Did you know that cats can get acne? They can, and they do! Fortunately for them, it's usually confined to the lip and chin area. And it often flares up in warm weather--such as the high temperatures we continue to have here in Denver, even though it's nearly September!
As in people, acne is typically due to a bacterial infection. While mild cases that show up simply as little black specks or spots around the lips and chin are not a big problem, it can get much worse. It may be itchy or even painful for your cat. You might see your cat rubbing the sides of his face against the corners of furniture or boxes to try to get some relief. But more often, you won't notice anything unusual until you see an oozing abscess draining from the jaw. The chin may become quite bumpy with many pimples of various sizes.
Feline acne consists of many tiny abscesses caused by a bacterial infection. Other conditions that can cause similar symptoms include mites (tiny 8-legged critters also known as mange), dental disease, ringworm (actually a fungal infection), auto-immune disease such as eosinophilic granuloma complex (“rodent ulcers”), and other infections such as yeast. It's definitely worth a trip to the veterinarian to rule out more serious conditions.
The most common cause of feline acne is plastic food bowls. At a microscopic level, plastic is not smooth but rather full of tiny crevices, where bacteria can lodge and hide. And there they stay, safe and inaccessible to soap and water-- even in a dishwasher. Add high humidity like we've had lately on the Front Range, which bacteria love--and you have a recipe for trouble! Contact between chin and bowl helps bacteria transmit to the cat’s skin. (Brushed stainless steel and aluminum can also harbor bacteria, as well as generating static electricity, which isn't pleasant for your cat!).
Dry cat food is coated with oil, and many kinds of bacteria live on its surface. Kibble is a much bigger problem in the acne department than canned food. If you must feed dry food (though many experts don't recommend it for cats), it’s best to limit it to timed meal feedings of 30-60 minutes. You can clean the cat’s chin after each meal as needed to minimize the problem.
Treatment of feline acne depends on the severity. If it’s mild, daily cleansing of the area with dilute antiseptic soap such as chlorhexidine or Betadine soap may be all it takes. (Both of these products are available at most grocery stores, and certainly at drug stores.) Since cats may not enjoy these washings, you may not get a chance to rinse, so be sure the soap is VERY dilute! Soap can be very irritating to the skin, so make sure yours is adequately diluted. Do NOT use “antibacterial” soap intended for humans, or any kind of dish soap or detergent.
Your veterinarian may want to shave the chin area to help keep it clean. Significant acne may necessitate a stronger soap such as benzoyl peroxide, or even antibiotics. Compresses using plain warm water or Epsom salt encourage the abscesses to drain; and, once the cat gets over the initial shock, it may even feel quite good. It is generally a bad idea to “squeeze” the pimples; the skin in that area bruises easily; and too much manipulation can also spread the infection. In severe infections, sedation or anesthesia may be necessary in order for your vet to properly disinfect and clip the area.
Of course, simply switching to glass or ceramic (with a smooth, non-lead glaze) bowls may resolve--or at least diminish--the problem. Regardless of the type of containers you're using, all pet food and water bowls should be washed daily in hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher. (Or, if you’re into super-convenience, disposable plates can be used.) Cats actually prefer a flat plate that doesn't compress their whiskers, and using plates also eliminates most of the contact between the chin and the container.
Because stress suppresses the immune system, it may help make the cat susceptible to infections. Using flower essences, and spicing up your cat's environment with stimulating toys and interactive play, can be an important part of holistic treatment.