Scabs on Cats? What Causes Them and How to Treat Them

Scabs on cats are caused by miliary dermatitis, which takes on many forms, such as feline acne, feline eczema and flea allergy dermatitis.

Orange ginger tabby cat itching. Photography ©foaloce | Thinkstock.
Orange ginger tabby cat itching. Photography ©foaloce | Thinkstock.

Millet is a type of hardy, nutritious grass seed that humans have cultivated for thousands of years. It is highly adaptable, with a wealth of functions, providing food and sustenance for livestock and humans. We say “it,” but actually millet is an umbrella term for at least 50 different varieties of this staple grain. They are drought resistant, have a rapid growth and harvest cycle, and usually gluten-free, so millets are experiencing a sort of renaissance among people with food allergies. But why are we going on about ancient agriculture? What does it have to do with scabs on cats?

It can be alarming to pet your cat and find scabs. This feline skin condition is miliary dermatitis, and it takes its name from scabrous sores that resemble millets. Like millet itself, this skin allergy affecting cats is not just one thing, but a symptomatic name that encompasses a range of potential allergens and reactions to them. Let’s look more closely at the possible reasons for scabs on cats and why they appear on your kitty’s back, neck and tail.

You may be able to prevent scabs on cats before they happen. A brown tabby cat itching.
You may be able to prevent scabs on cats before they happen. Photography by Anna Dudko/Thinkstock.

First, what is feline miliary dermatitis?

Because cat skin allergies have so many possible causes and provocations, what we refer to as miliary dermatitis goes by several names. Some you may have heard: the feline acne, feline eczema, the colorful and nonspecific “blotch,” the highly descriptive “scabby cat disease,” and flea allergy dermatitis. This last term describes the most common cause of scabs on cats and the one that confounds most cat owners. More on that in a moment.

Related: 10 Common Cat Skin Problems

There are many causes of miliary dermatitis in cats, external and internal, but they express themselves in the same ways and with the same set of symptoms. We’ve mentioned scabs on cats, but these are only the most obvious and telling signs. Before the appearance of scabs on cats, you may notice your pet begin a regimen of outrageously excessive self-grooming. Now, cats spend nearly half their waking life licking and cleaning themselves, so is there a distinction?

With dermatitis, skin inflammation’s first yield is an itchy rash, which can be difficult to perceive, depending on the length of a cat’s coat. One sure symptom of miliary dermatitis? Repeated attention to a specific and localized area by licking, scratching or biting it. As the rash spreads, a feline may not only groom obsessively but begin balding at those sites. Areas typically affected are the neck and the spot where the tail meets the trunk.

What causes cat dermatitis?

Allergies themselves do not cause scabs on cats at the back, neck and the base of the tail, but by the cat’s singleminded focus on getting relief from the allergy. The more intently a cat scratches, licks and bites at himself,  the more those telltale scabs will form. Time is of the essence. The longer the condition progresses, the more likely it is that a cat will develop scabs. When it comes to scabs on cats, scratching at the scabs clears a path for secondary infections by usually harmless bacteria that live on cats.

Now, there are rashes and lesions present before the cat’s self-grooming traumas, and these arise from several possible agents. Things that can cause these allergic reactions and start the ball rolling toward scabs on cats:

  • Materials in new bedding, carpets, rugs or other home furnishings
  • An ingredient or ingredients in cat food
  • Seasonal allergens, like pollen
  • Common household chemicals, including cat shampoo
  • Mites, such as a sudden proliferation of ear mites or Cheyletiella (walking dandruff)
  • Fleas and flea bites

By far, the most common cause of miliary dermatitis in cats and the scabs on cats that accompany the condition is the bite of a flea.

Flea allergy dermatitis in cats

Since many domestic cats spend most of their time indoors, we can anticipate the cries of protest and alarm. How can a cat express allergic reactions to fleas if she has no fleas? If the home is regularly cleaned? If the cat is taking preventative medication or wears a flea collar? For cats with flea allergies, especially those with sensitive skin, or younger cats and kittens with still-developing immune systems, the distinction between having fleas and being bitten by a flea is inconsequential.

All cats, particularly indoor ones, are fastidious groomers. Their rigorous cleaning routines mean that even cats who encounter fleas occasionally will not necessarily have them crawling and bouncing all over her body. In other words, a cat does not need to “have fleas,” per se, to experience the ill effects of a bite. If a cat gets out of the house during the warmer parts of the year when fleas are in abundance, even a brief period of supervised Caturday excitement can expose her to these pesky critters.

For cats with sensitive skin, indoor cats with limited exposure to the natural world, or those whose homes are kept so immaculate that they don’t even wear flea collars, the saliva from a single flea bite is sufficient to provoke an allergic reaction. This condition, called flea bite hypersensitivity, is an increasingly common, if not the leading, cause of skin allergies among cats and dogs. It is also the first step toward the formation of millet-shaped scabs on cats — usually on cats’ backs, necks and tails.

