Causes of Scratching & Licking in Cats
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

Cats scratching & lickingIn addition to allergies, there are other diseases which can cause your cat to scratch, lick, or pull on her hair. A short description of these conditions such as mange, cancer, behavioral problems, and infections, along with their diagnosis and treatment, are shown in the table below. Many of the more uncommon conditions are included as well. This large number of conditions helps you understand why a quick diagnosis may be difficult to make and various diagnostic tests may need to be performed. The most common conditions are color-coded gray in the table (some may be more common in certain geographical areas).

Condition Description Symptoms Diagnosis Treatment

Allergic and irritant contact dermatitis

An allergic reaction following exposure to antibiotics applied to the skin; metals such as nickel; materials such as rubber, wool, and plastic; and chemicals such as dyes and carpet deodorizers; or inflammation caused by irritating substances such as poison ivy. Generally requires multiple exposures.

Red skin and small bumps or blisters on the areas of skin that are sparsely haired and directly exposed to the offending substance, itching; hair loss in chronic conditions

Patch test, exclusion trials

Restrict exposure to the allergen or contact irritant in the cat's environment; steroids, antihistamines

Atopy (allergic inhalant dermatitis)

Allergic reaction to something the cat inhales such as pollen, house dust mites, and mold

Licking of feet, inflamed ears, itching, redness, and hair loss; sometimes development of infection or hot spots

Intradermal or serologic (blood) testing for allergies

Reduce exposure to allergen (what the cat is allergic to), steroids, fatty acid supplements, biotin, antihistamines, shampoos, immunotherapy

Bacterial infection (pyoderma)

See Folliculitis

Often occurs as a result of another condition such as a parasitic, allergic, or hormonal condition

Bee, wasp, hornet stings Skin reactions can vary dramatically in severity Immediately after the bite, see swelling, redness, pain, possibly itching; subsequently may develop extensive ulcers with draining; may develop hives or anaphylaxis History, physical exam Antihistamines, steroids; wet dressings if ulcerated; protect the area from self-inflicted trauma

Cheyletiella (rabbit fur mite) mange

Infection with the Cheyletiella mite

Itching, scaliness; some hair loss, if severe

Skin scraping and microscopic examination - the mite is often very difficult to find


Chiggers (harvest mites)

Seasonal disease caused by larvae of the chigger

Itching, bumps usually on feet, abdomen, folds at base of ears

Visualization of mite larvae or microscopic examination of skin scraping


Demodectic mange

Infection may be localized or generalized; the generalized form occurs in cats who have a deficient immune system

Hair loss, scaliness, redness, sometimes itching

Skin scraping and microscopic examination

NO Steroids!

Rotenone, dilute Amitraz (Mitaban) dips, lime sulfur dips, ivermectin (off-label use*)

Drug or injection reaction Rare skin reaction to a drug which is inhaled, given orally or applied topically; more common with penicillins, sulfonamides, and cephalosporins; usually occurs within 2 weeks of giving the drug Can vary widely and may include itching, hair loss, redness, swelling, papules, crusts, ulcers, and draining wounds History of being treated with a drug, symptoms, biopsy Discontinue offending drug; treat symptomatically

Ear Mites

Infection with Otodectes

Intense itching of ears, redness, dark crumbly discharge in ears

Direct visual or microscopic examination of ear discharge

Clean ears and apply medication containing pyrethrin (Ear Miticide)

Eosinophilic plaque Part of the common eosinophilic allergic syndrome in cats which includes eosinophilic granulomas, miliary dermatitis, and rodent ulcers Intense itching; raised, oval, oozing, and possibly ulcerated lesions; may be single or multiple; often on abdomen and thighs Microscopic examination of swab from lesion, biopsy, CBC (find increased eosinophils); look for underlying cause, e.g., parasites, food allergy, atopy Treat underlying cause if found; corticosteroids; fatty acid supplements; immunosuppressive drugs in severe cases
Epitheliotropic lymphoma (mycosis fungoides) Rare cancer of T lymphocytes seen in older cats; may be associated with FeLV Redness, itching, scales, ulcerated nodules Needle or other biopsy Poor response to treatments which include chemotherapy, surgical removal, retinoids, fatty acids
Feline acne Skin condition of unknown cause which may occur as single episode or continue as chronic condition; most commonly seen on the chin; can develop into a more serious, deep infection if not treated Comedones (black heads) on lips and chin, later developing pustules and small nodules; may itch - especially in chronic cases; chin may become swollen; can become secondarily infected Physical exam; tests to rule out underlying causes or diseases with similar symptoms; skin biopsy Mild: antiseborrheic shampoos, antibacterial creams, topical Vitamin A; Severe: antibiotics, fatty acids, retinoids (use with caution, can be irritating)
Feline pox Viral disease; outdoor cats more commonly affected; presumably transmitted by bite wounds Nodule at the site of a previous bite wound; progresses to multiple nodules which may ulcerate and have crusts; may itch History, physical exam; biopsy; specialized testing to identify the virus Lesions usually resolve in 3-4 weeks; antibiotics for any secondary infection; antihistamines for itching; NO steroids; in some cats, lesions progress and do not respond to treatment

Flea allergy dermatitis (flea bite hypersensitivity)

Severe reaction by the cat to the saliva of the flea

Intense itching, redness, hair loss papules, crusts, and scales; sometimes development of infection or hot spots

Presence of fleas; reaction to intradermal testing

Flea Control in the environment and on the cat; steroids and antihistamines for the itching

