Whenever I notice scabs on my cat, I always check for parasites. Fleas are one of the most common causes of scabbing in cats, particularly around the neck region. However, when my cat has scabs on its neck but no fleas it can be confusing – what else can cause the formation of these scabs?
As it turns out, there are a few possible explanations. It could be that your cat does have fleas but their excellent grooming habits mean you cannot see any in their fur. Other explanations include skin allergies, nutritional deficiencies, and immune-mediated skin diseases.
I run through all of these possible causes in more detail in this article. I also share how you can help your cat, when you need to call a vet, and what treatment options are available. Preventative methods are also shared so you can help stop any scabs from coming back for good!
Why Does My Cat Have Miliary Dermatitis?
Miliary dermatitis is the term used to describe a range of skin conditions that cause scabbing in cats. For this reason, it is also known as “scabby cat disease“. Fleas are the most common cause of scabbing and miliary dermatitis. In particular, it is an allergic reaction to the fleas that trigger the condition. However, fleas are far from the only cause!
Here I look at all the reasons why your cat has scabs on its neck and what you can do to help:
1. Parasitic Infections
External parasitic infections such as fleas, ticks, and mites are the most common cause of scabbing and miliary dermatitis. This is particularly true when there is scabbing around the neck area as this is where fleas like to congregate.
Aside from scabbing, other symptoms of parasitic infections include:
- Poor coat quality and hair loss
- Excessive scratching and itching
- Lesions in the skin
- Red, inflamed, and irritated skin
I often see my cat twitch in her sleep when she has parasites as well. Even if your cat has scabs on its neck but no fleas, don’t rule parasitic infections out – if your cat is excellent at grooming you simply might not see any visible fleas on its coat.
I suggest contacting your vet who will be able to text for flea feces in your cat’s coat using a wet blotting paper technique or microscopical examination of their fur. This will confirm whether your cat does indeed have fleas that simply aren’t visible or whether their scabbing is due to another cause.
2. Skin Allergies
If you have 100% ruled out external parasitic infections as the reasons for scabbing, the next most probable cause is skin allergies. This has many of the same symptoms. For example, allergies can be the reason why your cat keeps shaking its head but no mites are visible, or the reason for intense itchiness and scratching associated with fleas.
Now, the allergies themselves don’t directly cause scabbing in cats. Instead, the allergies cause the skin to become irritated and inflamed. In response to this and to relieve the intense itchy feeling, cats will scratch their skin like crazy. This can result in the formation of small lesions which then scab over.
There is a whole range of different environmental allergens that can cause miliary dermatitis in cats, including pollens, molds, and dust. Cats can even be allergic to another cat’s dander, to their cat litter, or other substances in your home.
Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to determine the precise cause of your cat’s skin allergies. In fact, diagnosing a cat with some form of environmental allergies is usually only done after fleas and food allergies are ruled out. Going through the process of eliminating a specific allergen from your home and seeing if your cat’s symptoms improve can help pinpoint the exact cause as well.
3. Food Allergies
Food allergies can also lead to scabbing in cats. In most cases, it is the protein in their food that causes an allergic response. The most common food allergens in cats are beef, chicken, and fish. It results in itchy and sore skin that leads to scabbing. You will notice other skin symptoms too such as hair loss, inflamed skin, and over-grooming.
If the cause of your cat’s miliary dermatitis is due to food allergies, they will often show gastrointestinal symptoms as well. Examples include:
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Constipation or straining when defecating
- Scooting along the floor
To diagnose a cat with a food allergy, vets will start by eliminating other possible causes. For example, they will rule out their symptoms resulting from parasitic or bacterial infections. They will then put your cat on one of three controlled food diets that eliminate possible protein allergens:
- A hydrolyzed protein diet whereby the proteins in the food are already broken down into smaller pieces that cannot be detected by your cat’s immune system.
- A commercially available novel protein diet that does not contain any proteins or products in your cat’s old food diet.
- A home-cooked novel protein diet that also contains all-new protein products. However, this food is made at home rather than being bought from a shop.
The idea is simple – if your cat’s allergy symptoms ease while they are on the diet and return within one week of being back on their old diet, they are diagnosed with a food allergy.
4. Nutritional Deficiencies
Scabbing in cats can be a sign of nutritional deficiencies. These usually arise when a cat has been fed a homemade diet over an extended period that lacks the full nutritional composition they need. Alternatively, some poor-quality commercial cat foods can cause deficiencies of some sort.
You might be wondering how nutritional deficiencies are linked with scabbing. However, the quality and health of your cat’s skin and coat are a great reflection of what is happening on the inside. A lack of the correct nutrients can cause the skin to become dry and itchy, resulting in scratching and the formation of scabs.
