26 May 2013

Cats: Feline Acne

In one cat group I belong to, there has been some recent discussion about feline acne and how to treat it.  The problem I see is most of cat owners and some vets don't distinguish between a cat with a dirty chin (henceforth called 'chin crud') and true feline acne.  The treatments are similar but not identical.

So, what are the differences?

Chin crud is often the build up bacteria and food particles on the hair of the chin.  A cat eats, gets a bit of food on the chin, and because the chin is hard to clean, the dirt allows bacteria to grow.  Over time, the bacteria creates blackish residue on the hair.  But, and this is key, the black crud is on the hair, above the skin, and not in the skin.

Since it's on the hair, this black crud can be washed off, usually with just water in a minute or two.  If there is

more fat in the food, a bit of isopropyl alcohol and/or soap will help quickly remove it.  Because it is bits of food and moisture mixed in with saliva to create black crud, it may stain white hair.

Wendy has this because her tongue hangs out, soaking her chin in saliva.  I use a flea comb to comb off the bigger pieces and then a cosmetic pad with saline for contacts to wash it.  Then I use EyeEnvy liquid and powder on the area.  If I do this ever 2-3 days, her chin will be spotless.  (Unfortunately, I often skip it during the week because I have such limited time.)

Feline acne is like human acne -- it is an infection in the skin.  The skin usually develops blackheads first.  The black areas are in the upper layer of the skin, as in the photo at the right.  Over time, some of these blackheads lead to pimples (or zits of pustules of infection -- which ever is your favorite term) which erupt from the skin. The chin feels lumpy when rubbed. Interestingly, the 3 cats I have had with feline acne had perfectly clean chin hair, as can be seen in the photo at the right and the one below.

Clearing up feline acne may take weeks to months.  Vets will often 'express' the pimples, which one can do at home and is rather disgusting.  But if the pimples are not intentionally popped, they will pop when you scratch the chin or when the cat rubs against objects.  The open 'wounds' do bleed freely and will create a mess. (On a side note, the expression seems in most cases not to cause the cat much discomfort.)  Once the infections are removed, the vet normally prescribes an antibacterial soap or medicine.

When James, Clancy, and Tolstoy developed this, I would express the pimples and then wash the chin with a dilute mixture of goldenseal extract.  The goldenseal has a natural antibiotic property, but it also stains the hair yellow.  (I could live with yellow chinned cats.)  Once I figured out the source of the problem, it took about 3 weeks for it to clear up.

So why is there a confusion?  Basically it comes down to careful observation and lack of distinction.  Most owners and some vets see the black crud and immediately call it feline acne.  They don't stop and determine it the problem is above or in the skin.  Then they treat it with antibacterial soap and it clears up -- not because it was acne, but because the soap killed the bacteria on the hair.

To some, this is splitting hairs.  (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)  The problem is once the owner stops the using the antibacterial soap and the crud comes back, often the vet then uses antibiotics.  I'm not a fan of antibiotics in general, and in this case, they usually won't work, so then the vet tries either stronger antibiotics or suggests steroids.  It comes down to treating a cat with some serious drugs for a problem the cat really doesn't have!

So where does chin crud and feline acne come from?  The most commonly sited explanation is plastic bowls.  And this is true, but not true.  The chemical nature of plastic itself has nothing to do with acne or chin crud.  The problem with plastic is it scratches.  Those tiny grooves allow bacteria to build up.  So for many owners, switching from plastic to ceramic helps.

In my case, my cats already have ceramic plates and stainless steal bowls.  With Wendy, the crud is a byproduct of her malformed jaw.  While I can help keep it clean (and cleaning her teeth will also help by decreasing the bacteria in her saliva), I will not be able to prevent it.

With James, Tolstoy, and Clancy, it was the food.  They got it in period where I was teaching full-time and going to college full-time, so I had little time to make food.  I would often mix canned food with my raw food to extend it.  Once I removed the canned food, the problem began to resolve itself.


Anonymous said...

Excellent information as always Linda. I enjoyed reading this article very much! Joane

L.M. Hornberger said...

Thanks! I try...

Heather said...

Most interesting Linda - i use some plastic dishes here and to be honest never thought of bacteria - but have now put them in the bin and will steel to their stainless steel and ceramic dishes in future..... we don't have a problem with chins thankfully but at least now I am trying to prevent anything in the future

L.M. Hornberger said...

Good for you, Heather! I like it when owners try to prevent problems, because it's often a lot easier and a lot healthier for the cat.

Colleen Kuipers said...

I have only been using glass saucers to feed my cat. She is on a different diet since being diagnosed with feline leukemia. it is Hills Prescription diet. a/d Critical care. she has been only on a wet food diet as she does not want to eat and i have to coax her to eat she refuses to drink any fluid. She has been ill since the 27th February and was diagnosed on the first of march. Could it be caused by a different diet?

Coco cat said...

My cat has what appears to feline acne since she was diagnosed with feline leukemia 24 days ago she has only been eating wet food out of glass saucers. Her diet has changed and she is on Hills Prescription diet a/d Critical care. She refuses to drink any fluids. She urinates once a day and poos once a week. She is not dehydrated obviously wet food only helps. She will not eat dry food although its offered to her. Could this acne which seems to be itchy be caused by her diet. After reading the advice yesterday i started using only stainless steel bowls. Her bowl/plates get washed immediately after feeding as i coax her to eat 6 times a day and she just lies resting on a warm blanket. She is 16 months old and was completely healthy up until a few days before she was diagnosed. Thank you for your good advise

L.M. Hornberger said...

Diet does seem to play a big role in feline acne as does hormones.