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

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.
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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

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

  1. For our 4 year old long hair cat bleeding
    crusty dermatitis aloe gel from plant leaf helped! Initially cleaned his cheek area with hydrogen peroxide and applied bacitracin. Cleaned his paws with hydrogen peroxide too.. Read epsom salt compress or bath helps too. We use Dr. Bronners castile soap for bathes on our pet and keeps skin and fur soft and plump. Best no toxic harmful chemicals.

  2. Too many people have no idea that shampoos that grow your hair fast (of course without any sulfates, parabens or DEA) even exist. People now may achieve longer hair and achieve more options. For sure worth researching.

    Whether you’re studying alopecia, damaged hair, avoiding skin disorders, fast hair growth, hair health at large, the same rules become relevant.

    In general, you want to stay away from hair treatments and products that contain chemicals like parabens, DEA or sulfates.

    What’s good for your hair is healthy for your skin as well.

    For obvious reasons the content on this page is so useful for various reasons. It steers away from the usual errors and traps too many fall into: buying defective alternatives. Greatly appreciated!

  3. My cat has a brown scab about the size of a penny above his left eye. I have been putting cortisone cream on it and the scab has hardened. Will the scab fall off or should I pull it off to keep it from going into his eye?

  4. My kitty needs an allergy shot about once every 6 – 8 weeks. She will groom herself bald, and the skin inflammation from overgrooming and scratching causes personality changes and makes her not want to get touched.

  5. My female cat suffers from acne / scabs all on her chin, head and neck. She licks her belly and chews her legs to the point they are bald.
    I brought her to vet and spent lots of money to try to get it figured out. I went to the cat hospital and they did a cat allergy test with me having my one arm straight out and other hand on the cat. They held viles of different allergens in their hand and pushed my arm down with each one in their hand… told me that she was allergic to a bunch of things… yeah… and I paid for that…
    I switched her food and it did not help at all.
    I went to a different vet and they gave her anti inflammatories and allergy pills for a bit. But it hasn’t cured anything. Only relived it for a little bit.
    I got rid of all scented products in my house including bounce sheets and cleaners and non scented cat litter but it didn’t help.
    Oh and there are no mites or fleas. She’s an inside cat.
    She is now on canned food only and that didn’t help either..

      1. Mine does too, he’s one of 10 in door only cats, rest are beautiful, healthy coats and looks great. Then there is Garfield he has tore up his face, he has scabs all over him, been to vet twice nothing works. Sad looking.

    1. so what was it? they say the fungus medicine for your feet i have that soap the doctors use to wash up before surgery you can get it at rite aid cvs or walgreens and washed him up with that then i rubbed the cream on him it cleared up a lot but he wont let me do it everyday plus you can give her ONE ML of BENADRYL PER POUND. ITLL HELP WITH THE SCRATCHING

    2. Hey! You should try cetirizine- I give my cat 5mg in the morning and 5mg at night for the problems you’re describing and it worked really well

      1. Pattianne Pascual

        DO NOT give a pet human medicine. human medicine contains a lot of very toxic ingredients which will harm and even kill your cat. That’s why there are veterinary versions without the human additives.

    3. I have three same issue with my cat and I took coconut oil and rubbed it in my hands then rubbed it on the cat where the scabs were and she was better in 2 days. The cat doesn’t like looking greasy but she feels so much better and the sores go away fast. Just rub it on until the scabs are gone. I haven’t had any issues with the cat being allergic to it either. Coconut pill has been a miracle medicine for my cat.

      1. Were the scabs the neck, head and top of the back, closed to the head? My cat is an indoor outdoor cat and I thought he had a fight, until I saw more scabs. I put antibacterial ointment on her. I noticed the scabs when it was time for her flea and tick treatment.
        I initially thought the scabs were ticks, I though about giving her a chamomile tea bath after the dawn bath and use the coconut.

    4. We have a similar issue. 13 years of vet visits, 7 different vets. Last year a staff person at our local pet supply store suggested she may be allergic to chicken. We switched from dry food to canned with seafood – no chicken, no poultry etc, only seafood or beef (beef cat food is hard to find). It hasn’t cured the problem but has helped A LOT. We also use unscented litter. Oatmeal baths seem to sooth his irritated skin areas but that relief only lasts about a week or so.

    5. I use Vetricyn on three of my fourteen indoor cats. I brush and scratch the scabby area and spray it with Vetricyn twice a day. It clears up after several days depending on how quickly I notice the problem. The cats do not like the pump spray sound.

    6. My cat is exhibiting the same issues. We’ve taken her to vets and they can’t seem to figure anything out. Every time it’s just another $200 test, $700 treatment plan. It’s getting super frustrating that we keep getting the run around.