If you’re asking yourself “Why is my cat shedding so much?”, nutritional deficiencies are even more likely. As the skin becomes irritated and less healthy, their fur will start to fall out. Itching and scratching can exacerbate this further. Speak to your vet for advice on changing your cat’s diet for the better so they get all the nutrients they need.
5. Autoimmune Skin Diseases
Autoimmune skin diseases are rare in cats, but provide another explanation as to why a cat has scabs on its neck but no fleas. Sadly, autoimmune diseases are rarely curable and cats can be prone to developing other conditions. However, with appropriate treatment, they are usually very manageable.
There is a range of different immune-mediated conditions that can affect our furry friends, with the most common being:
- Pemphigus complex
- Bullous pemphigoid
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
- Discoid lupus erythematosus
Each of these has slightly different signs and symptoms, but usually involves some form of ulcerated sores, rashes, or blisters forming on their skin. These can appear on the neck, though are more common in the mouth, mucocutaneous junctions, and groin depending on the precise autoimmune disease that your kitty has.
If you think your cat has an autoimmune disease, take them to the vet for diagnosis. Your vet will be able to perform a skin biopsy to determine whether this is a condition your cat is suffering from or not. Depending on the location of the inflamed affected skin, this may need to be performed with local anesthetic or sedation.
How Can I Get Rid of Scabs on My Cat?
Now you know why your cat has scabs but no fleas, we need to know what to do next – how can we get rid of these scabs?
First and foremost, know that you should never pick scabs off of cats. This will leave an open wound that can become infected. Moreover, the skin will have to heal over again and another scab will form in its place. Instead, wait for the skin to heal and the scabs will fall off on their own accord when the time is right.
It follows that as we cannot pick scabs off, the only way we can help our cats is by treating the cause of their scabbing and miliary dermatitis. Of course, the appropriate treatment will depend on the underlying condition. Therefore, you will need to speak to your vet to discuss the possible treatment options available.
In addition, here are some other things that may help reduce scabbing that you can try. They may also prevent more scabs from forming in the future:
- Flea Medication: In cases of fleas or other external parasites, use medication prescribed by your vet to eliminate these pests from your cat’s coat. Monthly flea treatments and good home hygiene can help limit the number of infestations in the future.
- Removal of Allergens: In cases of skin allergies, you’ll want to limit as many allergens from your home as possible. Keep your house clean to minimize the number of dust mites, stick with pet-friendly cleaning products, and use a cat litter for allergies. You can further help remove the allergens from your home by using an air purifier which traps and removes all airborne particles.
- Keep Cats Indoors: Keeping a cat indoors can reduce the risk of them running into other cats that have parasitic infections to help prevent them from contacting them again in the future. Indoor-only cats are also exposed to fewer allergens as you can more easily control your home environment. This can reduce the severity of allergies and scabs.
- Nutritional Diet: Ensure you feed your cat a nutritional diet that is comprised of everything they need to be happy and healthy. Their diet should predominantly consist of protein, followed by a moderate amount of fat and a little carbohydrate. Remember that the precise nutritional needs of cats will change with their age and health, so speak to your vet for advice if you aren’t sure.
- Elimination Diet: In cases of food allergies, make sure you tailor your cat’s diet to this and eliminate the allergen from their food. You’ll need to speak to your vet and go on a controlled food diet to establish precisely what this is first. Ensure that you slowly transition to the new diet to keep stress levels at a minimum.
- Drugs to Alleviate Itching: More generalized medications can be prescribed to help ease symptoms of miliary dermatitis while the underlying cause is being treated. For example, cortisone injections can help to alleviate the feeling of itching so your cat scratches less. This means fewer skin lesions and scabs form.
- Topical Creams: Topical creams can be applied to your cat’s neck and on other affected areas that can help reduce the pain and itchiness of scabs. This prevents them from getting any worse and allows them to heal more quickly. You can get these creams either from a pet store or by speaking to your vet.
- Bandages and Cones: When miliary dermatitis is severe and your cat will not stop itching, you can try bandaging the area. This can help promote healing. In some cases, a pet cone can help too as they stop your cat from scratching at their necks and other affected areas. However, cones tend to be more effective for areas they cannot scratch.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
If your cat has scabs on its neck but no fleas, you need to take your cat to the vet. Your cat might have a parasitic infection you’ve just not noticed, or could suffer from environmental allergies, food allergies, or have a nutritional deficiency. Although extremely rare, feline autoimmune diseases are another possibility.
In any case, follow your vet’s advice on how to treat the cause of miliary dermatitis and scabbing. You can also help your cat further by eliminating allergens from their home and/or diet, applying topical treatments or administering other drugs to prevent itching, and keeping on top of flea prevention medication. These all help promote healthy healing and prevent more scabs from forming.