Scabs on Cats? What Causes Them and How to Treat Them
Despite having a very fastidious nature, cats are never immune to skin problems. No amount of self-grooming can ever prevent the development of health conditions that can affect its skin. As a matter of fact, excessive self-grooming can worsen such skin conditions. This can lead to the further balding and drying of the skin, resulting in the formation of dry and crusty lesions on the cat’s skin. Known as scabs, these dry and flaky nodules are often the most telling signs of feline dermatitis. So, what causes scabs on cats and how can we treat them?
Scabs and Feline Miliary Dermatitis
First and foremost, scabs is not a disease. It is a sign or a physical manifestation of an underlying disease process. Veterinarians call this disease process “miliary dermatitis”. They call it as such because of the characteristic millet-looking scabrous sores that the disease produce. Miliary dermatitis in cats can have many different “varieties”, depending on the substance that can trigger an allergic reaction.
Hence, feline miliary dermatitis is an umbrella term for skin allergy in cats whereby the principal skin manifestation is the formation of millet-type scabs. You may already know some of the other “names” that people call feline miliary dermatitis. From feline eczema to feline acne, flea allergy dermatitis, and scabby cat disease, they all refer to the same umbrella term – miliary dermatitis.
Based on these “names” alone, it is already easy to identify the cause of the scabbing. For example, flea bite dermatitis will be secondary to the bite of a flea on the cat’s skin. However, what is important to realize is that there are several manifestations that a cat will show prior to the formation of scabs.
Regardless of the cause of miliary dermatitis, scabbing is always the result of an inflammatory or immune-mediated reaction. Skin inflammation always results in an itchy rash. If you have a feline that prefers spending time alone, you may not notice any of the initial telltale signs of skin irritation. But if you have a kitty that loves to stay within your field of view, then the first thing you will notice is a strong desire to lick, bite, or scratch one very specific part of its body.
With continuous scratching, licking, and biting, the rash on this specific spot spreads. This makes the region a lot itchier, making the cat feel the need to lick, scratch, and bite some more. Over time, the area goes bald. With exposure to the air, it goes dry. The constant friction in the area also causes the skin cells to cornify or harden, resulting in the characteristic “scabs”.
Scabs on cats often form at the base of the cat’s tail and the neck area. There are also those that can form on the head of the cat as well as around its ears. The chin can also be a vulnerable area since cats can scratch this body part with relative ease.
What Causes Scabby Cat Disease?
Pet parents have this notion that scabs on cats are due to skin allergies. It is crucial to point out that allergies and other health conditions do not create scabs. The real cause of scabs in cats is the feline’s single-minded focus on relieving the itchiness resulting from the skin inflammation. That is why not all cats that have skin allergies will have scabs. Only with the constant and very frequent application of pressure and friction on the inflamed skin will scabs develop.
But, of course, if there were no allergies or skin conditions to begin with, then the cat will not have to scratch, lick, and bite its skin. That is why any condition that can initiate an immunologic response in the form of intense itching can be the indirect cause of scabbing in cats. Here are some of the things that can trigger an immunologic or allergic reaction in cats.
- Allergenic materials found in carpets, beddings, rugs, and other furnishings in the home that the cat can come in contact with
- Pollen and other seasonal allergens
- Ear mites, Demodex mites, and Cheyletiella mites
- Cat shampoo, other pet care products, and other household chemicals
- Allergenic ingredients in pet food
- Fleas, lice, and other ectoparasites that infest cats
- Immune-mediated diseases
- Poor diet
Treating Scabby Disease in Cats
It is obvious that one cannot treat scabs themselves. One has to focus on two very important elements of the condition. First is the intense itching of the affected area. If one can control itchiness, then the cat will not have to keep on biting, licking, and scratching the affected part. This helps prevent the spread of the scabs and facilitate the regeneration of the skin cells.
The second is to remove the cause of the skin itching. It is one thing to control the itchiness; it is another matter to remove whatever it is that’s causing the itching and inflammation. If one doesn’t remove the source of the itching, then there will always be the possibility of scab redevelopment. Moreover, these conditions can also lead to other health problems.
Here are some of the treatments for managing scabs on cats.
- Antihistamines and Other Anti-Itch Remedies
Veterinarians often prescribe antihistamines to help control the itching. As explained, the real cause of scabbing in cats is the intense itching that makes them want to scratch, lick, and bite certain parts of their bodies. Antihistamines can help control the intensity of the itching and allow the skin cells to heal and regenerate. The resulting reduction in friction can also help prevent secondary bacterial infections, in case the cat bites its skin.
If antihistamines do not work, veterinarians can prescribe corticosteroids. These are very powerful medications that can help tame the immune system response. Unfortunately, there is a downside to it. Because it dampens the activity of the cat’s immune system, it exposes it to secondary infections. That is why most veterinarians reserve the use of corticosteroids and other immunosuppressant drugs as last resort.
