His name was Jake, but the kitten in front of me looked more like Yoda.
At 3 months old, Jake was having a rough go of things. His head was nearly bald, his ears a crusty mess. As I examined his tender ear canals, his foot stomped on the exam room table like Thumper.
My technician, who had been examining a swab of Jake’s earwax under a microscope, informed me that she couldn’t find any mites in Jake’s ears. I was unconvinced — after all, mites are common in kittens and the most common cause of the symptoms I was seeing.
“Let’s treat him anyway,” I said, “just in case.”
Two weeks later, Jake came back for a recheck. I was expecting a miraculous recovery. He looked the exact same, as crusty and itchy as ever. I called the local dermatologist for a recommendation as to what to check for next, and she told me to put him on a hypoallergenic food. Two weeks after that, Jake was finally on the mend. As it turned out, Jake was allergic to chicken.
It was an unusual situation, but not unheard of. Itchy kittens are far and away most likely suffering from parasites, bacterial infection or ringworm, but occasionally, a cat like Jake will come along and surprise you.
Cats are tricky little creatures, and they seem to take delight in breaking all the rules and assumptions that make diagnosing disease easier. Some allergies present as respiratory signs like wheezing. Others present as gastrointestinal problems. Most allergic cats, however, come to the veterinarian with skin disease.
There are four major categories of allergic disease in cats:
3. Environmental allergy
4. Mosquito bite hypersensitivity
Allergic disease in kittens is very unusual, but of those four, the most commonly diagnosed kitten allergy is to food.
Cats with food allergies have year-round itchiness. Some cats have lesions restricted to the face and neck, as happened with Jake, but others can have generalized hair loss and itching. Diarrhea and vomiting may also be present.
If you suspect your kitten has allergies, do not jump straight to a hypoallergenic food without talking to the vet first. Remember, most of these itchy kittens are dealing with parasites or an infection, so it’s vital to rule those out before embarking on a food trial. Dermatophyte cultures to look for ringworm and skin scrapes to check for mites are part of the standard itchy cat workup. If the kitten comes from a shelter environment, he’s even more likely to have an infectious etiology, so this workup is vital to ensure the cat gets proper treatment.
Once food allergies are isolated as the suspected cause, the cat needs to be placed on a hypoallergenic food for 10 to 12 weeks as part of a food trial. Other tests advertised for food allergies are unreliable. During this time, the cat should receive no other food, treats or flavored medication. Because kittens are still in a growth phase, owners and the veterinarians advising them should be careful to select a hypoallergenic diet that is appropriate for kittens, as some are designated for adults only.
Cats with a true food allergy should show improvement during this time period. In addition to the food change, many veterinarians will advise treating for external parasites at the same time; even if it is not the primary problem, flea bites can exacerbate a cat’s discomfort when allergies are an issue. Many of these cats also have secondary bacterial infections, and those cats also require antibiotics.
Four weeks into Jake’s trial on a rabbit and pea diet, the crusts on his ears had resolved and he was purring like a little machine during his exam. A couple of months later, though, his owner called in a panic to tell me Jake was relapsing.
“Do you have other cats in the house?” I asked. Yes, she replied.
“Are they all eating the same food?”
“No,” she said. “The other cats are on their old food. But I keep them separated … well, mostly …” Her son had left the door to the room with the other cat’s food open a few times, and Jake decided to sneak a few bites of his forbidden kibble.
It doesn’t take much to trigger a relapse in a cat like Jake, but he returned to normal when the door to the pantry stayed shut. Despite his problems with chicken, he went on to live an otherwise normal and healthy life. Allergies can be a frustrating problem, but with proper diagnosis and attention, they don’t need to ruin your cat’s quality of life.