Scabs on Cats-Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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About       Causes      Diagnosis     Home care

abscess on cat's head

At a glance:

About: Scabs are dry, crusty lesions or pustules and may range from singular to multiple.  The type of scabs, location and accompanying symptoms can all give your veterinarian an indication of the possible cause.

Causes:

  • Flea bite hypersensitivity
  • Feline acne
  • Allergies
  • Mange
  • Ringworm
  • Pemphigus
  • Abscess
  • Skin infection
  • Eosinophilic granuloma complex
  • Insect bite or sting
  • Skin cancer

Diagnosis: Physical examination and medical history. Diagnostic tests may include skin scraping, skin cytology, analysis of the hairs, skin prick test and baseline tests to evaluate the overall health,

Treatment: Depends on the underlying. Antibiotics for infection, diligent parasite control, avoid the allergen if one is determined, medicated shampoos and dips and anti-inflammatory medication.

About:

Scabs are dry, crusty lesions or pustules and may range from singular to multiple.  The type of scabs, location and accompanying symptoms can all give your veterinarian an indication of the possible cause.

Untreated, scabs can lead to secondary bacterial infections, so it is always important to have any scabs, lumps, bumps or rashes seen by a veterinarian.

Causes:

The cause of scabs can be divided into the following categories:

  • Allergic
  • Parasites
  • Skin disorders
  • Other

Allergic

Flea bite hypersensitivity

flea allergy dermatitis on cat

The most common causes of scabs on your cat is flea bite hypersensitivity. Cat fleas are wingless parasites, the adult flea lives on the cat’s skin, feeding off his blood. Many cats develop an allergy to the saliva in flea bites, causing a localised reaction.

Symptoms: 

Flea allergy dermatitis in cats

Small, raised crusty bumps (miliary dermatitis)  on the back of the cat (just in front of his tail) and around the neck and chin. It is hard for the cat to scratch the scabs on his back, so they remain small and crusted. The neck and ears are easier for the cat to reach and as the cat scratches the skin becomes further damaged, resulting in bleeding and large scabs. Scabs can range in size from 3mm to 1-2cm or more in severe cases.

Treatment:

Diligent flea control. Not only must you keep your pet flea free, but the environment must also be treated as 90% of the flea’s lifecycle is spent off the cat and in the environment. Antihistamines can help to control the itchiness.

I have battled FAD in one of my cats for quite some time. Recently I switched them over to Comfortis (Spinosad), a once a month tablet and his condition cleared up completely.

Food allergy

Cats can develop allergies to a number of things including food. It is possible for a cat to develop an allergy to a type of food after having eaten it for years.

Symptoms:

Food allergies typically affect the head, ears and neck area, causing non-seasonal itching, which may progress to small papules and large areas of open and weeping scabs. Other symptoms may include hair loss, vomiting, and excessive licking of the affected area.

Treatment:

If a food allergy is suspected, your cat will be put on a novel diet (ie; a type of food he’s not had before such as duck or kangaroo) to see if the symptoms clear up. He will then be challenged by going back to his usual diet if the symptoms return, food allergy is the cause. Treatment involves switching your cat to a different hypoallergenic diet.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis in cats

Contact dermatitis occurs when your cat comes into contact with an irritant such as soaps, shampoos, plants, medications etc.

Symptoms:

Common symptoms of contact dermatitis include non-seasonal itching, which can cause damage to the skin and formation of small scabs on the skin. Commonly affected areas include areas without much fur such as the ears, underbelly, paws etc.

Treatment:

Remove the irritant if possible and antihistamines and/or steroids to help control the itch.

Inhalant allergy

Inhalant allergy (atopy) is an allergic reaction caused by breathing in airborne particles such as pollens, dust mites, storage mites in dry food and moulds. Humans typically react to inhaled allergies by sneezing and wheezing, however, cats are more likely to develop skin problems.

Inhalant allergy is the third most common type of allergy to affect cats.

Symptoms:

Non-seasonal itching, which can cause damage to the skin and formation of small scabs on the skin. Commonly affected areas include areas without much fur such as the ears, underbelly and the face.

Treatment:

Remove the irritant if possible, switch to a canned or home made diet (storage mite allergy) and antihistamines and/or steroids to help control the itch.

