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What can cause an itchy face?

I have a 12-year-old domestic short hair who has a severe itch on the side of her ears and eyebrows. She is scratching so much...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Jan 17th 2008

I have a 12-year-old domestic short hair who has a
severe itch on the side of her ears and eyebrows.
She is scratching so much that she is bleeding.
She has had 2 cortisone shots and they did stop
the itching for approximate 5 weeks. I have been
applying baking soda mixed in water which seems to
give her some relief but each time she scratches
the wound starts to bleed since it has not had
time to recover. The vet said it could be an
allergy but to what we do not know. I did change
her food but the result was not the food. Please,
is there anything I can do to help her, she is not
the same cat since the itch began.

Thank you, sincerely, Loretta

New York City, NY

When cats or dogs get itchy on their face (or anywhere on their body), allergies often are responsible. Allergies occur when an individual’s immune system reacts inappropriately to a substance (such as pollen, food, or fleas) that the body encounters. In people, the result is watery eyes, sneezing and other symptoms of hay fever. In pets, the result usually is itchy skin.

There are other problems that can lead to the sorts of problems your cat is having. These include ringworm, skin infections, skin trauma, ear mites, and problems with the immune system that are related to, but not exactly the same as allergies.

Your situation sounds very frustrating, both for you and for your cat. This is typical of allergies. Anyone who has ever suffered with bad hay fever can testify to that. Fortunately, there are some steps that might help.

First, if your vet hasn’t already done so, he or she should test for ear mites and ringworm to make sure that they aren’t playing a role. Ear mites usually are hard to miss, but ringworm can be tricky. Ringworm is a fungus that grows in the skin, and it can spread to people. It is important to make sure ringworm is not involved in the problem.

Assuming the tests for ringworm and ear mites come back negative, you have several options. To start, you may want to consider switching diets again. I realize that you have already tried this, but there is a chance that your cat may be allergic to an ingredient that is present in both foods. So you may want to consider another switch, this time to a special hypoallergenic diet that you can get from your vet. It might take 6 – 8 weeks before you notice a difference.

As well, talk to your vet about fleas. I don’t think that fleas are a problem in New York City in January. But you should confirm that there is no chance whatsoever that an occasional flea is biting your cat.

Since your cat has responded to cortisone injections in the past, you may want to consider putting her on oral cortisone. One medicine, called prednisone, is very likely to help your cat. Prednisone has side effects, but if your cat is really suffering, it would be worthwhile to consider it.

If you really want to get to the bottom of what’s happening, consider having your vet biopsy the area. This may be pricey, but it will provide valuable insight into what is happening.

Finally, there is a remote chance that your cat’s itching has become a self-perpetuating cycle. In other words, the itching from scabs healing might be causing your cat to scratch off the scabs, starting the process all over. In that case, placing a cone collar on your cat until her face heals would be helpful. But remember that if she is really itchy, the collar will keep her from scratching and might make her miserable. I would consider this option only as a last resort.

I hope that some of this advice is helpful, and I hope that your cat feels better. But I have to warn you: this sort of problem can be quite difficult to eliminate. You may be fighting this for a while, so please don’t get frustrated.