Treating cat dermatitis and, in turn, treating scabs on cats

Diagnosing miliary dermatitis is fairly easy for a practiced veterinarian. The placement of the rash, lesions or scabs on cats — depending on how far advanced the problem is— gives a vet a clearer idea of the true source of the allergic reaction and a good start to a reliable method of treatment. Determining the precise source of your cat’s skin allergy is key.

For cats who already have sores from excessive grooming where flea bites are at fault, knowing that they have a flea allergy is no condemnation of you as a cat owner or your home cleanliness. Cortisone injections can help alleviate persistent itching, and, if necessary, antibiotics prescribed to treat existing wounds.

Your vet may counsel preventative measures once you know about the cat’s allergy. Indoor cats who like to venture outdoors supervised may be cautioned against it, or regular use of anti-flea prophylactics may be recommended. Implementing prevention strategies might see you and your cat changing your normal routine, but being consistent with the new routine will ensure your cat doesn’t suffer from recurrent bouts of miliary dermatitis.

Tell us: Have you ever seen scabs on your cat? How did you treat them? What was the cause of scabs on cats in your case?

Top photogprah:  ©chendongshan | Thinkstock. 

This piece was originally published in 2016.

Read Next Our Best Tips for Dealing With Seasonal Skin Allergies in Cats

260 thoughts on “Scabs on Cats? What Causes Them and How to Treat Them”

  1. Our 9-year-old Feral cat, indoor only, started getting a bald patch on the nape of his neck. He kept scratching himself raw. We found out it was the Temptation Cat Treats he was allergic to. We stopped giving them to him and it cleared up in about two weeks. His fur has grown back beautifully.

  2. I noticed those little bumps under my kitty's chin had seemed to pop up really quickly, I might add. And while it kind of freaked me out, it wasn't freaking him out so I starting researching and learned about the 'flea thing' myself. My baby, while neutered, still periodically 'escapes' during 'the season'. I don't know why, my dogs weren't like that. And of course I am a flea control fanatic like most people with fur babies but everybody gets sick at sometime right? So anyway my point is that my home remedy is Coconut oil. I just rubbed the infected area, under his chin, with the oil twice, then once a day until it was gone. Sa la! He liked it too, so I knew it had to feel helpful, it went away in days with no drugs! My favorite way, just saying, sharing that fact too! Bless all the fur babies out there!

  3. my cat miss Tabby has scabs on her body….. she is a semi feral cat. I took her to the rescue and the vet there gave her a shot…. for about 2 months she did wonderful….. now the scabs are back again…..she is hard to catch in a cat trap….. very trap smart………. but she will let me put my hands on her…… is there anything i can rub on her when i touch her to take this away ?

  4. We are going through this right now-again! Our sweet Rojo has been plagued with alergic reactions for about four years now. It’s as if he just can’t get a break. He is 8 years now and the most pleasant loving talkative gentleman I’ve ever been around. He’s a big orange cat, loves everyone. I’m sixty and was in my 50s when Rojo came to live with us. First animal I’ve ever been around in the house or was kinda mine. His dad and I don’t live together, I care for my mom and come on weekends and he has stolen my heart. I worry about him all the time, I pray I’m not any part of his distress. It seemed to be tummy problems at my first, so we changed food time and time again til we became experts on that. Then Covid hit and the specialty food became scarce. I drive an hour and a half several times hunting down his food. To feed him anything else was cruel at that that point because his distress would start again. Then there has been the trucking crisis and supply was limited, then they said they couldn’t get cans for the food. I pleaded and begged for delivery and then fedex would not show up in time. So he has spent many days not feeling great, and I take being a part of his happiness very seriously. He’s been my only sunshine during Covid since the only place I went was home with mom and to see my guys on the weekend. We made a huge mistake, absolutely had no idea this was going to happen, he wasn’t feeling well and we knew he needed fluids but at the time during Covid his reg vet was unavailable so we found a hospital that would only let us drop him off and then when we didn’t hear back that day we went to get him and they said he had to stay overnight. I didn’t react well to that at all. I said I have to go in and see him and the more they protested because he was resting with an overnight I became more distressed. They actually shut the door on me and my partner was furious with me. We were there at the crack of dawn to get him and had to wait two hours before they brought him out. Trauma. They had shaved his front legs half way up, and there must have been dogs barking while he was in and he was frantic. He couldn’t even look at us he was so traumatized. Never again. He had never been a night without his dad and his dad is very hands on and gentle and observant and playful and treats him as a family member. He has a female cat too. They are a pac. They talk and sleep and live as a unit, I get to join when I’m there. It’s the most loving thing I’ve ever seen, I did not know cats could be like this. But he had a bout of scratching and scabs last year and we got that under control. He hates to ride in the car. Any vet trip breaks my heart as he gets car sick and winded and such. He had to have some teeth cleaned and one pulled so we got that done then a week later he has started the scratching. It’s a birthday and a holiday time of year and the vet is busy and we are taking him tomorrow but god please help him, he is already covered with scabs and I wonder if it’s stress from dental work plus allergy and yard workers noise bothers him and it’s summer. I hate it. I worry all day f I’m there and all day if I’m here. He’s so dear to me that I know I’ve set myself up for a horrible situation if something happens to him. As bad as loosing a loved one. It just has to get better and we have to have a solution without delay goingvfirward because his recovery last time was a couple of months. Thanks for reading.
    Sincerely John