 

Parasites

Mange

Feline scabies

Image courtesy Monica R., Flickr

Mange (feline scabies) is a highly contagious condition caused by a tiny spider-like parasite which burrows into the cat’s skin.

Symptoms: 

Intense itching and scabs, especially along the ear margin which may become thickened. The head and neck are the most commonly affected areas, although left untreated, the mite can move to other parts of the body.

Treatment:

Clipping longhaired cats and treating with a medicated dip to kill the parasites.

Demodicosis

Another type of mite which can infect cats is the Demodex mite, there are two species which infect cats. Demodex cati and Demodex gatoi.  Immunocompromised cats are at greatest risk.

Symptoms:

Itching, overgrooming, single or multiple areas of thinning hair along with crusting fluid-filled sores. The head, neck, and ears are most commonly affected.

Treatment:

Lime sulfur dips or oral ivermectin. Treat all cats in the household and wash bedding and blankets.

Ear Mites

http://www.cat-world.com.au/images/ear-mites-in-cats.jpg

Caused by the mite Otodectes Cynotis, ear mites are a common and highly infectious spider-like parasite which as the name suggests, infect the inner ears of cats.

Symptoms:

Intense itching, waxy buildup, coffee like grounds in the ears,  and eventually damage due to trauma from scratching and a secondary bacterial infection may develop. It affects kittens and outdoor cats most often, however, cats of any age can become infected.

Treatment:

Daily removal of the exudates within the ears as well as a commercial insecticide to kill the mites. Several products are available to treat ear mites which include; Selamectin (Revolution), Ivermectin (Acarexx) and Milbemycin (MilbeMite).

Ringworm

Ringworm in kitten

Ringworm is a highly contagious fungal infection of the skin and claws. It is most often seen in youn g cats or overcrowded environments such as catteries and shelters.

Symptoms:

The appearance of bald patches of circular lesions. Lesions may become itchy, which leads to the formation of scabs. Ringworm lesions are typically larger than most other causes of scabs in this article.

Treatment:

Your veterinarian will prescribe a shampoo or dip to treat ringworm. Treat all cats in the household.

Ringworm is easily spread from cats to people and vice versa, so take care when treating an infected cat. If you do become infected, over the counter creams are available at your chemist.

 

Skin disorders

Feline acne

Feline acne

Image © Dianne, Flickr

Feline acne is a condition in which blackheads and inflammation develop on the chin. There are many causes including the use of plastic food bowls, allergies, inflammation and poor grooming.

Symptoms:

The appearance of blackheads on the chin, which often have the appearance of dirt. Blackheads can become inflamed and form crusts, scabs, and swelling.

Treatment:

  • Keep the area clean with an antibiotic soap, Betadine or in more severe cases ointments or gels which contain benzoyl peroxide such as OxyDex.
  • Oral antibiotics to treat secondary infections.
  • Switch from plastic to glass or metal bowls.
  • Topical steroids to control the itching.
  • Strict hygene, wash food and water bowls in hot, soapy water after every use.

Eosinophilic granuloma

Eosinophilic granuloma in cats

A condition characterised by the presence of skin lesions on various parts of your cat’s body. The exact cause isn’t known but it is believed it may be the result of certain allergens such as flea bites, food or inhalant allergens. Some cats may only have one outbreak, while in others the condition can come and go.

Symptoms:

There are three types of lesions:

  1. Indolent ulcer (also known as rodent ulcer) most often occur on the upper lip with a raised, thickened area which is well defined and glistening,
  2. Eosinophilic plaque can occur on any part of the body and appear as a raised, hairless lesion which may be ulcerated
  3. Eosinophilic granuloma which appears as yellow/pinkish lesions usually along the back legs. Male cats are most often affected with eosinophilic granulomas.

Treatment:

  • Removing exposure to allergens if possible, including diligent flea control and food elimination trials.
  • Zyrtec, an antihistamine has been shown to relieve symptoms.
  • If there is no remission then steroids may be prescribed. Steroids to reduce inflammation and in severe cases interferon, an immunosuppressive drug.
  • If lesions are unresponsive, surgical removal may be necessary.

Pemphigus complex

pemphigus in cats

A group of rare autoimmune skin disorders affecting the skin. There are three types of pemphigus in cats depending on the layer of skin involved.

