Clearing Up Feline Acne

This condition can become more than a cosmetic problem if a deep-rooted infection develops.

A few blackheads are generally harmless, but a full-fledged case of acne can evolve into a severe health threat to your cat. This is a dermatological condition that affects male and female cats of all ages and breeds.

According to William Miller Jr., VMD, the emergence of blackheads usually represents nothing more than a cosmetic problem. The owner can choose to do something about them or not, says Dr. Miller, a professor of dermatology at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

However, he points out, feline acne – which appears only on an affected cats chin and lips – can evolve into a serious health issue if the benign blackheads turn into pus-filled boils (furuncles) that may signal the presence of a deep-seated bacterial or fungal infection.

The Hidden Risk
A blackhead forms when excessive keratin – an insoluble protein that is the chief constituent of hair – collects in a follicle, the slender, tubular shaft that contains the root of a hair. Over time, a sufficient collection of oily keratin debris can plug the hair follicle.

If there are bacteria, yeast, or other infectious agents sealed in by the plug, says Dr. Miller, a furuncle may develop. Then there is pus down below the surface of the skin, and that can spread from one pimple to another, and eventually to the whole chin. This happens rarely, but when it does the infection can progress to a systemic illness.

A more common and immediately pressing problem, he notes, is the discomfort caused by the presence of a plugged follicle and accompanying inflammation. These lesions are very tender, very painful, says Dr. Miller. If a cat keeps banging her chin on her food bowl, she may eventually go off her food.  Feline acne, he points out, then becomes an issue not only of the affected cats health but also of her discomfort. And it must be addressed.

No Known Cause
The cause or causes of feline acne are unknown, although a variety of veterinary sources offer a range of explanations for the condition. Commonly suspected causes include dirty food and water bowls, allergies, genetic predisposition, poor grooming habits, clogged hair follicles resulting from inadequate shedding, defects in keratin production, and the overproduction of sebum, a waxy substance produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin.

The use of plastic feeding bowls is often cited as a major cause, the idea being that plastic tends to harbor harmful bacteria, while glass, metal and ceramic bowls that can be easily washed do not pose this hazard.

Dr. Miller disputes these notions. Regarding grooming habits, for example, he observes: If your kitty happens to be a slob and has food habitually splashed all over its face after dinner, thats not going to cause acne. Even the most fastidious cats get it. And what about the possible culpability of plastic dishes? Thats an old wives tale, says Dr. Miller. Certain sensitive cats can experience contact dermatitis from plastic, and they should be using glass or stainless steel. But a causal link between acne and the use of plastic is hogwash.

He is also skeptical regarding the common suggestion that stress can cause feline acne. I suppose there could be a connection between acne and chronic, intense stress, he says, but then you wouldnt just have acne – youd have a cat thats a basket case. The bottom line is that we just dont know what causes this condition. There is no one thing that can be said to trigger it. 

Treatment Options
Simple acne can be safely ignored, says Dr. Miller. The blackheads come and go, he notes. The great majority of cats never get them, some get them seasonally, and some get them once and never again. If the attentive cat owner wants to treat feline acne at home, he says, this can be achieved through the gentle application to the animals lips and chin of such over-the-counter products as hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, mouthwash, and medicated acne pads designed for humans.

Veterinary treatment of serious feline acne marked by the presence of a large pimple or furuncle is considerably more complicated. The first objective, says Dr. Miller, is to determine whether there is a true infection and, if so, whether its source is bacterial or fungal. Medication will be determined accordingly, with appropriate antibacterial or antifungal drugs used either topically or, if the infection appears severe, systemically.