      I’ve tried anti fungal, bacterial, yeast topicals and it only seems to make the problem worse. It started as a small, dime sized irritated bald spot on her chin and now it’s the size of a post it note. All in a matter of a week..

    7. I have similar issues with my cat. I switched to cat foods from novel proteins (which just means animals that cats would normally not encounter in the wild like rabbit, alligator, and bison). It was extremely tough as it took a few weeks before her allergic reactions stopped and it took maybe a month before she really turned around.

    8. Had to switch our cat to grain free, no fowl (chicken, duck, turkey). Tried dried food and now give her canned Fussy Cat food (tuna with different flavors, i.e. tuna/salmon, tuna/prawns, tuna/shrimp, etc.). Still has itching and scabs but think she has been getting into the dog’s food so keeping that from her. It’s a long process to try and get rid of them. Might have her shaved again which helped the last time we did that. Funny looking indoor cat but hair grew back and she was good for over 6 months. Good luck!!

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  10. My vet said my cat has an allergy to grain, this is what makes those scabs on her butt and lower back.. anyone hear of this?

    1. My cat has a grain allergy as well. Once we made the switch in her food and took measures to heal her skin, she is worlds better! The vet gave her a shot for the itching so her skin could start to heal, and an ointment to treat some of the areas she scratched open. It took some time but she is doing well! We also found that she seems to have seasonal allergies as well. When my allergies flare up, her skin seems to act up a little as well..but certainly not like it was when she was eating grains!

    2. One of our cats had red gums and his teeth were falling out. The vet said he had an allergy to the dentin in his teeth,
      The vet wanted to pull all of his teeth.

      I started googling the issue. I removed all grain from his diet.
      He’s good as new, that was 10 years ago ????

      1. Jennifer Chandler

        April…. how did you remove all grain? What are you feeding this kitty? I have 2 cats with stomatitis and they want to pull their teeth! I need help for my babies

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  14. Try Lufenuron. Found on ebay by searching descriptions as it is an ingredient not listed as a product. It has helped my cat and was recommended to me when vet couldn’t help. Not expensive like all the money I spent on the vet and actually worked
    Took a week to see results. Now I give when ears get bumps. Seems chronic but at least treatable. My cats ears appeared to be topped by thick brown sugar they were so bad.

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  26. My cat suffers from a reoccurring sore on one side of her face all the time. To make sure it dosent break out I keep her back nails cut down and I file them too to blunten them and do a apple cider vinegar 50/50 water wash on her three or four times a week. This is the best solution for her considering if I put a cat collar on her she stops eating nearly altogether. Touch wood it works for her.

      1. My 10 year old male cat keeps having the same problem too. Scab on 1 side of his face and keeps coming back…IDK what it is either Peach Kay.

    1. My cat was scabby bad! I bathed her w a Tea Tree oil shampoo that also contained other allergy treating ingredients. While she was still damp I put “Mane,Tail, and Groom” or MTG all over her and rubbed it in well while i had a thick bath towel around her. MTG is made y Shapleys and is a great treatment and cure for all types of skin conditions. Its ingredients are simple: Sulfer 4% mineral oil, zinc stearate,glycerin & case oil (rectified) Its so intoxic you can practically drink it. But dont lol its sold mainly as a treatment for horses but it works on all animals and I’ve known a few people that have used it quite successfully for cuts and athletes foot. Bonus: it makes hair grow faster where theyve lost it due to the ailment. Sold at your local farm supply stores like Rural King or western stores.

      1. please research essential oils and which of those are toxic. TEA TREE OIL IS TOXIC TO CATS! So is lavender and almost every oil. Take care and hope your cat is happy and well.

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  39. Willow had a bad problem with scabs and hair loss. Took her to the vet they perscribed her steroid and topical cream. Did a little justice. So i had too become my own Dr. So I changed her food to a better grade made sure no subsitutes and her litter perfume free, dust free and every day i wipe her back from the neck down to the tip of her tail and under her belly to clean off any left over litter and that did the trick. She has no fleas she is a house cat. Amen. Whew saved me a lot of money so no further testing was needed

  40. I bought a new collar for my cat , it was too big at first then she became pregnant and I didn’t notice that she had outgrown her collar … so I took it off then I notice a scab around her neck .. what should do ??

  41. My kitty needs an allergy shot about once every 6 – 8 weeks. She will groom herself bald, and the skin inflammation from overgrooming and scratching causes personality changes and makes her not want to get touched. I can tell when it’s time to go to the vet when she has scabs around her neck. I didn’t catch it at first, because her fur was so thick, you couldn’t feel the scabs until she groomed the fur off.

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