Some cats, like some people, are unfortunate to suffer from acne. The condition in cats is generally mild and since cats do not worry about their appearance the condition rarely causes serious problems. However if your cat has any skin changes you should make an appointment to see your vet - skin disease may sometimes be a sign of something else more serious.
What is feline acne?
Feline acne, like acne in people, is a skin condition with blackheads and pustules on the skin. The condition is most commonly seen on the chin because, in the cat, this is the site of sebaceous glands which produce an oily secretion. These glands play an important role in territorial marking for cats - you will have seen your cat rubbing its face and chin around people and objects to mark them. The first signs of acne developing are black spots on your cat's lips and chin. These are due to blocking of the glands and most often the disease does not progress further; if it does, the blocked gland may become infected and pus-filled spots develop. In some severe cases of acne there is hair loss and scarring.
How did my cat catch acne?
Some cats produce more oily secretions than others and are just susceptible to developing acne. You may recognise a yellow discolouration of the fur around the chin in these cats, or notice a black greasy build-up of secretions on areas where they rub. There are also some underlying conditions that can weaken your cats immune system and make them more likely to get acne.
In some cases specific skin infections can result in acne. If your cat suffers from acne you may be advised not to use plastic food bowls. This may be because these bowls are more difficult to clean than the smooth surfaces on metal or china dishes or because an allergic-type reaction to the plastic occurs.
How would I know if my cat has acne?
It is likely that the first signs you would notice would be spots on your cats chin or a swollen chin. Sometimes the chin has a dirty appearance or appears to be crusted with black flecks. Sometimes the spots can spread around the face and eyes. Occasionally, if the condition is particularly severe, cats with acne may have a raised temperature and feel a bit miserable or be unwilling to eat.
What tests will my vet need to do?
Your vet will suspect that your cat has simple acne just by looking at the skin. However they may want to do some additional tests to see if they can find an underlying cause. Some cases can be triggered by stress or changes to routine so your vet may question you to identify a possible trigger factor. If there is still doubt about the cause of the lesions your vet can take a small piece of tissue from the skin (a biopsy) for analysis in a laboratory. This requires a general anaesthetic.
What else could cause these signs?
Your vet will want to rule out parasitic conditions such as demodex (mange mites) and flea infections; ringworm or Malassezia (yeast infection) as these can appear similar to, or occur at the same time as, acne. Persian cats can get a particular severe form of acne known as 'idiopathic facial dermatitis' which is particularly difficult to treat.
What is the treatment for feline acne?
In mild cases no treatment may be needed although your vet may give you a wash to clean the skin surface in affected areas. This can often be effective but some cats may develop skin irritation and these cats are probably better off without treatment. Anyone who has experience of acne in people will know how hard it can be to eradicate completely and recurrent bouts are likely. In more severe cases hot compresses can be applied and antibacterial skin shampoos or skin creams may be used. Long term supplements such as evening primrose oil or fish oil may help in some cases. Rarely are antibiotic tablets required.