Don’t judge your cat by his or her fur – And other important things you should know about your cat’s coat
Different breeds of cats have very distinguished and different types of coats. Some have short hair, some are long-haired, and some appear to be hairless. No matter the type, however, your cat takes great pride in his or her coat, spending hours a day grooming and maintaining that fur. Your cat’s coat is actually a vital part of his or her skin. Among its many functions, the skin (with its hair coat, claws, and other structures) plays a key role in regulating body temperature, protecting internal organs, and even helps to provide camouflage from other predators and prey.
As important as your cat’s coat is to his or her overall health, feline fur also changes periodically. Some of these changes are healthy and normal and some can be indicative of certain health conditions you will want to be aware of. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with all of the different aspects of your furry friend’s amazing coat, so hold on to your whiskers!
Layers of Cat Fur
All cats have at least four types of cat hair or fur and these different layers play specific roles depending on the breed of the cat and the type of coat your cat has, whether it is a short hair or long hair cat, for instance.
Guard fur is the outermost layer of your cat’s fur. This is the layer that determines the basic color of your cat’s fur. In most cases, the outer guard fur is the longest layer and usually is slightly coarser than the rest of the fur. The guard layer helps to keep your kitty dry.
Down fur or the undercoat acts as your cat’s layer of insulation. The thickness of the down layer is determined by your kitty’s breed and his or her environment. Cats living in colder climates will have a thicker layer of down fur which will stand up slightly when your feline gets cold, allowing warm air to go under the down and next to his or her skin. Down fur is soft and fluffy and may be shed in the summer. This hair tends to mat if your cat is not grooming or groomed regularly.
This layer of fur acts as the glue between the down fur and the guard layer, creating one cohesive coat of fur. Typically, the awn fur is the same length as the guard fur, although much finer. In some breeds, such as the Manx, the awn hairs are shorter than the guard hairs.
Whiskers or vibrissae are actually considered to be part of your cat’s fur or hair because they are also made of keratin, although they serve a very different function than the coat. Whiskers are long, thick hairs and are extremely sensitive to touch. These hairs are attached to your cat’s face and eyebrows via nerve-endings, which allow your kitty to literally get a feel for his or her surroundings. For example, your cat uses these facial hairs to determine whether he or she can fit through a small space. It is important to remember that whiskers should never be cut, because they are very sensitive and loss of them may lead to your kitty becoming disorientated.
Cat Coat Changes
In general, the condition of your kitty’s coat and skin can reflect his or her health. A healthy coat is shiny and smooth as opposed to being coarse or brittle. Healthy skin is supple and soft and not greasy, flaky or bumpy. Proper nutrition and regular grooming help to maintain the coat and skin. When issues arise on the skin or coat it may signal either a primary skin issue or even something internal, such as an imbalance or disease, in your cat.
Cats living in cooler climates will usually undergo two seasonal shedding cycles in the year, once in late spring and again at the end of autumn. This is especially true if your kitty ventures outdoors. During these shedding cycles, your cat’s undercoat will shed off in clumps. Seasonal shedding is a normal part of your cat’s coat life.
When Should I Be Concerned About My Cat’s Coat?
Several health conditions affect the shininess and the appearance of your cat’s fur. If your kitty’s coat appears oily or very dull, if he or she seems to be very itchy, or if there is excessive shedding, either in patches or all over his or her body, there may be an underlying health issue that needs attention.
Illness or stress, especially if it is chronic, can affect the shine and texture of your cat’s coat. Many cats will shed excessively when they are under stress. There are some specific diseases that can affect your cat’s coat including fleas and other external parasites, skin infections and allergies, hormone imbalances, like diabetes or hyperthyroidism, or other metabolic problems, such as kidney disease. Many conditions, including osteoarthritis and obesity, can also be accompanied by skin problems, such as dandruff or matting, if your cat is unable to groom properly.
Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose the underlying cause of your cat’s hair or skin problems. Fortunately, the quality of the hair usually improves once the illness is brought under control through treatment, which may include dietary changes.
Can Nutrition Affect My Cat’s Coat?
Your cat requires a well-balanced diet in order to maintain the skin and hair in a healthy state. Unlike dogs, cats are strict carnivores and have unique dietary requirements, which include arachidonic acid, taurine, and vitamin A and lower requirements for carbohydrates. Commercial diets for cats include high protein content, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins with guidelines for quantities fed that satisfy appropriate number of calories to meet a cat’s energy needs. If your cat’s diet is inadequate, there could be implications not only to the skin and coat but also to their overall health, longevity, and quality of life.
The ideal diet is one that is specific to your kitty’s specific life stage (i.e. kitten, adult, senior) and health status. If you need help making a good nutrition plan for your cat, have a conversation with your veterinarian.
How Does Grooming Help My Cat’s Fur?
Regular brushing is the best way to remove loose hairs and dead skin cells from your cat’s coat and to keep it free of dirt and debris, and to distribute natural skin oils along the hair shafts. Cats with long or curly coats require daily brushing to keep the hair from becoming matted or tangled and those with short hair will probably require less frequent brushing.
Daily brushing also helps cut down the amount of hair your cat swallows during self-grooming with his or her tongue, which ultimately helps to reduce the number of hairballs your cat may develop.
Is My Senior Cat’s Fur Turning Gray?
Like humans, cats do start getting gray hair as they get older. This change in your cat’s fur is a normal part of aging and unless your cat is dark in color, you probably won’t notice the silver strands when they start creeping in.
It’s always important to remember that as with anything you’re unsure about, if there is a change in your cat’s skin or fur and you don’t know why it’s happening, your best resource is your veterinarian.
Laflamme DP. Vet Clin Small Animal. 2020;50:905-924.
Crosta, MC. Feline dermatology. Springer, 2020. pp 23-66
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