    1. Hi John- sorry to hear of all this – but there is an allergy blood test you can have the vet carry out which will let you know precisely what foods your boy is allergic to – my boy was allergic to all grains and chicken – so we were able to switch to better food. Not certain where you are but in the UK there is a thing called 'zooplus' (but if you are in the states, then perhaps) has great choice of catfood so you don't need to go to fed ex any more. good luck!

  5. My rag doll siamese scabs and loses hair my daughter has a heart problem win we had 2 stay at hospital with her my son watched cat came back a month later her fur was beautiful after a week of bein back home cat started scabbing and losing hair again

  6. It shocked me to find a scabby patch on my healthy three year old Manx cat. The other three cats in the home are clear of any type of issues, and all of them cohabitate together as indoor kitties. All are UTD on flea meds and all other shots. First thing I did was added a few drops of peroxide to the area. No foaming, so that was good. He is not scratching at all and there is no hair loss. A simple scrape yielded white scabs. The original area has not increased in a week. I just treated the area with Neosporin original, much to his chagrin. I will be checking the progress, and will go the next step of eliminating known allergy-aggravating foods if I see no improvement in the next 24-36 hours. The next culprit may be some new throw pillows I put on the couch, where His Highness likes to nap. Thanks for this great article!

  7. Elizabeth Welty

    Scabs my cats had was from dust mites allergies. It cleared up with pre and probiotics. Here a link:

    1. Thanks for your comment. We have 4 indoor/outdoors cats, all were born feral, and 7 outdoor feral cats that we feed daily.
      A few months ago a new feral cat showed up that was quite ill, infected eyes, etc. and now all of our cats have scabs, probably got mites from the new sick cat.
      I've called local vets and they all seem to be clueless when it comes to scabs. We took one cat into a vet, they gave her an antibiotic shot and a blood test. I wish that I could find more info. about this and a sure bet treatment.

  8. You are a rude and close minded self touting inconsiderate person… how can you speak to someone asking for help like this? People with closed minds should have closed mouths!

  9. Have you considered it might be stress? Me having trouble posting msg so apologies if this appears more than once. My ex feral had cystitis which vet said could be stress & friend’s cat pulled his hair til bald due to not liking being indoor cat (lived on very busy road) & my ragdoll scratched himself raw due to allergy. So stress can be anything, even pecking order or wanting more outdoor or me time. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong! Try valerian, feliway, ” Pet Remedy” or other pet calming products to see if they help, or ask vet for suggestions. Good luck!

  10. If you’ve ruled out the possibility of an allergy & tried every “elimination diet” you or your vet can think of, …have you considered it might be stress? I know this is not a nice thought. One of my ex-ferals has had cystitis which the vet might be due to stress, (though he seems happy,) & I had a friend whose cat pulled his fur out till he was bald in places, as he didn’t like being kept indoors ( lived next to a very busy road) but stress for cats can be all sorts of things, like who’s top cat, or if he gets fed or let out when he wants & so on. I have a ragdoll who scratched himself raw due to an allergy to cheap biscuits. Finally sorted when we got some for sensitive stomach & Skin. Hope you get yours worked out too. Best wishes.

  11. If you’ve ruled out allergies & tried every different food type you can think of, have you considered it might be stress? I know it’s not a thought you want to consider…I’ve got an ex feral who’s had cystitis & vet said that might be stress – though he seems happy… but it can be little things we don’t even realise I suppose, like who’s top-cat or if he gets to go outside when he wants, or a million different things cats consider important.. Try Pet Remedy or whatever pet calming product you have available to see if that helps. Hope you’ve got him sorted already. Only saw your post today.

  12. Have you considered it might be an allergy? Our long haired ragdoll made himself bleed/bald & got scabs due to biscuit allergy. I guess you’ve already thought of that? Vet gave us a simple, gentle cream which worked well, especially when we stopped the offending biscuits. Hope you get his problem sorted. All the best wishes for you both.

  13. Agree and if a person cares they would want to share information freely to help others. Golden rule is best!

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