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Cat Dander vs Dandruff – How to Tell Them Apart (With Pictures)

With so many people having cat allergies, there’s a lot of talk about cat dander. However, many people aren’t really aware of what cat dander is. On top of that, some people assume that if their cat has flaky skin that it must be normal dander and not something abnormal, like dandruff.

To know if you have an issue that needs to be addressed, you need to understand the differences between your cat’s dander and dandruff. One of them is a totally normal bodily function that you won’t even notice (unless you’re allergic!), and the other can indicate your cat needs to be seen by a vet. Read on to learn more about the differences.

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Overview of Dander:

pet hair brush pet fur
Image Credit: RJ22, Shutterstock

What is Dander?

Cat dander is a totally normal shedding of skin cells from your cat’s skin. These cells are shed as the skin “turns over”, pushing off old cells and bringing new, healthy cells to the surface. Cat dander does contain allergens, making it one of the most allergenic aspects of cats. Many people who are allergic to cats are allergic to a protein in their dander.

What Are the Symptoms of Dander?

There are no symptoms associated with cat dander because it is a microscopic function. Think of it how you think of your own skin. As your new skin cells push the old cells off, you aren’t visually noticing skin cells flaking off. If you are, it’s abnormal and should be addressed. The same goes for your cat! If you’re just dealing with dander, there won’t be visible skin or cells coming off of your cat. If you are seeing skin pieces flaking off, it needs to be investigated further, but this is not a symptom of cat dander.

A woman is playing with a cat
Image Credit: Vital9s, Shutterstock

What to Do About It?

Nothing! Your cat having dander is perfectly normal and is not something you should attempt to alter. The exception to this is if you are allergic to your cat, in which case there are some foods, shampoos, and other products that may decrease your cat’s dander production, making them less allergenic to you. You will not be able to fully resolve your cat having dander, though, since it is a normal part of their body working to maintain the health of the skin and coat.

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Overview of Dandruff:

siamese cat fur with dandruff
Image Credit: Lemalisa, Shutterstock

What Is Dandruff?

Dandruff is noticeable flaking of skin from your cat. It is caused by your cat’s skin being too oily or too dry, both of which can be caused by everything from dietary insufficiencies to serious medical concerns. Most cats with dandruff don’t have severe dandruff, though, and it is usually relatively easy to address.

What Are the Symptoms of Dandruff?

If your cat has dandruff, you will be able to spot flakes of skin coming off. Usually, these flakes will come off even when your cat is not being petted. If you pull your cat’s fur back, you should be able to see flakiness on and around the skin. Sometimes, you will see scaly, oily patches, and other times you may just see diffuse dry skin with flakiness.

It’s not uncommon for cats that are overweight, elderly, or too sick to groom themselves to develop dandruff. This is because these cats groom too little, stop grooming altogether, or can’t reach their whole body to groom it. This allows skin cells to build up and the skin to become oily and unhealthy, leading to flakiness and dandruff.

orange cat licking itself
Image Credit: Pixabay

What to Do About It?

How to care for your cat’s dandruff will be dependent on what’s causing the dandruff. Cats that are not properly grooming themselves may need regular brushing, and some even need baths with special shampoos that support the health of the skin. Some cats do well with omega fatty acids added to their diet.

There are skin infections parasites that can lead to dandruff, so it’s important to talk to your vet if your cat develops dandruff, especially if your cat does not have a history of skin and coat issues. They will be able to help you narrow down the cause of your cat’s dandruff and help you get your cat on a treatment plan.

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Other Factors to Consider

Consider your cat’s overall health and appearance when determining if you’re dealing with dander or dandruff. A small area of flaky skin is likely going to require a different type of treatment than your cat having diffuse flakiness all over its skin. If your cat has no flakiness but seems itchy or like they have discomfort on their skin, then you should check for causes, like fleas and irritation to topical medications. There doesn’t have to be visible flakiness and irritation in the skin to indicate there is a problem. Don’t simply assume your cat is dealing with dander, as dander should cause no notable symptoms in your cat.

Domestic cat lying on owner's lap
Image Credit: evrymmnt, Shutterstock
Dander Dandruff
Microscopic cells Visible skin flakes
Normal physiological action Indicates skin problem
Highly allergenic to people with cat allergies Potentially allergenic to people with cat allergies
No treatment necessary Requires treatment to fix

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Cat dander is a normal aspect of your cat’s skin caring for itself. However, dandruff is abnormal and indicates that your cat is experiencing some kind of irritation on its skin. If you see visible skin flakes, then it’s best for you to have your cat seen by their vet to determine what the issue is. The sooner you identify some issues, the easier they will be to fix.

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Featurd Image Credit: Cat Dander- DreamBig, Shutterstock, Cat Dandruff- Nau Nau, Shutterstock