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Does My Cat Have Zits?

Paging Dr. Pimple Popper, DVM. Until then, a vet has tips on how to treat your cat’s acne.

by Alycia Washington, DVM
July 23, 2021
Cat napping on a yellow couch against a yellow background
Sabri Tuzcu / Unsplash

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Cats — they’re just like us. They love naps and they get acne. If your cat’s chin looks like the “before” picture in a late-night Proactiv commercial, read on for how you can treat the breakout before Dr. Pimple Popper, DVM, surfaces on Nat Geo one day.

What Does Cat Acne Look Like?

Feline acne can develop in a cat of any age, sex, or breed. It occurs primarily on the chin and around the mouth. Cats will typically develop comedones (blackheads) that can progress to papules or pustules (let’s just call them pimples), often accompanied by hair loss. The area becomes itchy and irritated, causing your cat to want to rub their face on everything (sure, they could also be feeling extra affectionate!).

What Causes Cat Acne?

A sole cause of cat acne has not been discovered. A mystery involving felines — shocking, right? The fancy term for feline acne is feline keratinization disorder, which means that their hair follicles are clogged with keratin, a protein found in skin. Factors that contribute to keratinization defects include poor hygiene, excessive sebum (oil) production, stress, underlying infection, a compromised immune system, or allergies.

So What Can You Do About Your Cat’s Acne?

First, keep in mind that feline acne is usually a cosmetic issue and that your cat can live a perfectly happy and healthy life without treatment. The strategy for tackling feline acne depends on the severity of the symptoms and often includes a combination of diagnostic tests, preventative measures, and routine maintenance.

Don’t Pop Those Zits

Listen to beauty influencers when it comes to popping pimples — don’t do it! Popping your cat’s pimples can leave an open wound, introducing bacteria or spreading an infection that’s already present. It’s unnecessary and cats would much prefer that you scratch their head instead of squeezing their pimples, trust me.

Keep the Affected Area Clean

Often, just cleaning the skin on your cat’s chin with mild soap and water is enough to keep acne in check. Your veterinarian may recommend cleansers with active ingredients like chlorhexidine, benzoyl peroxide, or salicylic acid. Be sure to use a product recommended by your veterinarian for cats. Humans have a lower skin pH than cats, so cleansers designed for people can make matters worse.

Clip the Hair Away

Occasionally clipping matted fur away can help improve hygiene, not to mention ensure that topical treatments are able to penetrate your cat’s skin effectively.

Replace Food and Water Bowls

Bowls made of porous materials like plastic can harbor bacteria that exacerbate acne. Replacing them with ones made of non-porous materials like glass or stainless steel can be a quick fix. And wash them regularly to help prevent future breakouts.

Treat Secondary Infections

When your cat rubs their chin excessively, pimples can pop and become infected. Basically, any break in the skin creates an opportunity for infection to develop and can delay healing. Chronically moist areas create an ideal environment for yeast to overgrow. Your veterinarian may recommend medicated wipes, shampoos, or systemic medications to treat secondary bacterial or fungal infections.

What if My Cat’s Acne Isn’t Improving?

If your cat’s acne is worsening despite treatment or is spreading to other areas on their face, your veterinarian may recommend skin tests to rule out other causes. Skin scraping can diagnose demodicosis, an infestation of Demodex mites that inhabit the skin and hair follicles. Cats infested with Demodex cati or Demodex gatoi will develop hair loss, itching, and scabs. Demodex cati tends to affect cats with compromised immune systems, like cats who have feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), or diabetes mellitus. Demodex gatoi is more concerning because it can spread to other cats through contact. If multiple cats in your household develop itchy, hairless patches, get them checked out as soon as possible.

Just like human acne, feline acne can be a frustrating condition to keep under control, but these tips (plus working out a maintenance strategy with your veterinarian) can help keep your kitty pimple-free and as cute as ever.

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alycia washington, dvm

Alycia Washington, DVM

Alycia Washington, DVM, is a small animal emergency veterinarian based in North Carolina. She works as a relief veterinarian and provides services to numerous emergency and specialty hospitals. Dr. Washington is also a children’s book author and freelance writer with a focus on veterinary medicine. She has a special fondness for turtles, honey bees, and penguins — none of which she treats. In her free time, Dr. Washington enjoys travel, good food, and good enough coffee.