If you are averse to giving medications to your pet, there are anti-itch products made of natural ingredients. Colloidal oatmeal, baking soda, and apple cider vinegar are some of the natural remedies that can provide relief from itching. However, do not expect these to be as potent as antihistamines or corticosteroids. Regardless, they can reduce the intensity of the itching.
The problem with intense itching is that it begets intense scratching. Before the formation of scabs, the skin can redden and lose part of its superficial layers. With the cat’s sharp, untrimmed claws, it can create a break on its skin where microorganisms can enter. Over time, the invading pathogens elicit an immunologic response which not only exacerbates the itching, but also make the scabbing worse. Moreover, the pathogens can spread through the circulatory system and create more systemic problems for the cat.
It is for this reason that veterinarians may recommend the giving of antibiotics to cats with infected scabs. Oral antibiotics can help kill microorganisms that may already be in the bloodstream. However, if the veterinarian assesses that the infection is only on the superficial part of the skin, then he will prescribe a topical antibiotic.
There are also medicated pet care products like shampoos, soaps, and lotions. Make sure to talk to your veterinarian before using any of these products on your feline friend.
There are immune-mediated health conditions that can cause intense itching. An example of this is pemphigus, an auto-immune disease in cats. Of course, scabbing is not the only manifestation of this disease. It can also include pus-filled lesions, cysts, and fluid-filled sacs. The problem here is that the cat’s immune system produces antibodies that fight and destroy certain cells of the cat.
The treatment, therefore, involves suppressing the feline immune system so that it will not produce autoantibodies. In many cases, vets use corticosteroids as these can suppress the immune system. There are also those that may recommend azathioprine therapy. In either case, the cat will have to feed on a low-fat diet because these drugs can increase the risk of feline pancreatitis.
- Flea Treatments
Flea bites are the most common cause of skin inflammation and allergic reaction in cats that lead to scab formation. Indoor cats have a higher risk for flea bite dermatitis-related scabbing because their immune system is not yet desensitized to the allergenic material in the flea saliva. Hence, a single flea bite is often enough to cause an allergic reaction.
There are many flea treatments available on the market. There are spot-on topical applications, flea collars, flea pills, shampoos, and sprays. It is also important to institute flea control measures in the home. Keeping the backyard clean and tidy should help reduce the population of fleas in the home. Treating other pets is also a must.
- Acaricide Applications
Other potential causes of miliary dermatitis in cats are mites, including ear mites, walking dandruff, and mange. Ear mite infections are quite common among cats. They cause intense itching that can make the cat want to scratch its ears with increasing fervor. Demodex gatoi is the specie that can cause severe itching in cats. Unfortunately, it is also the most contagious.
There is another specie of mites that can cause itching, albeit less intense than ear mites and Demodex gatoi. Cheyletiella species of mites can also produce itching, but only in milder forms. However, this mite can produce skin flakes that resemble dandruff.
Treating mite infestation in cats involves the application of an appropriate acaricide such as Ivermectin. Depending on the severity of the demodectic mange, veterinarians can prescribe the application of an antibacterial agent as well as a topical keratolytic. Some may also recommend lime sulfur drip and the application of topical isoflavone. As for Cheyletiellosis or “walking dandruff”, the application of Fipronil, Ivermectin, or Selamectin may help.
- Antifungal Treatments
Dermatophytes are a group of fungal organisms that can produce ringworm in mammals. While there are many species of Dermatophytes, the organism that is specific to cats is Trichophyton mentagrophytes. What you should know about this fungal species is that it can cause zoonotic infection. What this means is that it can also cause ringworm in humans.
The fungi eat the keratin of the skin. This leads to the formation of scales that look like cigarette ash. Some felines may also experience baldness in the affected area.
Treating ringworm in cats includes the application of a topical antifungal medication. For more effective results, however, an oral medication is also given. This includes Terbenafine or Itraconazole. The topical medications often come in the form of medicated shampoos, ointments, and creams. Fungal infections require longer treatment that can last several weeks up to several months.
- Elimination Diet and Hypoallergenic Cat Food
In cases where the itching is secondary to a food allergen, it is often necessary to subject the animal to an elimination diet. This starts with the introduction of a limited ingredient diet or a hypoallergenic cat food.
During the first week of the elimination diet, the cat feeds on a 3:1 ratio of old food to new food (hypoallergenic diet). On the second week, the ratio gets increased to 1:1. By the third week, there is a greater proportion of the new food compared to the old food at a ratio of 3:1. On the fourth week, the cat should already be feeding only on the hypoallergenic diet. During this time, you should see a gradual reduction in the intensity of the itching, hence a reduction in scab formation.
Let the cat feed on the hypoallergenic diet for at least 2 weeks. If there are no flare-ups in itching and scabbing, start introducing one ingredient from its old food. Wait for another 2 weeks, monitoring for changes in its food allergy status. If there is no untoward incident, add another ingredient and monitor for another 2 weeks. Observe this routine until you’re able to isolate the ingredient that is causing the allergy.
Scabs on cats is not a disease entity in itself. It is a manifestation of an underlying condition, mostly an allergy. Treating the scabs, therefore, often involves addressing the condition that causes skin inflammation.