By Jean Hofve, DVM
It’s not just for teenagers anymore – cats can get acne too!
You may see your cat rubbing his chin against the furniture or other corners more than usual. You might notice little black specks around your cat’s lips or chin (especially in a cat with a light-colored face), or you might not have a clue until you see an oozing abscess draining from the jaw. Often the chin will become lumpy with “pimples.”
Feline acne generally involves a bacterial infection. Other conditions that can cause similar-appearing conditions include skin mites, ringworm, yeast infection, or auto-immune diseases such as eosinophilic granuloma complex (“rodent ulcers”). Therefore, if you do notice something going on in the chin area, a trip to the veterinarian’s office is your best bet to make sure the problem is not more serious than a few zits!
One common cause/contributor to the problem is use of plastic food bowls. Plastic is porous, and bacteria can lodge in the crevices. The bacteria remain there, safe and inaccessible even to the dishwasher. When kitty goes in for that last kibble, the contact between the chin and the bowl allows these bacteria to infect the cat’s skin. Brushed stainless steel and aluminum can also harbor bacteria (as well as an electrical charge that can give your cat a static zing!). Often, simply switching to glass or ceramic (smooth non-lead glaze) bowls resolves the problem. Straight-sided ramekin-type bowls seem to do very well in preventing the problem. Of course, all food and water bowls should be washed daily in hot, soapy water or dishwasher! (Or, if you’re into super-convenience, disposable plates can be used.)
Dry cat food, with its coating of oil and normal surface bacteria, seems to be a much bigger problem in the acne department than canned food. If you must feed dry food, it’s best to limit it to timed meal feedings of 30-60 minutes. You can wash the cat’s chin after each meal to minimize the problem. (Of course, we don’t recommend dry cat food; click here to find out why!)
Treatment of feline acne depends on the severity. If it’s mild – just a few blackheads or specks of dark skin discharge – washing the area daily with dilute antiseptic soap such as chlorhexidine (non-dental brands like Hibiclens or Nolvasan) or iodine (Betadine) until it’s cleared up, is just fine. (Both of these products are available at most grocery stores, and certainly at drug stores.) Since cats may not enjoy these washings, you may not get a chance to rinse, so be sure the soap is VERY dilute! Betadine in particular can be very irritating to the skin if your soapy water is too strong. A weak tea color is good for Betadine; very pale pink or blue for chlorhexidine soaps. Do NOT use “antibacterial” hand soap; it will leave too much residue. Detergent dish soap is far too strong and will damage the skin.
If the condition is more severe, your veterinarian will want to clip the chin area to help keep it clean. She may also prescribe other treatments, such as topical or systemic antibiotics, or a stronger soap such as benzoyl peroxide. Warm plain water or Epsom salt compresses can be used for draining abscesses. In some cases, sedation or anesthesia may be necessary if the area is very painful, in order to clip and clean it thoroughly. It is generally a bad idea to “squeeze” the pimples; the skin in the area bruises very easily, and this can also spread the infection.
Because stress generally suppresses the immune system and may play a role in making the cat susceptible to these infections, using flower essences (such as Spirit Essences) can be an important part of holistic treatment.
While some cases of acne can be very stubborn and difficult to resolve, in most cases it’s not too severe and is easily resolved with a little effort on your part, and a little cooperation from your cat!