Hair Loss in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Cure – Catmart
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Hair Loss in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Cure

Is your cat losing hair? Unfortunately, there are many reasons why a cat’s coat might become thinner, or develop bald spots (alopecia). And because there are lots of causes, there are lots of different cures, making it difficult to know where to start.

Why is my cat losing hair? There are two kinds of cat hair loss: alopecia and general thinning, and both have different causes. Alopecia can be caused by flea infestations, ringworm, or hair loss from fighting. Fur thinning can be caused by poor diet and old age. The fix for hair loss depends on the cause: fleas require flea treatment, ringworm requires anti-fungal treatment, poor diet is corrected by buying better cat food, and old age can be partly helped by better diet and supplements. All causes apart from old age can be cured, and your cat regain its former coat.

The guide below first looks at all the reasons why a cat’s hair falls out, from poor diet to flea infestation. It will then look at the various symptoms of hair loss of all kinds, before addressing how to fix it (and whether it can be fixed at all).

Note: This guide is informational in nature. It isn’t intended to replace the care of a vet. If your cat ever has a health problem that can’t be easily fixed, talk to a vet.

Why Is My Cat’s Hair Falling Out?

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Cats can experience two kinds of hair loss: hair loss in patches (alopecia), or generalized hair loss throughout the entire coat.

It’s not highly unusual for cats to develop bald spots, but it’s not a good sign for your cat’s overall health.

When a cat loses hair, it loses it in spots. They shed fur in a general sense, and there are some health issues that cause a thinning of the fur or even baldness. But it’s far more common for cats to lose hair in spots, which looks what it sounds like.

Bald patches on cats are known as ‘alopecia’, no matter what causes them. This is the general medical term for spot baldness, a kind of baldness that can affect many different animals, not just cats—including people. Sometimes, spot baldness can fix itself, e.g. if some of your cat’s fur was pulled out in a fight. But often, there is an underlying cause that means the hair can’t grow back. Only once the underlying cause is treated does the fur return. Alopecia isn’t a condition in itself, but a sign of other problems.

All that being said, what causes alopecia in cats? Let’s take a look at the most common causes.

Fleas & Dermatitis (Why Is My Cat Getting Bald Spots?)

Fleas and other fur-borne infestations can trigger alopecia. That’s because they make your cat scratch itself, and repeated deep scratching can damage the skin.

Fleas cause itching through the way that they bite. They use a special mouth-part called a ‘proboscis’, which is like a long needle, to get underneath the outermost layer of skin and access the bloodstream. The problem is that the body can instantly recognize that this happens, because there are nerves in the skin. It wouldn’t hurt an awful lot, but your cat would feel the flea’s proboscis and try to scratch it away. That’s a big problem for the flea, because it takes about a minute for it to feed.

This might all seem off-topic, but it’s not. That’s because to avoid this problem, the flea uses a special spit-anesthetic to numb the bite site. This stops the host cat from feeling it feed. It’s only a few minutes later that the anesthetic wears off. When it does, the body notices the spit that was left behind, and immediately goes into allergic reaction mode—yes, allergic reaction mode! It sends histamines to the bite site to make it swell up, but a side effect of histamines is itching. This is the same reaction you get if you have an allergy to something.

The cat will then scratch, scratch and scratch some more. This causes alopecia by a) pulling out the hairs one by one, and b) damaging the skin underneath, preventing the fur from growing back quickly. Because fleas can congregate in particular areas of fur, this effect is made even worse. Flea-related bald spots are typically found around the base of the tail and the back, which are easily accessible for your cat to bite and scratch.

Can Cats Catch Mange?

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There are many different kinds of mite that can infest a cat’s ear.

Mange is a specific health issue caused by parasites and causes specific symptoms, and is not a general term (like in ‘mangy’).

