Cat Nutrition for a Healthy Coat

Learn the factors that contribute to a healthy coat for your cat, including nutrition, age, weight, and bathing.

Medically Reviewed by Katherine Scott, DVM, DACVIM on May 01, 2010
6 min read

A cat’s shiny coat is beautiful, a delight to touch, and supremely functional. There can be as many as 130,000 hairs per square inch in a cat’s coat. And these hairs do many things:

  • They give a cat sensory data.
  • They protect it from heat and cold, wind and rain
  • They even help a cat manufacture vital nutrients like vitamin D.

But, as meticulous as cats are in caring for this treasure, once in a while a kitty’s coat can lose its shine. To find out what’s behind a cat’s blah coat -- and what you can do about it -- WebMD talked to cat nutritionists and veterinarians about how to care for your cat’s coat.

Lots of things can cause kitty’s coat to be dull, or its skin to be dry and flaky. A few of the most common causes include:

  • Poor nutrition. For healthy hair, skin, and body, your cat needs a diet with a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, just like you do. And also just like you, if your cat eats nothing but poor quality food that is more difficult to digest, kitty may end up short on vital minerals and vitamins.
  • Weight problems. As many as 57% of U.S. cats are estimated to be overweight or obese. When some cats get fat, they stop being able to reach their whole bodies for cleaning. This can lead to a dull, unkempt coat.
  • Age. When cats get old they can become less flexible or arthritic. Then they just can’t twist and turn the way they used to, says Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, a veterinary internist and feline specialist in New York. So, age or pain could leave your normally fussy feline with a dull, bedraggled coat.
  • Bathing too often. In an effort to control dander or foil fleas, some people bathe their cat. Bathe kitty too much and you could be the cause of kitty’s bedraggled coat.

These are just a few of the reasons your feline may have dry skin or a dull coat.  Diabetes, parasites, skin infections, allergies, autoimmune diseases, dry winter air, or more serious issues can also be responsible. To get behind the reason for your cat’s skin or fur problems, it’s important to have kitty checked out by a veterinarian.

Cats are great at taking care of themselves in so many ways. But they still need our help to stay happy and healthy.

If your kitty’s coat is dry and dull, here are things you can do to help.

A cat’s skin and coat reflect what's going on inside its body, says Susan G. Wynn, DVM, CVA. Wynn, a veterinary nutritionist in Georgia, is co-author of the Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine. When the fur becomes dull or the skin dry, “the first thing we need to look at is the diet,” she tells WebMD.

Cats need much more protein than dogs; they also need complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats to help them maintain a healthy body and shiny coat. A diet that’s low-fat, or consists mostly of generic, poor-quality foods “will definitely cause a poor-quality coat,” Plotnick says.

Both vets tell WebMD the most sensible answer is to switch to a premium brand of  cat food. Check with your veterinarian for recommendations.

In the quest for a shiny coat for your cat, you can also try supplementing kitty’s food with fatty acids like those found in salmon or other fish oils. Expect to wait four to six weeks to see results, Plotnick says. Ask your vet first before starting any supplement.

Cat owner Carolyn Rose saw results supplementing with fish oil. Rose’s cats had “dry, flaky skin and no luster to their coat.” Adding fish oil to her felines’ food “worked, and I think it made them feel better, too.”

Crystal Ernst discovered that diet was behind her 17-year-old cat’s skin problems. Boo had been plagued with dandruff and dry skin for years, Ernst says, but a switch to a high-quality, grain-free diet produced a shiny, soft coat “in a matter of weeks.”

Already feeding kitty a premium diet but still seeing a dull coat? Wynn suggests switching to another high-quality cat food, “one with completely different ingredients made by a different company.” Every company has a nutritional philosophy, Wynn says, and a cat food that’s great for one cat, “may not work well for another.”

Does your feline friend have dandruff down the center of its back or around the base of its tail? That could be a sign that kitty can’t reach these spots because they are overweight or obese.

Being heavy doesn’t just lead to a less flexible feline. Extra weight also puts your cat at risk for many of the same chronic health problems as an overweight human, including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, and  cancer.

If  obesity is behind your cat’s dull coat, the first thing you need to do is address the problem, Plotnick says. Start with a visit to the vet, who can create a healthy, lower-calorie diet for your cat.

It’s important that you don’t undertake this alone. Your vet can calculate the right amount of calories your cat should eat per day and recommend a proper weight loss diet.

Cats need to lose weight slowly and carefully. A too-rapid weight loss in an overweight cat can lead to a serious liver disease called hepatic lipidosis. It took kitty time to put that weight on; it’s going to take time to get it off.

Your cat may be as sleek as an otter and have a great diet. But if a cat is too old to clean properly, the result may be a dull coat or dry skin.

In that case, a shiny coat for your cat is literally in your hands. Brushing your senior cat more often can be kitty’s ticket back to a soft, luxurious coat. The American Animal Hospital Association suggests using a fine-toothed comb, one that can dig down a bit and catch the dull, dead hairs a brush may not reach.

You can also try boosting the omega-3s in your elder cat’s diet, if your vet approves. Be sure to add it to kitty’s food, not directly to their fur. “Treat your cat’s dry skin and coat from the inside, not the outside,” Plotnick says.

Plotnick tells WebMD that washing your cat frequently could be another reason for a cat's dry skin. Like many vets, he recommends bathing your cat only when their coat is extra dirty -- think grease, something sticky, or other grime that’s hard for a cat to groom away.

And when you do bathe kitty, Plotnick suggests finishing with a conditioning rinse made specifically for cats.

If you’ve been bathing your cat in an effort to control your allergy to cat dander, you’re not really helping yourself -- or your cat. The effects of bathing on dander are transient and last mere days. It’s more helpful to wash your hands, take allergy medication, and clean the house often.

If fleas have you bathing your cat frequently, you’ll save wear-and-tear on everyone -- and help your cat's coat return to its normal shine -- by switching to a monthly flea medication for cats. Severe flea infestations may also require treatment of the home before flea products can be fully effective. Don’t use flea products made for dogs on your cat; these can be fatal. Or consider buying a fine-toothed flea comb.

Before you change your cat’s diet, give it supplements, or make any big changes in kitty’s life, always talk to your vet first.

Dry skin and a dull coat can be a sign of allergies, parasites, or infection. But it could also be something more serious, such as kidney, liver, adrenal, or thyroid problems. Home remedies could just complicate the problem or delay treatment.