Can cats get zits or feline acne? | Dr. Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT | Dr. Justine Lee


Posted by justinelee in Animal Safety, Blog, Pet Health

By. Dr. Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT, Veterinary Specialist on behalf of Pumpkin Pet Insurance

If your cat gets zits, read on.

Believe it or not, but yes, cats get zits. The technical medical term for it is “feline acne” (or what I’d like to call “catne.”) Unfortunately, cats can get acne, and your cat’s zits aren’t there because your cat is going through adolescence. Feline acne often starts in cats around 1 year of age, and is sporadic – in other words, it comes and goes, but isn’t linked to hormones the way it is in teenagers. Feline acne is thought to be due to too much sebum being produced that then plugs the hair follicles and results in secondary infection. Unfortunately, acne in cats is often life-long and can be quite severe! #ad

Feline acne typically doesn’t affect the whole face – just the chin (under the jaw of your cat) and the lips. Most cases are mild, but without treatment, it can result in a severe skin infection, discomfort and pain to your cat, and more severe signs like fever and not eating!

First, what does cat acne look like? Signs that your cat has acne include:

  • Bumps under the skin
  • Excessive grooming (where your cat licks his front inner legs and wipes them under his chin)
  • Itchiness (called pruritus) of the area
  • A swollen chin
  • Pain when touching the face and chin
  • Hair loss
  • Blackheads (comedones) under the chin and lips
  • Brown/black discharge
  • Excessive head rubbing
  • Blood-tinged fluid on furniture, blankets, etc.
  • A bad smell from your cat’s mouth area
Feline acne (Source: Wikipedia)

So, what can you do about feline acne and is there anything you can do to treat cat acne at home? When in doubt, start with these tips:

  • Simply removing plastic water and food bowls will help immensely. Using a ceramic food bowl or stainless steel one can help.
  • Start by gently washing your cat’s chin to remove scabs – this will also help remove the extra sebum that forms on the skin. Try to do this 2–3X/day for 5-7 days. Please do not pick the scabs (In full disclosure, I am NOT a scab picker, even on myself!) – let those natural fall off. Once you clean the area, try witch hazel or this type of Stridex® pad to wipe and blot the acne gently once or twice a day, consistently for 5-14 days until the area completely improves.
  • If topical Stridex® pads aren’t helping after a few days, talk to your veterinarian about applying a topical, over-the-counter antifungal cream (yes, for jock itch or athlete’s foot) to the area. The active ingredients for antifungals typically end with a “-zole” – typically include miconazole or clortimazole. That’s because secondary fungal/yeast infections can be seen from all that infected, moist skin.
  • Consider Epson salt soaks to try out the area. (HAHAHA. Your vet may say this, but really? What cat will tolerate this? None, IMO).
  • NO essential oils on the area please! As a toxicologist and veterinary specialist, I see rare SEVERE poisoning from tea tree oil used. THIS MEANS NO!

If it’s not getting any better within a few days, please get to a veterinarian instead. That’s because your veterinarian may need to do other tests like a skin scrape, culture or even a skin biopsy to make sure it’s not ringworm, demodex, cancer or something else!

Also, please, please, please ask your veterinarian to gently shave the area too, as it’ll make it easier for you to clean and apply topical medication to the area.

Your veterinarian may want to use prescription-strength topical medications containing steroids, antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide, or even retinoids (which are pricey!). One of my favorite topical antibiotics for cats is a drug called mupirocin (2% Bactoderm®) – this works really well when used consistently 2X/day for 21 days and should be discontinued after this time (if improved), as it can cause bacterial resistance if used for long periods of time!

However, please make sure to check with your veterinarian about the prescription strength – especially if you’re getting the medication filled at a human pharmacy! Cats have a unique liver metabolism (e.g., altered glucuronidation) and cannot metabolize certain drugs well compared to dogs or humans. For example, a lot of human acne medications contain a 10% benzoyl peroxide; cats can only tolerate 1/4 to 1/3 of that amount!

In some cats, your cat may also need systemic (that means absorbed by the body) antibiotics. This can be given 1-2X/day for 10-14 days orally OR you can ask your veterinarian for an injection (Convenia) that lasts about 7-10 days. (I opt for the latter in my own cat, as I can’t pill my own cat that long!). Sometimes, steroids (e.g., prednisolone) may be needed too – there is an injection for this, but rarely, it is associated with the development of diabetes mellitus with long-term use, so be aware! And lastly, in severe cases, oral antifungals may be necessary too.

If that’s STILL not working, please make an appointment with your veterinary dermatologist for help! Remember, feline acne can be a chronic problem, and if it’s complicated by skin biopsies, antibiotics, etc., you want to make sure that you can financially care for your cat! (That’s one of the reasons why I’m such an advocate for pet insurance – but remember, most don’t cover pre-existing conditions, so it’s always better to get pet insurance coverage sooner than later!).

It’s important not to just reach for your local acne cream for humans, as these often have poisonous chemicals that are dangerous to cats (e.g., salicylic acid, etc.). When in doubt, contact your veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center for more information.

NOTE: Please don’t apply a triple antibiotic topical cream to cats, as rarely, cats can have a severe anaphylactic reaction to triple antibiotic! That’s why cats are typically prescribed terramycin, erythromycin, etc. as topical antibiotic creams!