  1. P. foliaceous which affects the top layer of skin.
  2. P. erythematosus, the second most common form which affects the head and feet.
  3. P. vulgaris the rarest form in which lesions grow on the mouth, claw folds, armpits, and groin.

Symptoms:

Symptoms vary depending on the type but may include distribution of pustules around the mouth, face, neck, feet, and groin with crusts and hair loss.

Treatment:

  • Immunosuppressive drugs such as oral prednisolone, or in milder cases topical steroids.
  • If immunosuppressive drugs fail to produce a remission, Chlorambucil, a chemotherapy drug, can be given.
  • Antibiotics to treat a secondary infection.

 

Other

Abscess

abscess on cat's head

Image War Head, Flickr

An abscess is a walled off pocket of pus under the skin. Most commonly caused by a cat fight, these are especially common in outdoor cats, especially entire males who are prone to fighting over territory.

Symptoms: If the abscess hasn’t drained, there will be a hot extremely painful lump under the skin your cat may also have a fever, and go off his food. If it bursts and drains, there will be a foul odour, as well as discharge. Once this has occurred the wound will form a scab.

Treatment:

An abscess should be lanced by a veterinarian and cleaned, your cat will then be put on a course of antibiotics.

Stress (overgrooming)

Cats display signs of stress in many ways and there are many causes of stress in cats including changes in the home environment, new pet, family member, moving house.

Symptoms: Stress manifests in many ways, some cats will

hide, or go off their food, other cats will engage in excessive grooming (overgrooming). This can lead to damage to the skin and the formation of crusty scabs on the coat. Common triggers include a change in routine, new family member (animal or human), moving house, sickness.

Treatment:

Stress is managed in a number of ways, including removing the cause of stress if possible, giving your cat a regular and set routine. Play therapy and anti-anxiety medications.

Adverse reaction to topical flea products

There are a number of popular topical (spot-on) products to treat cat fleas. While they are extremely convenient, some cats can develop a skin reaction.

Symptoms:

Loss of hair, redness, rash, ulceration or in severe cases loss of skin.

Treatment:

This may vary depending on the severity of the reaction but may include antibiotics to prevent secondary infection and painkillers.

If your cat has had an adverse reaction to a topical flea product, there are a number of alternatives such as tablets and chews.

Bacterial infections (pyoderma)

Pyoderma is an infection of the skin which can develop due to trauma, such as itching and scratching which damages the area.

Symptoms:

Irritation and inflammation of the skin result in crusty pustules. Immunocompromised cats are more at risk for pyoderma as it is an opportunistic infection.

Treatment:

Oral antibiotics, as well as topical antibiotics, applied to the affected area to clear up the infection and addressing the underlying cause (if known).

Insect bite or sting

Insect bites and stings can cause a localised reaction which leads to intense itching.

Symptoms:

Scratching which can damage the skin resulting in a wound which heals and scabs over. If you notice one or two small scabs on your cat, it is likely to be caused by a bite or a sting.

Treatment:

Benadryl (antihistamine) can control itching and discomfort in cats who have severe reactions. Dosage is 1 milligram (mg) per pound, or 2 mg per kilo, twice a day.

Sunburn

Cats are prone to developing sunburn on areas of their body with thin or no fur such as the ear tips and nose. Light coloured cats are particularly at risk due to their lack of pigment.

Symptoms:

Reddened skin and hair loss of the affected area, more severe cases may develop itching and thickening of the skin. Over time, this may become damaged and form sores which dry into scabs.

Treatment:

  • Topical or oral steroids to treat severe sunburn.
  • Antibiotics may be necessary to treat secondary bacterial infections.

Keep cats indoors during the hours of 10 am – 2 pm to avoid sunburn. Anybody who has experienced sunburn knows how painful it is, and just like humans, cats can develop cancer from exposure to the sun (see below).

 

Skin cancer

A number of cancers can affect the skin which
include melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and mast cell tumour.  Areas with little or no skin are most at risk, which includes the ear tips and the nose. Cats with light coats are at greater risk due to the lack of melanin in the skin.

Symptoms:

  • Firm lump underneath the skin which may be
    hairless or pigmented (melanoma)
  • Red and crusted sores which don’t heal
  • Bleeding ulcers which won’t heal

Treatment: 

Surgery to remove the affected area with a wide
margin. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be necessary as a follow up or in
for tumours that can not be surgically removed.

