Contact Dermatitis in Cats
Your cat rubs against things every day. This is normal behavior and seldom causes any problems. If he should rub against something that leaves a residue on the fur, however, it could become a serious issue. Topical poisons, or toxins, cause skin irritation, which is often referred to as contact dermatitis. If the damage is severe enough, it is considered a chemical burn.
If your cat licks or swallows these toxins, his mouth and digestive tract can also be affected, and possibly other organ systems as well.
What to Watch For
- Foreign substance on body, feet, head, etc.
- Unusual odor, especially a chemical smell
- Redness, swelling, hair loss, itchiness, blisters, or ulcers on the skin or feet where the substance is located
- Drooling, coughing, or sores in the mouth if the cat licked the substance
- Vomiting, possibly diarrhea, if the cat swallowed the substance
Household chemicals, insecticides, and petroleum products are the most common topical poisons encountered.
- Call your veterinarian, the nearest animal hospital or the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-855-213-6680.
- Wear protective gloves and manually remove the foreign material from your cat's body. If the foreign material is liquid, use paper towels or clean rags to remove as much as possible by blotting, not rubbing. DO NOT use water or any solvent unless specifically instructed by your veterinarian.
- If possible, bring the container in which the material came from. This will help your veterinarian identify the substance.
- Do not let your cat lick the substance off the fur. If necessary, wrap your cat in a clean towel to prevent this from occuring.
A thorough physical exam of your cat and identification of the poison will be the first things your veterinarian does. Your vet will also decide if the skin damage is due to a chemical burn, an allergic reaction, or contact dermatitis from exposure to a topical poison or irritant. Additional tests may be requested based on the initial evaluation of your cat, especially if the toxin was swallowed.
The foreign material will be completely removed from your cat’s skin. This may require sedation, as well as shaving and multiple baths. If the skin has been damaged to the point that your cat actually has a chemical burn, it will be treated as a burn. For less serious irritation, various healing ointments and anti-inflammatory medication will be used as needed.
If there is damage to the mouth, it will be flushed with water to remove as much of the toxin as possible. Swallowed poisons, meanwhile, are treated differently. If there is concern for infections, antibiotics may be prescribed.
Severe damage to the skin, mouth, or digestive tract will require hospitalization and supportive care such as intravenous fluids and injectable medications.
Cats can be exposed to these poisons not only by brushing against them, but also by walking on them, or having these substances spilled or sprayed on them.
Living and Management
Removal of the toxin from your cat’s skin is the most important part of the healing process. Additional treatment is aimed at protecting the skin until it heals, which is usually just a few days.
Damage to the mouth and digestive tract from licking and swallowing the poison is more of a challenge. The sores in the mouth may make it painful to take medication or eat. Liquid medications, including those that coat and protect the esophagus and stomach, and soft, canned food will help.
If your cat refuses to eat for more than 1 to 2 days, he needs to be re-evaluated by your veterinarian. It puts your cat at risk for developing a condition called hepatic lipidosis, which can be fatal if not treated aggressively.
Most exposure to topical poisons is accidental. Be sure containers of poisonous material are properly sealed and stored. Wipe up any spills immediately and prohibit your cat from entering areas where hazardous materials are stored.