Mange is caused by two different kinds of mite: those in the Sarcoptes genus, and those in the Demodex genus. Sarcoptes genus mites live in the outer layer of skin, while Demodex mites live in the hair follicles. There are mutiple species in each genus, but it doesn’t particularly matter which kind your cat has; the treatment is the same. Because mange is common, and has a significant effect on a cat’s well-being, it has been studied extensively. According to one research paper on the topic:

We describe D. gatoi [a kind of mite that causes mange] in 10 cats, including five Cornish Rex, two Burmese, one Exotic, one Persian and one Siamese, living in six multi-cat households in different locations in Finland containing 21 cats in total. Intense pruritus [itching] was the main clinical sign. Scaling, broken hairs, alopecia and self-inflicted excoriations were also observed.

What makes these mites awkward to treat is that they’re difficult to see. They’re small, but unlike fleas, they’re also translucent. And since they burrow into the skin, they spend most of their time effectively hiding.

There are two kinds of mange. The first is demodectic mange, also known as demodicosis. This is caused by Demodex mites, and is as described above. The other kind is sarcoptic mange, also known as scabies, and is even more difficult to treat. In this case, the itching is caused by an allergic reaction to the mites’ feces, which is left behind as they burrow through your cat’s skin. It typically affects the ears before anywhere else.

So, what does mange look like in cats? It’s not a pleasant sight. The mites leave short, red, inflammed trails behind them where they burrow into the skin. If many mites build up in one place—which they do when they breed—they can form large, crusty lumps, particularly on the ears. This can cause localized fur loss wherever the mites are present. They can spread across your cat’s whole body, though, and cause complete hair loss.

Cat Hair Loss Ringworm

‘Ringworm’ is a misleading term. While does cause an itchy red ring to appear, but it isn’t caused by a worm.

In reality, ringworm is caused by a kind of fungus that grows in and feeds on the skin. It’s caught through direct contact, and coincidentally, is caused by the same fungus that causes athlete’s foot. It can be passed from a person to a person, a person to a cat, a cat to a person, or a cat to another cat. It can also be caught on contact with soil, which is where the fungus lives in nature.

When ringwom infects the skin, it infects the outer layers, and feeds on any dead skin it can find. Severe cases look like the cat has been branded with a branding iron: the ring is an itchy-looking red, and is raised from the skin. Both because of damage to the skin, and because of the cat scratching the infected area, it can cause a bald spot.

Do Cats Lose Hair As They Age?

Cats can lose hair as they age, too. This manifests itself in a different way to alopecia; it doesn’t normally cause spots, but a general thinning of the fur.

This effect is similar to that seen in people. As the cat gets older, its body goes through many changes. One of these is that each individual hair on its body becomes thinner and more brittle, and thus more easily breakable. Through regular self-grooming, activity and shedding, this means that the coat gradually gets thinner and thinner, i.e. less voluminous. You may also notice other changes, like the coat becoming dull in color and/or rougher and less sleek.

This affects your cat’s coat in two ways. The first is that it’s less thick overall. But it can also exacerbate alopecia. So, if your cat already has fleas but doesn’t have noticeable bald spots, it may develop spots (or larger spots) as it ages.

Bacterial Infections

Cats can develop bacterial infections in their skin just as we do. When a cut, scratch or graze occurs, bacteria can gain access to it, resulting in swelling and itching. This can cause itching, making the cat scratch the area, and again causing fur loss. Besides that, bacterial infections can cause reasonably severe skin damage. This can result in gradually-growing patches of hair loss. These patches are characterized by large smooth bald areas coupled with rough-looking, crusty infected areas. Acne, which cats can develop, is a kind of bacterial infection.

Allergic Dermatitis

Cats can be allergic to things, and sometimes, can experience dermatitis as a result. Allergic reactions can occur to certain foods, things found in the environment, and even grooming products; it’s difficult to predict whether your cat will be allergic to something, just as it is with a person. Allergic dermatitis causes large bald patches filled with inflammed, painful-looking red spots. It’s a little like acne.

Folliculitis

Folliculitis, also known as DMMF (Degenerative mucinotic mural folliculitis), is a very rare and poorly understood health issue in cats. It’s a kind of inflammation (as all conditions ending in the suffix -itis are), but aside from that, little is known about what causes it or how to fix it. It affects middle-aged and older cats, and typically male cats. Alopecia on the face, head and neck can occur, followed by hair loss elsewhere on the body.

