Cat fungal skin infection: how to recognize it and treat it

Your cat’s once-majestic fur is looking a little worse for wear, and they seem to be licking, scratching, and biting themselves non-stop, so it seems to be time for a little trip to the veterinarian’s office. After an examination and a few tests, your veterinarian told you that your cat has Malassezia dermatitis. To best help your furry friend, it’s important that you understand what this fungal infection is and how the treatments work.

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Mala-what? What exactly is Malassezia in cats?

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Malassezia is a yeast (a kind of fungus) that is a normal member of the microbiota in cats.  In healthy cats, it coexists peacefully in small numbers with the other bacteria and yeasts that reside on your cat’s skin, ears and mucous membranes. However, in cats with underlying health problems or cats who suffer from an impaired skin barrier, these resident colonies can grow out of control, causing fungal infections in cats. This condition is called Malassezia dermatitis.

Yeast infection symptoms in cats

The symptoms of Malassezia in cats often include red, inflamed, itchy and even scaly skin, which may be accompanied by feline acne, hair loss, greasiness, foul odor, skin darkening, and in chronic cases, a thickening of the skin. You may also notice brownish-black build-up around your pet’s claws with localized inflammation, which will often cause cats to bite and chew on their toes to relieve the itchiness. Some cats may develop a facial dermatitis with large, dark, tightly adherent scales.

Yeast infections in the ears are also a possible consequence, resulting in a waxy brownish discharge, scratching, scaling of the skin on the outer ears, and a foul smell coming from the ear canal. Some cats may even scratch themselves so hard that they leave the skin behind their ears raw and oozing.

How is this yeast infection diagnosed?

The gold standard for pinpointing Malassezia as the cause of a skin condition is a simple test that involves your veterinarian taking a sample from the affected area of the skin and looking at it under a microscope. This yeast is readily identifiable. While a small amount of these organisms is normal, if they are found in large numbers this means there’s an overgrowth that needs to be treated.

Treating a cat with a fungal overgrowth: the good news

Luckily, Malassezia overgrowth is a manageable condition that responds well to the available products. The first-line solution is to use topical products such as the DOUXO® S3 PYO line, which for cats includes a shampoo and pads* that disinfect without stinging. These products have an antifungal and antibacterial ingredient and OPHYTRIUM®, that will help restore a balanced skin microbiota, soothe irritated skin, and help heal the damaged skin barrier. The hypoallergenic fragrance used in DOUXO® S3 products leaves a pleasant coconut and vanilla fragrance on the cat’s coat.

We all know that bathing cats can be a difficult process for many cats, but there are some that are more amenable to a bath. The recommended protocol is to apply the shampoo locally to physically remove the yeast and buildup, followed by using the pads on the affected area, which are particularly useful if you have a cat who absolutely hates water.

When the Malassezia is in your cats’ ears, the treatment is usually an antifungal ear preparation prescribed by a vet.

An improvement in the symptoms is typically seen in several days and most cats treated are completely healed in 3-4 weeks. An oral antifungal may be prescribed in tough cases. Depending on your cat’s medical history and progress, your veterinarian will need to further investigate the underlying causes to try to prevent a recurrence.

Underlying causes for your cat’s fungal infection

Yeast infections are often opportunistic, taking advantage of a compromised immune system or another underlying problem. Your veterinarian will want to rule out such things as diabetes, hormonal imbalances, feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, and fleas, among other conditions. These conditions often cause an imbalance among the normal bacteria and yeast that live on your cat’s skin (the microbiota).

Your vet will also ask about your cat’s medical history, especially if they’ve been taking medications that suppress the immune system like glucocorticoids and whether anything has recently changed in the cat’s environment that might be causing an acute allergy. This is important because if there is a treatable underlying problem, it has to be fixed or the yeast infection will simply return again and again.

Bear in mind is that some breeds, such as Sphynx, Devon Rex, Cornish Rex, and Himalayans, are particularly prone to getting these Malassezia infections and may require extra care. There seems to be a genetic influence on how sensitive a cat is to developing this condition.

If a systemic root cause cannot be found and treated, the infection is most likely the result of an environmental allergic reaction. If this is the case and it comes back on a regular basis, your pet will require suitable long-term care with gentle topical products.

Sayonara, Malassezia!

This diagnosis should not frighten you, because it is not a serious condition by itself and can usually be easily controlled. The main challenge in this infection is to get to the root of the problem. If the underlying causes can be efficiently treated, you won’t have to worry about recurring yeast infections and your cat should be back to his or her former glory in no time. In some relapsing conditions such as allergies, yeast can come back, and you will know exactly how to get rid of it!

*Chlorhexidine can cause rare but serious allergic reactions in humans.  If an allergic reaction occurs, seek immediate medical treatement.  Do not use DOUXO® S3 mousse on cats.  Do not use DOUXO® S3 PYO between the toes of cats.

DOUXO® is a registered trademark of Ceva Santé Animale S.A.

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