Your vet will be able to give you other advice that will help clear up Lily’s skin. If she has a secondary bacterial infection, your vet may prescribe a short course of antibiotics as well.

Dahlia: Good luck to you and Lily both!