Unhealthy Diet

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Cats are obligate carnivores, so should only eat meat. The more filler in your cat’s diet, the worse its health will be, and the worse its coat will look.

There are other reasons why your cat may be losing fur from its entire coat. One of these is if your cat isn’t getting the diet that it should.

Your cat has very specific dietary needs. Unlike people, cats benefit from eating the same few foods rather than a wide variety. They are obligate carnivores, which means they do best on a diet of purely meat, which rules out many foods straight away. They need lots of protein to maintain muscle mass, because while sleek, cats are muscular too. They also benefit from the large amounts of fat that are found in a high-meat diet, and have vitamin and mineral needs just like we do (like taurine).

If you feed your cat a diet that is missing one of the essential things it needs, its fur can become brittle and thin, just like it does in response to old age. Vitamins A and E in particular are important for coat health, as is protein. If you were to feed your cat, say, nothing but bread, then its coat would become raggedy, patchy and thin.

Poor Health

Poor health in a very general sense can also cause hair loss. Losing hair is a symptom of many different health issues.

Chronic kidney disease is a good example. It’s a common condition in older cats, and it can occur because of a lifetime eating dry cat food. Cats don’t drink an awful lot, and get most of their water from what they eat; if they only eat dry foods, they won’t get anywhere near enough water, and can experience kidney issues as a result. CKD is where the kidneys start to shut down.

This has many effects, including both weight loss and fur loss. In this case, the fur loss occurs across the whole body, not just localized patches as in alopecia.

Symptoms of Hair Loss in Cats

There are two kinds of hair loss that cats can experience. These are general hair loss from the entire coat, and localized bald spots. Each kind is seen in different contexts, and requires a different fix. But aside from a thinner coat, or large balding spots, what symptoms of this problem are you likely to see?

Losing More Hair When Grooming

You will notice that your cat loses more fur when it grooms itself.

Let’s say that your cat has a bed that it likes to sleep in. When it’s in its bed, it grooms itself before it takes a nap. Before you started noticing your cat’s hair loss, the bed used to have quite a lot of fur on it. But now when your cat grooms itself, it seems to lose a lot more than it used to.

If your hair has started thinning, then you would notice a similar thing happening in the shower when you wash—lots of hair on your hands when you use shampoo, or more hair than usual circling the drain. The exact same applies to your cat. Its tongue will pull out more and more fur each time it grooms. The problem isn’t that your cat is tugging or pulling hard at its fur; rather, it’s that some of the hairs are dead, have come loose from their follicles, or have become so brittle as to come away very easily.

Frequent Scratching and Biting (Grooming)

You will also notice that your cat seems to be grooming itself more than ever if it has alopecia.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that your cat has an in-built instinctual reaction to parasite infestation, which is to groom more than usual. The point is that extra grooming can help manage a parasite infestation and stop it from growing too large. If the fleas were left to their own devices, they would breed until there’s so many that the cat would develop anemia and other deficiencies, and would slowly pass away. The fleas would drink so much of the cat’s blood that it would die. But by grooming frequently, the cat can at least slow the course of the infestation.

The second reason is that a flea infestation is very, very itchy. For the reasons described above, flea bites itch like nothing else. They’re like mosquito bites but worse, and there’s no way to get rid of them but wait, because they’re caused both by the fleas and your cat’s body’s natural reaction to them. They will drive your cat mad, so it will scratch and bite at the affected area/s frequently.

Where Do Cats Lose Hair?

The precise nature of your cat’s hair loss can be determined based on where the fur loss occurs. So for example, hair loss around the tail can indicate fleas, while general hair loss can indicate poor diet. This is therefore an important diagnostic tool that either you or your vet can use.

Cat Losing Hair Around Ears: Losing hair around the ears can be a sign of mange. Mange mites typically affect the ears before they affect any other part of the body, and can make large, crusty lumps appear there. These interfere with normal hair growth.

Cat Losing Hair Around Tail: Alopecia (bald spots) are most commonly seen on your cat’s lower back and the base of its tail. This is a place that your cat can easily reach by biting it. Because it’s so easy to bite/scratch, your cat will do so frequently, and so cause the skin lots of damage. Bald spots will result.

Hair Loss in Cats Around Neck: The first symptoms of folliculitis is often hair loss on or around the neck. However, any of the causes of hair loss can cause hair loss here. That’s because while your cat can’t bite at these areas, it can scratch at them, meaning it can cause skin damage here too.

Cat Losing Hair on Belly: It’s easy for your cat to lose fur on its belly. That’s partly because the belly is easily accessible, but it’s also because the fur there is thin. Bacterial infections and other less dramatic forms of hair loss can therefore affect the belly, while they wouldn’t be seen elsewhere unless they became more severe.

Why Is My Cat Losing Hair on Her Back Legs? Again, the hair here is thinner, and any of the causes above may be to blame (fleas, poor diet, mites, etc.)

Cat Losing Entire Coat: It is also possible for your cat to lose all of its fur. This is a far more serious issue than hair loss in one or two particular places, like in a general alopecia. It indicates that something is seriously wrong with your cat’s health, whether it occurs quickly or slowly. Mange mites can cause your cat to lose its entire coat as they spread through its skin, which takes a long time, but can happen. Sudden allergic reactions can also cause fur loss, which occurs much more quickly than in mange.

Cat Losing Hair AND Weight

Weight loss is often seen alongside hair loss. There are multiple ways in which these two issues are related:

  • A large flea infestation can cause nutritional deficiencies. Poor diet can cause or contribute to weight loss.
  • Poor diet can cause both hair loss, and of course, weight loss. That’s because your cat needs a certain amount of energy in its food, measured in calories, just like we do. These calories come in the form of protein, fat and carbs. If your cat doesn’t get enough energy in its food, it draws on its fat reserves, and becomes thinner. Poor coat is also a side-effect of bad diet.
  • Health issues like chronic kidney disease can cause both hair loss and weight loss, too.

If your cat is losing weight, especially if it’s losing weight quickly, you should talk to a vet as soon as possible. Weight loss is a very serious symptom of poor health, even more so than fur loss.

How to Prevent & Fix Fur Loss/Alopecia in Cats

Nobody wants a cat with a balding or patchy coat. And neither does your cat: it’s likely that it’s experiencing health issues, or failing that, exceptionally itchy bites. As such, you should seek to treat your cat’s alopecia as soon as possible. There are many ways to do that.

Talk To a Vet

cat won't eat
Cats should ideally see the vet once a year for a check-up regardless of whether they’re sick.

No matter what health issue your cat is experiencing, you should take it to the vet. There are several reasons why:

  • The problem may not be what you think it is. Alopecia can be as simple as hair loss after a fight, or as tough to treat as ringworm. If you spend your time and money on treating ringworm, when the problem is fleas, that’s a waste.
  • The vet has access to prescription medications. Ringworm or flea infestations can be tackled with over-the-counter medication. But for severe cases, prescription medication may be necessary.
  • The vet can tell you what’s normal and what’s not. Your cat may not even have alopecia, and the vet can tell you so. Also, you may be treating your cat with medication and notice some side-effects; your vet can tell you whether they’re to be expected or not.

No amount of online research can serve as a replacement for a vet’s assistance. That’s why we always recommend talking to a professional, just in case.

Home Treatment for Cat Hair Loss

You should not attempt to treat your cat’s hair loss at home without the advice of a vet. It’s very easy to accidentally misdiagnose your cat with something it doesn’t have, and therefore spend your time treating the wrong condition. Without the correct treatment, your cat’s health will only deteriorate.

That being said, your vet will ask you to do one or more of several things. Depending on the cause of the issue, they may recommend using spot-on treatments, improving your cat’s diet, keeping it indoors or feeding it a supplement. What neither the vet nor this site will recommend is using common home remedies like apple-cider vinegar, baking soda or anything like that; while some home remedies have their basis in science, most don’t, and even those that do aren’t as effective as actual medications.

Treatments for Mites & Fleas

You may require a vet’s assistance to treat fleas and mites. There are over-the-counter medications available, but these may be ineffective in severe cases.

There are lots of ways to treat fleas in cats. Some are good at managing the size of the infestation, and preventing it from getting out of hand. Other more stronger cures can kill the entire infestation over a course of treatment. To treat fleas, start by:

  • Combing your cat’s fur with a fine-toothed comb. This will help you identify the problem in the first place. Also, you might get lucky: if the infestation is only one or two fleas, then you may be able to get rid of them!
  • Use spot-on treatments. These are flea-killer chemicals that you put a tiny amount of into your cat’s fur. They act as killer and repellent. Common brands include Frontline Plus, Advantage and Stronghold.
  • Use medications. There’s a pill called nitenpyrma, sold as Capstar, that kills any fleas in your cat’s coat within thirty minutes. Comfortis is a similar brand.

You will also have to kill the fleas around your home, because fleas can live and lay their eggs in clothes, carpet and furnishings. Vacuum cleaning is a good start. Talk to your vet about your options.

Vet treatments for mange mites aren’t quite as effective. That’s because these mites are far harder to treat than fleas. They burrow into the skin or hair follicle, making it much more awkward to reach them with the medication. A medication known as Amitraz, sold under the name Mitaban, is perhaps the most effective. Amitraz is a non-systemic acaricide and insecticide; in plain English, that means it kills things like mites without your cat having to ingest it. It’s also an insect repellent, meaning it has a double effect. Amitraz, like many insecticides, is dangerous if you’re overexposed to it, so only use it according to instructions/on your vet’s advice. It is administered as a dip.

Best Food for Cat Hair Loss

Your cat is an obligate carnivore. That means it wants to eat a diet of pure meat. Meat contains all of the vitamins and minerals your cat needs, e.g. vitamin A and E, for a healthy coat. It also contains the right balance of proteins and fats which your cat, and its healthy coat, requires. There are multiple approaches to feeding your cat a better diet:

  • Feeding your cat raw meat. Wild cats eat raw meat, so pet cats would enjoy doing so too. The only problem is that meat caught in the wild doesn’t harbor bacteria, while that bought from a store can. This is something you have to be very careful about, so high quality meat is preferred.
  • Feeding your cat a homemade cat food. You can make homemade cat food with select grains and meats, and serve it raw or cooked. In so doing, you can control exactly what goes into your cat’s food (i.e. fewer grains and beans, and more meat).
  • Buying a premium cat food with fewer, or no, bulk additives. Not all cat foods are made equal. There are foods made with much higher quality ingredients, and better proportions of meat to grains and filler. You could consider switching your cat to one of these.

If you are going to switch your cat to a new diet, only do so in gradual steps. The reason why is that a new diet, even if it’s the ideal one for your cat, can cause tummy trouble to begin with. Your cat’s digestive system may not be used to, say, raw meat, and so could have an initial bad reaction to it.

To make this change gradually, follow the 80/20 rule. In week one, your cat’s diet should be 80% what it used to eat, and 20% what you want it to eat. Then, the next week, change the ration to 60% old food and 40% new food. Continue on until your cat eats nothing but its new diet. This will help your cat’s digestive system adjust.

Supplement for Cat Hair Loss

It shouldn’t be necessary to feed your cat a supplement. That’s because your cat’s diet should contain all the vitamins and minerals it needs to be healthy. However, if your cat’s condition is particularly poor, the vet may recommend feeding it a vitamin supplement to overcome the worst of its fur loss. Vitamins A and E in particular are important for a cat’s coat, but any kind of mineral or vitamin deficiency can affect your cat’s health. Your vet can diagnose what your cat is deficient in and recommend a supplement for you. Don’t feed your cat a supplement without consulting your vet first, because it’s possible to overdose on certain minerals and vitamins.

Hi! My name is Jamie Fallon. I run Catmart, an online cat health and cat behavior resource. If I'm not sat in front of my PC—and I usually am—then I'm either spending time with my cats or my other half... Whoever jumps on me or asks me for food first!

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