Scabies in Cats Is Rare, But Here’s What to Watch For


Scabies in Cats Is Rare, But Here’s What to Watch For

Very few indoor kitties are at risk for this disease, but outdoor roamers may need closer attention. Here’s what a veterinarian recommends. Tracey L. Kelley headshot
Tracey L. Kelley headshot By Tracey L. Kelley January 28, 2022 Advertisement Pin FB More Tweet Email Send Text Message Print tabby cat scratching his head
tabby cat scratching his head Credit: あー、痒い / Adobe Stock

Most adorable felines holding court from their cozy cat trees hardly ever catch anything contagious. However, scabies in cats does happen, especially to rescue and outdoor kitties, and spreads to others quickly.

Brian Evans, DVM, is the medical director for Dutch, which provides 24/7 online veterinary care. He tells Daily Paws that skin lesions seen with feline scabies can mimic other conditions such as ringworm, ear mites, or an underlying allergy. A lot of kitties are notoriously stoic about how they're really feeling, so it's important to pay attention to any unusual symptoms, such as excessive scratching, and arrange a vet consultation right away.

Fortunately, the chances are slim that your resident furball will be infected, but let's take a closer look at early scabies in cats—you know, just to be sure.

What Causes Scabies in Cats?

"Scabies is a very painful, itchy, and contagious disease caused by the Notoedres cati mite," Evans says. Within the family of Sarcoptes scabiei, these pesky pests—also sometimes referred to as itch mites, mange mites, or scab mites—primarily affect cats. "Unfortunately, scabies is highly transmissible from cat to cat, and can also temporarily infect dogs, people, and even rabbits," he adds.

Generally, most mites are species-specific. For example, the Sarcoptes scabiei var. canis, or canine scabies, causes mange in domesticated and wild canines. But because the little buggers are also such opportunists, they'll jump from host to host with just the slightest contact. So scabies in dogs can also sometimes infect cats, cattle, horses, and humans, although the life cycle and disease might not be as long or as intense.

Once adult Notoedres cati mites land on your cat:

  • They mate, then females tunnel beneath the skin to lay eggs. 
  • Eggs hatch to larvae, which evolve to nymphs and then adults. 
  • Adults rise to the skin's surface, where the breeding process starts all over again.

From start to finish, the relentless life cycle is about 3 weeks, which triggers an inflammatory response in your poor kitty. Awww! No wonder he's scratching endlessly.

Cats who get scabies may develop mange—a grave and irritating skin condition. "The skin becomes thickened, the hair falls out, crusts and scabs develop, and your cat feels miserable," Evans says. "Severe cases that are left untreated can make these cats feel so terrible, they stop eating and eventually die."

If your pet is infested with Notoedres cati mites, your vet may call the condition notoedric mange; if they picked up sarcoptic mites, the disease is referred to as sarcoptic mange. Both are especially challenging for kittens and senior cats.

Fortunately, scabies in cats isn't common among housecats in North America unless they're free-roaming outdoors frequently or come into contact with feral felines.

Kitties are more likely to be munched on by otodectes cynotis mites. They're another contagious parasite, also referred to as ear mites. They have no boundaries at all, and will pass between dogs and cats equally.

RELATED: Is Cat Lice Common? 

Signs and Symptoms of Scabies in Cats

You won't be able to see Notoedres cati mites with the naked eye. Vets typically have to take skin scrapings from an infected kitty to spot them under a microscope.

What you'll notice are symptoms of early scabies in cats, such as sores, yellow-gray crusts, and hair loss, especially 'hot spots' where the itching is most intense, and kitty has excessively scratched or pulled out fur. "The signs typically start at the edges of the ear and then spread rapidly over the ears, head, face, and neck," Evans says.

Here are some photos of scabies mange in cats. We say again: poor kitty! 

If your cat has ear mites, Cornell Feline Health Center states that you might see ragged fur and inflammation around her ears, and she'll frequently shake her head, drop her ears, and scratch—a lot! This is because these persistent pests crawl down into the ear canal, where they wreak havoc, creating "a dark, gooey, foul-smelling accumulation of wax and mite debris in which the tiny critter thrives," according to Cornell. If left untreated, your cat can suffer further complications, including damage to the eardrum.

So, professional treatment is necessary to determine which mighty mite is messing with your pet.

RELATED: Does My Cat Have Miliary Dermatitis? What to Know About This Feline Skin Problem

Scabies Treatment for Cats

If addressed early, your kitty should recover just fine from this disease, with little discomfort.

"Fortunately, there are great treatments for scabies that are the same as the topical flea medications we use. Note that not all flea medications will work, so speaking with your veterinarian to choose the right one is important," Evans says. "These specific flea medications are the least toxic and most effective treatments."

Depending on the medication, the process usually lasts a few weeks, as each phase of the mite's life cycle has to be eliminated. During this time, your favorite furball has to be isolated from other animals—and possibly have little close contact with you. (More on that in a moment.)

Cat scabies home treatments, such as apple cider vinegar or petroleum jelly, generally aren't advised, but Evans says there's another possible option. "Older home remedies can work, such as lime sulfur dips," he says. "But cats tend to not be big fans of the baths, the lime sulfur has a very strong odor, and the dips can discolor the fur." How many baths? Oh, about 6 or 7 over a period of a few weeks. Only you know if your kitty will tolerate that! 

You'll also have to do a deep clean all over the house, especially of bedding, furniture, and other cozy nooks that are kitty's top cuddle spots.

How to Prevent Scabies in Cats

It's simple. Evans says the best way to prevent scabies is by keeping your cats indoors and using an effective flea control that also can also prevent mites.

But remember those opportunist mites like to find new hosts all the time, which means other furry pets need to be monitored regularly. This leads to the big question …

Can You Get Scabies From a Cat?

Unfortunately, yes. Referred to as human notoedric mange or human notoedric scabies, prolonged exposure to infested cats triggers some individuals to become reactionary to the mite simply by skin contact—it doesn't even need to burrow! If someone is particularly sensitive, they'll develop lesions that either have to be treated by a dermatologist or will gradually fade once exposure conditions change and cats are healthy once again.

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