Folliculitis Infection of the hair follicles; symptoms usually appear on face, neck, and head Pustules develop in the hair follicles and open and form crusts; may itch and develop hair loss Skin scraping; culture; biopsy; look for underlying condition such as allergy or FIV Antibiotics, usually for 3-4 weeks; treat any underlying condition

Food allergies

Allergic reaction to something in the diet

Licking of feet, inflamed ears, itching, redness, and hair loss; sometimes development of infection or hot spots

Food elimination trials

Change in diet


Infection with the larvae (immature forms) of hookworms

Red bumps, usually on feet, rough foot pads, abnormal nail growth, itching

Physical exam, history of poor sanitation

Treat for intestinal infection; move cat to different environment

Hot spots (acute moist dermatitis)

Result from allergies, flea bites, mange, anal gland disease, poor grooming, ear infections, plant awns or burs, arthritis

Hair loss; red, moist, oozing skin; constant licking or scratching

Physical exam and history

Treat underlying condition; clean area; apply Domeboro solution; topical and/or oral antibiotics and steroids


Infection with several species of lice

Variable: itching, hair loss, crusts, rough hair coat

Finding lice or nits on skin or hair

Pyrethrin, ivermectin (off-label use*)


Usually follows some other underlying disease

Itching, redness, hair loss, greasy scales; if chronic, develop hyperpigmentation

Skin scraping/smear and microscopic examination, culture

Treat underlying disease; oral ketoconazole; miconazole shampoos

Miliary dermatitis in cats Part of the common eosinophilic allergic syndrome in cats which includes eosinophilic granulomas, eosinophilic plaques, and rodent ulcers; may also be associated with infections, autoimmune diseases, hormonal disorders, and nutritional deficiencies Multiple small crusty bumps, usually over hips, neck, and back of thighs; moderate to severe itching Microscopic examination of swab from lesion, biopsy, CBC (find increased eosinophils); look for underlying cause, e.g., parasites, food allergy, atopy Treat underlying cause if found; corticosteroids; fatty acid supplements

Notoedric mange

Infection with the Notoedres mite

Intense itching and self-trauma, skin thickening, gray crusts develop

Skin scraping and microscopic examination

Lime sulfur dips, ivermectin (off-label use*)

Pemphigus foliaceus The most common form of pemphigus in the cat; an autoimmune disease Often affects feet and head; starts with pustules and progresses to severe crusting; depigmentation of the nose is common; itching may occur; if footpads and nails affected often see lameness; symptoms wax and wane; severely affected cats may have fever and loss of appetite History, physical exam, skin scraping and biopsy Corticosteroids, other immunosuppressive therapy, gold injections

Psychogenic (neurogenic) dermatitis

Self-licking in cats results in self-trauma; possible causes include anxiety, boredom, stress (e.g., new member in household)

Symmetrical hair loss, sometimes ulcers, on abdomen, groin, along the back

Exclude other causes; history important

Relieve underlying cause e.g., anxiety; restrict licking; behavior modifying medication may be necessary


See Folliculitis


Infection with several types of fungus

Hair loss, scaliness, crusty areas; some itching


Miconazole, lime sulfur dips; oral griseofulvin or itraconazole; ringworm vaccine

Seborrhea Can be primary (inherited) or secondary (resulting from other disease processes such as FeLV, FIP, FIV, ringworm, and parasites) Scales; depending upon the type, may have a dry or oily coat; odor; some scratching; may see hair loss Blood tests, skin scrapings, etc., to find underlying cause Treat underlying cause if present; antiseborrheic shampoos; fatty acid supplements
Tick bites Ticks cause a local inflammation in the skin, even when the entire tick is removed Nodule and redness at site of the bite; may itch and develop crusts; may last several months History Remove the tick; use a tick preventative; allow nodule to resolve on its own
Urticaria (hives) Reaction, often allergic, to insect bite, drug, vaccine, sunlight, etc. Multiple swellings, with hair standing up over swellings; may itch History, physical exam Often resolves on its own; in the case of allergic reactions, antihistamines, epinephrine or corticosteroids depending upon severity
Xanthoma Result of abnormality in lipid metabolism; can be a result of diabetes mellitus or due to hereditary affecting lipid metabolism (hyperlipidaemia) White or yellow nodules, usually on head, extremities, and bony prominences; often painful and itchy Physical exam and history; biopsy; Treat underlying disease; change diet; lesions often recur if surgically removed

* off-label use: medication used to treat a condition for which it was not developed (or licensed). A large number of medications fall under this category. Research has almost always been performed to determine the effectiveness and safety of the product, but the manufacturer has not undertaken the lengthy process required for licensure.

References and Further Reading

Birchard, SJ; Sherding, RG (eds.) Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1994.

Greene, CE (ed.) Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1998.

Griffin, C; Kwochka, K; Macdonald, J. Current Veterinary Dermatology. Mosby Publications. Linn, MO; 1993.

McKeever, PJ; Harvey, RG. Skin Diseases of the Dog and Cat. Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa; 1998.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Cat. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 2000.

Paterson, S. Skin Diseases of the Dog. Blackwell Science Ltd. London, England; 1998.

Scott, D; Miller, W; Griffin, C. Muller and Kirk's Small Animal Dermatology. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1995.

   Click here for the web viewable version of this article.

Click here to email this article to a friend.

Copyright © 1997-2016, Foster & Smith, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted from