Acne is a very common condition in humans, usually associated with hormone changes around puberty. But did you know your cat may also suffer from it too? 

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In cats, acne typically affects their chin and / or lips. It is rarely found anywhere else on the body. Unlike in humans, it is not associated with puberty – it can affect cats of any age, sex and neutering status. 

What is cat acne?

Cat acne is essentially a result of the hair follicles becoming blocked. It is helpful to understand the structure of the skin and hair follicles to understand why this happens. 

Each individual hair sits in a pit (called a follicle) below the skin’s surface. Several substances are produced in the hair follicle; the important ones in terms of acne are keratin and sebum. Keratin is what the hair strand itself is made of, and sebum (produced by sebaceous glands) helps form the skin’s natural protective oils and is important in scent marking. Have you ever noticed your cat rubbing its face up against objects (or you!)? They are leaving deposits of scented sebum to mark their territory… Yes, cats truly believe you belong to them. 

If too much keratin or sebum is produced, or if they aren’t cleaned away from the skin’s surface well enough, the follicle may become blocked up with these substances. When lots of follicles become blocked at the same time, it is termed cat acne. 

What does cat acne look like?

It may initially be noticeable as black dots (like black heads) on your cat’s chin or lips. They may feel slightly bumpy or scabby, but aren’t generally painful or bothersome to your cat. In some cases however, it can become more problematic; if the blocked follicles become infected with bacteria, they will progress into pustules (white-heads). And if the infection travels deeper into the follicles it can result in a more serious condition called furunculosis. If an infection develops, the area will become red, itchy and sore, and the affected skin may become swollen. If you notice any of these signs, get advice from your vet.

Why do some cats get acne?

The exact cause of cat acne is unknown, but is thought to be a combination of several factors causing the hair follicles to become blocked, such as:

  • poor grooming 
  • poor hygiene
  • a natural increase in sebum or keratin production
  • stress
  • viral infections
  • a suppressed immune system

Does it need treatment?

Cat acne is often a mild condition that doesn’t require any treatment. It may be present for a short time only before self-resolving. Some cats are more prone to the condition and suffer with it for a long time, or get infections – in these cases, treatment may be needed from your vet. 

How do vets treat cat acne?

Your vet will first do a thorough clinical examination of your cat to confirm it is cat acne. There are several conditions that will look similar (e.g. yeast infections, ringworm, mites, or eosinophilic granuloma complex), and these are important to differentiate as they all require different treatments. Your vet may need to do some tests to confirm the diagnosis e.g. taking a sample for microscopy, a swab for culture at the lab, or in severe cases maybe a biopsy.

Once your vet has confirmed a diagnosis of cat acne, there are several treatment options:

  • antibiotic tablets or injections
  • topical gels and washes 
  • skin supplements e.g. Omega 3 oils 
  • changing their food bowl from plastic to ceramic or stainless steel
  • regularly cleaning food and water bowls  
  • encouraging grooming (ensuring they are not overweight or in pain, so they can physically move their bodies to groom themselves well)

The recommendations will differ between cats as every case is different, and your vet will advise on the best options for your individual cat.

Prognosis 

Cat acne is often a mild condition that will resolve without issue. Severe cases are unusual, but they may need prolonged treatment, or even referral to a specialist veterinary dermatologist.

Further reading:

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