When mites bring mange to your cat, it shows up as patchy hair loss, red skin, crazy itching and scratching, or worse. The good news is, a proper veterinary diagnosis can get the right medicine to kill the right bug, and get your cat sweet relief from pain and irritation.

By Brendan Howard
August 24, 2020
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Some bugs every cat owner knows, like fleas and ticks. They're common parasites, and many over-the-counter preventives take care of them. But what happens when less visible bugs start making your cat restless, constantly scratching itches, and eventually losing hair?

It's usually dogs that wind up with mange, but it can show up in cats as well, caused by different bugs that need different medical treatment. Find out how these annoying mites and other pests start causing problems for your feline housemate and whether you can fight them at home or need the guidance of a veterinarian.

How Do Cats Get Mange? 

When it comes to the biggest risk factors for mange in cats, it's usually the outdoors and animals who love it, says Renee Rucinsky, DVM, DABVP (feline specialty), owner of a cat-only hospital in Maryland. 

"We don't see a ton of mange, but when we do, it's frequently on cats who spend a fair amount of time outside and who may frequent areas where other affected animals may have been," she says. 

Some bugs that cause mange naturally live on your cat's skin and only cause trouble when your cat has other health problems. Other bugs are considered parasites and really cause problems when they grow in numbers.

This cat has feline sarcoptosis, or sarcoptic mange, as evidenced by the patch of scaly skin on his head near the eye.
Getty

What Are Common Causes of Mange in Cats?

From mites to chiggers to scabies, here are the bugs that might be driving your cat crazy with itchiness, hair loss, and worse:

  • Feline sarcoptic mange, sometimes referred to as scabies, can pass from wildlife with infestations to your cat. A cat will frantically itch at red, inflamed spots on the ears, face, and legs that can develop scabs. These mites (Sarcoptes scabei) are contagious to both animals and people, with humans developing small red bumps or lesions in spots where the mites are active. 
  • Notedric mange, also sometimes referred to as scabies, can cause severe skin infections in cats. These burrowing mites (Notedres cati) rarely infest cats, but they are highly contagious to other cats when they do. Crusty skin and hair loss appears on the ears, head, and neck, and can spread over the entire body. 
  • Demodectic mange (or demodex mange, demodicosis, or red mange) is caused by the mites Demodex cati or Demodex gatoi. This milder mange is not considered contagious, and Demodex cati is a normal resident on a cat's skin and in fur follicles. It's only when mite numbers get out of hand, especially as a sign of a cat's compromised immune system, that they cause problems. It's also seen in some kittens as well as malnourished cats. Demodicosis can cause hair loss and bald spots on the face, feet, and legs. And as with every kind of mange, they leave a cat extra itchy. 
  • Cheyletiellosis is caused by the "walking dandruff" mite, which cat owners may see as white, moving specks on a cat. Why can you see them? The five species of Cheyletiella mite live on the outer layer of the skin and don't burrow into it like other mites. The bugs can cause skin irritation and rashes, but according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, infestations last only a few weeks.
  • What is sometimes called Otodectic mange (with the prefix "oto," meaning ear) in cats is usually the work of the Otodectes cynotis mite, which causes itching and inflammation. These mites are usually deep in the ear and may cause a lot of head shaking and ear scratching in an infected cat. 
  • Heard of mange caused by chiggers? That's Trombiculosis, caused by the larval stage of chiggers picked up by cats on the ground or walking in areas where the chigger adults or nymphs are present. The little larvae stick to the host, suck blood, and then leave when they're full. Signs appear as redness, bumps, hair loss, or crusty skin around the head, ears, feet, or belly. Unfortunately, the itching can last even after the satisfied larvae drop off.
This kitten has what's often called otodectic mange, small mites in the ears that cause extreme itching.
wolfness72 / Shutterstock

How to Recognize the Signs of Mange and Mite Infestations

The signs of different types of mange or mite infestations are common to many other skin conditions as well, so a visit to the veterinarian for testing is often necessary. Common signs of mange include: 

      • Restlessness, when a cat can't get comfortable because it's irritated
      • Bouts of intense itching and scratching 
      • Excessive licking and grooming
      • Patchy hair loss, especially around the ears and face, that can extend to other parts of the body
      • Swelling or bumps in affected areas
      • Scaling in affected areas of skin

How is Mange in Cats Diagnosed?

Ideas for treating mange at home appear across the internet, but how does a cat owner know which medication to use on which mite without testing?

To get the correct treatment for the right mange-causing bug, a trip to the veterinarian will include skin scrapings from your cat's skin so they can be analyzed under a microscope. Because sometimes mites burrow deeper under the skin, a skin scraping test might not be conclusive. A veterinarian may need to rely on other signs as well as a complete physical examination and your cat's medical history.

This feral cat has a severe sarcoptic mange infection—also known as scabies—on his ears and face.
Suharji Esha / Shutterstock

How to Treat a Cat with Mange

Treatment is crucial, but can be unsettling for a cat, explains Rucinsky. "[Cats] can be itchy, but they may also need to endure bathing and isolation from other pets and people in the house." Since most cats have a natural aversion to water and tend to have run of the house, most cat owners find these steps are easier said than done.

If your veterinarian asks you to isolate a cat with contagious mites during treatment remember to keep your kitty away from others since mites can be highly contagious and spread easily from animal to animal. Depending on your cat's health and the type of mange at work, the veterinarian may also send you home with topical medicine to rub on the skin, an injectable, and/or a special shampoo or dip. If your cat's skin is already irritated, a veterinarian may prescribe antibacterial shampoo, anti-inflammation medicine, pain-relieving sprays, or antibiotics to protect your cat from other infections and make her more comfortable.

Be sure to ask for your veterinarian's guidance before you use any over-the-counter pesticides or products. Not just any insecticide, collar, or parasite-killing dip will work, and some are not made to be used safely on cats.

Is it Possible to Prevent Mange? 

Bugs are bugs. They show up, they do their thing, and if you get rid of them, they're history—as long as there isn't new contact somewhere else. The first step of treatment and prevention is isolating a contagious cat from other animals until the bug infestation is taken care of. Because some of these bugs are picked up through contact with wildlife, other cats, or from trips outside—keeping cats indoors can be a huge help in preventing mange.

The next step is avoiding the mites by staying indoors and avoiding animals that run around outside. Rucinsky strongly recommends following your veterinarian's recommendation for the right parasite preventative at the recommended frequency to prevent future infestations.

The best part of mange, as uncomfortable, gross, and worrying as it might be, is that these mites and other hitchhikers on your cat are a temporary problem. With time, treatment, and veterinary guidance, your cat can get back to enjoying life (mostly) itch-free and you can both breathe a sigh of relief.