Diagnosis:

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination paying close attention to the type and location of the scabs. He will obtain a medical history from you, which may include the following:

  • How long have the scabs been present?
  • Do they come and go?
  • Do they occur at a particular time of the year (spring, summer etc)?
  • Have you noticed any other symptoms?
  • Is your cat taking any medication?
  • Any changes to the home environment?
  • Does your cat have any other concurrent diseases?
  • All of these can help your veterinarian to determine a possible cause.

Tests:

A black light – To check for ringworm, which may glow if your cat has the fungus.

Skin scraping test – To look for skin parasites such as mites or fungi. An area of skin is shaved (if necessary,  often the fur is missing). Two drops of mineral oil are then put on the skin and a blade is used to scrape the superficial layers, which are then examined under a microscope. The test is mildly uncomfortable, similar to a graze, but not unduly painful.

Skin cytology test – To check for inflammation, parasites, fungi, bacteria. This is similar to a skin scraping test although.  A sample of the lesion is taken using a cotton bud, for microscopic evaluation.

Skin biopsy A sample of skin tissue is removed, prepared and evaluated under a microscope.

Food trials – This test is to determine if a cat has a food allergy and involves feeding a novel diet containing ingredients your cat has not previously consumed to see if symptoms improve.

Skin prick test – To check for allergies.  A patch of fur is shaved and several needles containing a few common allergens (such as dust mites) is injected into the skin. If there is a reaction at the site of one or more skin pricks, this will show your veterinarian your cat is allergic.

Trichogram – The microscopic examination of the hairs and may help to identify fungal infection such as ringworm or Demodex mites.

Footnote:

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats meaning cats are unable to synthesise them themselves and need to obtain them via their diet. There are a number of health benefits including reducing inflammation.

Soothing shampoos containing oatmeal can help to relieve itchy skin conditions. Antihistamines can help to relieve itching associated with allergies. They are not a cure but can help in the short term.

Please add your comments below.




7 COMMENTS

  1. My kitty has a small amount of scabs on her back which is down by her tail and a couple spots on her tail and that’s it but none of the above conditions is anything like hers and if it would be fleas that’s messed up due to herself (Bella) and our Tori colored kitty and my orange Maine coon kitty just seen their vet not long ago and just got their rabies shots, dewormed, and treated for fleas at their vet visit so I’m still wondering if it’s possible for her to have fleas when none if us humans have gotten bit and the other kitties Don’t have the same scab problem Bella is having. Ugh

    • Do the scabs feel hard, like grit under the fur? I never saw a flea on Levi, but he lived with miliary dermatitis (millet like scabs on the back, close to the tail) for such a long time. He was super sensitive. I treated him every month, and he still had those scabs, it was awful. Eventually my veterinarian recommended Comfortis tablets and the scabs went away.

      The problem with fleas and flea allergy is it can take just one flea to cause a reaction. As most of the flea life cycle is spent in the environment and not on the cat, it’s important to treat the home too. I could go on and on about fleas and how awful they are, especially to sensitive cats.

  2. My cat has a patch of hair loss and a red bloodied area on the back of her neck. I think it could be a side effect of the spot on tick and flea drops. What can I use to help heal the wound?

    • Hi Faghmeda,

      It sounds like a reaction to the flea product, I’d recommend you see your veterinarian who will be able to prescribe something. Most over the counter products wouldn’t be safe or suitable for a cat.

  3. Hi my cat is 3 years old and has had itchy scabs under her neck and along her spine closer toward her tail for about two years now. She does not have fleas or any of the other symptoms listed on this page. She has had fleas in the past when she was younger. But its been a long time and so I know its not from fleas. She seems to be very miserable and always itchy. Can you please help me?

  4. My cat has had some red spots and scabs under his belly and on the bottom of his paws. He seems to be grooming himself more than normal, so I’m assuming they itch. When I cleaned out his sleeping spot I found some earwig bugs. Could this or a plant he maybe got into cause this?

  5. Hi there,

    I’ve not heard of earwig type bugs causing scabs but it is possible. I would recommend putting some of the bugs in a container or plastic bag and taking them (with the cat) to see a veterinarian to determine what the bug is and if it is the cause. Good luck.

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