Q. My cat has always been a fastidious groomer but has developed dandruff. Are the flakes something I should be concerned about?
Dear Ms. McCullough,
A. A healthy cat should not have dandruff, which are flakes of skin large enough to be seen with the naked eye. It tends to go hand in hand with a dry, itchy coat, more common in winter than summer because many home heating systems reduce the moisture in the air.
The dandruff shouldn’t alarm you, but if it’s persistent rather than occurring just here and there, it signifies that something might be wrong and needs to be treated.
One common reason for cat dandruff is an inadequate diet. Feline skin needs the right amount of essential fatty acids, including an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid that is found in vegetable oils, chicken fat, and meat. The cat food you buy will have the minimum concentration of fatty acids to meet the standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, but your veterinarian may recommend switching to a food with more of the necessary fat, or supplements in the form of tiny amounts of oil — perhaps something on the order of an eighth of a teaspoon of oil a day.
If adding fat to the diet, either by mixing in a tiny bit of oil or switching foods, doesn’t help, your veterinarian may want to check for allergies, parasites, a skin infection, or all three. Certainly, if your cat is vigorously scratching or biting herself, you may suspect an allergy, parasite, or a fungal infection in the form of ringworm. The vet may examine skin cells under a microscope to check for parasites, and she may also order various screening tests. Whatever the problem turns out to be, treating it should clear up the dandruff.
Note that in some cases, an underlying disease like hyperthyroidism can cause the flaking skin. That, too, can be treated, which should stop the dandruff.