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Cat and dog skin conditions owners should be aware of

The skin is the largest organ in the body and is important for your pet’s health. It provides a protective barrier, helps with immunity, allows sensory function and prevents excessive water loss and dehydration. Skin conditions are one of the most common reasons for cats and dogs to be taken to a veterinarian. They can be itchy, painful and may involve secondary infections or spread to other animals. For these reasons, you need to recognise the signs that your pet may have a skin condition and seek veterinary treatment as soon as possible.

Regular grooming is a great way to keep track of your pet’s skin health as it allows you to spot anything unusual. You can also be alerted by any change in your pet’s behaviour, such as scratching or excessive licking of the skin.

The following are some of the most common skin conditions in cats and dogs. They can affect both species, although there may be some differences in frequency.

Here are some of the most common skin conditions in cats


Ringworm is a contagious fungal disease and is not caused by worms, despite its name. The fungus originates in soil and can enter through minor damage to the skin’s surface. Kittens, older cats, cats with poor immunity and long-haired cats are most at risk. The infection is more likely to spread during hot, humid weather or when cats are housed together in facilities such as catteries and shelters. If you notice one or more circular, bald areas of skin that are scaly in the centre with red ‘ring’ lesions around them, your cat may have ringworm. Ringworm is not always itchy but causes surrounding hairs to break off. The fungal spores that shed from infected animals last for many months, so ringworm can easily spread to other cats and dogs through the environment, and on objects such as brushes, clothing and bedding, as well as by direct contact. It is also zoonotic, which means it can spread from cats to humans, although people commonly contract ringworm from the soil and from other humans.

Ringworm is successfully treated by medication, an anti-fungal shampoo and with a number of follow-up appointments. Your veterinarian will also advise about disinfecting the environment and separating your cat from other pets until their treatment has been completed. You and your family can take precautions by hand-washing after touching your cat and seeking advice from your doctor if needed.


The most common cause of skin swellings in cats is abscesses. An abscess is a swollen area that may feel warm to touch and is filled with pus. This means your cat has an infection beneath the skin. Apart from noticing the swelling, you may see your cat behaving in ways that show he or she is in pain, such as hiding, not wanting to be touched, loss of appetite or appearing listless. Abscesses are typically caused by bites from other cats, who inject bacteria from their mouths into the skin. The infection associated with an abscess can make a cat very ill, so it is important to take them to the veterinarian as soon as possible if you suspect they have an abscess.

They are mostly found on the face, neck and tail. Outdoor cats are at most risk, especially if they have not been desexed. For this reason, it’s best to keep your cat contained at home, as this reduces their risk of injuries from cat fights, cars and dogs, and also from serious infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus which are spread through cat bites. Abscesses are very painful and may burst without treatment. Your veterinarian will lance and drain the abscess under anaesthesia/analgesia/sedation, clean the area and may provide antibiotic medication, and advise you on wound care.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Cats who are exposed to sunlight can develop squamous cell carcinoma, which is a form of skin cancer. White cats and older cats are at particular risk and can develop tumours especially on exposed areas of skin such as the nose, eyelids, lips and ears. Squamous cell carcinoma appears as one or more raised sores that don’t heal and may become crusty or bleed. Your veterinarian will take a biopsy under anaesthesia to assess whether the growth is cancerous. This condition can spread throughout the body, but can be treated successfully with early treatment, which often involves surgery and may be combined with radiation therapy (in which a radiation beam is directed at the tumour), photodynamic therapy (in which the tumour is sensitized to light which promotes tumour cell death), or chemotherapy. To minimize the risk of your cat developing skin cancer, take the same precautions as you would for yourself, by limiting their time in the sun during the hottest hours of the day and applying a pet sunscreen as needed.

Here are some of the most common skin conditions in dogs

Flea allergy dermatitis

Flea infestations are unpleasant for dogs and cats, but some pets have an intense response to even a single flea bite because they are allergic to the flea’s saliva. This is called flea allergy dermatitis. If your dog has this condition, they will suffer from severe itching and will lick, groom and chew frantically once a flea has bitten them, even though the flea may no longer be present. You may not suspect what the problem is, as you probably never see fleas on your pet. Dogs who develop flea allergy dermatitis may damage themselves so much they can end up with secondary problems such as hair loss and skin infections. This is why it’s important to seek advice from your veterinarian about effective flea control for your dog all year around, including treatment for the environment. For the allergic pet, no less than 100% flea control will keep them free from symptoms.


Dogs are often presented to veterinarians with ‘hot spots’, especially in the warmer weather. Hot spots are skin lesions that develop quickly on a dog’s body after intense licking and chewing. When fresh, they appear moist and red, but healing hot spots appear crusty. Although these are not serious infections, if you see hot spots on your dog you must seek veterinary attention to relieve their distress and to prevent secondary infections from developing.

Your veterinarian will clip and disinfect the area and prescribe anti-inflammatory medication. They will also need to identify the underlying cause. Hot spots are a sign that something is irritating your pet’s skin. This could be an allergy (including flea allergy dermatitis), bite wounds or some other skin injury, an underlying infection or an immune-mediated ulceration, all of which must be properly treated.

Skin allergies

Dogs can develop allergies, or hypersensitivity reactions, to a number of substances in the environment. Examples include airborne allergens such as pollens, grasses, mould spores and dust mites. This condition is known as atopic dermatitis (or ‘atopy’) and causes intense itching, which may be seasonal or year-round, depending on the allergen. Apart from being itchy, your dog may rub at their skin, particularly on the face, ears or feet. Other symptoms can include skin rashes, skin or ear infections, bleeding skin, hair loss, crusting and skin thickening. This condition gets worse over time so veterinary treatment is essential. Your veterinarian will assist you to identify the allergens but if these can’t be avoided, symptomatic treatment can relieve the symptoms and prevent secondary infections.

Food allergies are another cause of intense itching and can cause similar skin lesions in dogs. In this case, the allergen is a food protein or some other substance in the food. This develops over time and is not a reaction to a change in diet. Your veterinarian will place your dog on a hypoallergenic diet for a certain period, and if the symptoms are resolved, will then gradually introduce the original diet to determine whether the itching resumes, which means those foods need to be permanently eliminated from your dog’s diet.

Remember, skin conditions are common

Skin conditions are very common in both cats and dogs and can cause intense discomfort and pain. As a pet owner, it’s important to recognise the signs of a possible skin condition and to seek veterinary treatment as soon as possible.

And remember that if you have any concerns about your pet’s health, you can be prepared and help protect your back pocket against potentially huge bills with a pet insurance policy.

Something that’s important to take into consideration is that if any skin condition happened, or was present, before the beginning of your first policy period (or within the waiting period, which is outlined in your Policy Booklet), and you or your vet were aware of the condition, then it may be considered to be a pre-existing condition and in that case, it’s excluded from cover.

With RSPCA Pet Insurance there are four levels of cover to choose from. Get a quote today and secure cover online or over the phone and your pet can be covered from 11.59pm tonight. Find out more.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.