Mange is a skin disease caused by parasitic mites, which are very tiny arachnids related to spiders and ticks. It is more common in dogs than cats, but there are several different types of mange that can affect felines. Some types of feline mange are also contagious to humans as well as dogs and many other mammals. This unpleasant condition causes extreme itching, damage to the skin, and hair loss in the affected areas.
Both indoor and outdoor cats of any age are at risk for getting these external parasites, but there are things you can do to minimize their chances of infection. Knowing how to treat and prevent mange infestations in cats can help keep your feline comfortable.
What Is Mange?
Mange is a skin disease caused by an infestation of mites, which are very tiny parasitic arachnids with eight legs attached to a round body. Some types of mange mites are too small to be seen with the naked eye, while others look like tiny black or white dots. Depending on the type of mange mite, these pests may live off ear wax, bite the surface of the skin, or burrow into your cat's skin. All types of mite infestations cause discomfort and severe itch.
Types of Mange in Cats
There are several types of mites that cause mange in cats. The most common are scabies, demodex, ear mites, and walking dandruff, but trombiculosis also occasionally infects cats.
Scabies is usually caused by Sarcoptes scabei (sarcoptic mange) but can rarely be caused by Notoedres cati (notoedric mange) mites. Scabies is highly contagious not only to cats but also to dogs and humans. The female scabies mite burrows into the host's skin and lays eggs just underneath the surface, causing an extremely itchy rash.
An infestation of demodex mange mites is called demodicosis, which can infect cats and dogs. Both Demodex cati and Demodex gatoi mites can cause demodicosis. D. cati is thought to be a normal resident of a healthy cat's skin but can cause demodicosis in an unhealthy cat or a cat with a weak immune system. D. gatoi is a very contagious type of demodex and is more likely to be found on young cats. Demodicosis leads to hair loss, along with crusted, inflamed patches of skin.
Like the name implies, these mange mites are found in the ears of cats, although they can also infect dogs. Otodectes cynotis are referred to as otodectic mange mites and are one of the most commonly seen types of mange in cats. Occasionally, these mites will infect the skin on the cat's body as well as inside the ears. Ear mites feed off dead skin cells, oil, and ear wax inside the cat's ear, rather than biting the skin, but they cause a very itchy inflammation in the delicate skin of the ear.
Cheyletiella blakei are mange mites that cause walking dandruff, also known as cheyletiellosis. The condition gets its name from the appearance of the mites, which, to the naked eye, slightly resemble bits of dandruff moving through the animal's fur. Walking dandruff is highly contagious to dogs and humans, as well as cats and even rabbits. The bites of these mites leave an itchy rash on the skin.
Cats get trombiculosis from mange mites in the Trombiculidae family. In their larval stage, these mites are often called chiggers. The larval mite attaches to the skin and fur of its host, which can be a cat, dog, or human, along with many other warm-blooded animals. Chiggers are most common in the summer and autumn months. Contrary to common misconceptions, chiggers do not burrow underneath an animal's skin, but bite and inject digestive enzymes into the skin, leading to reddened, inflamed bumps or blisters.
Symptoms of Mange in Cats
Excessive itching, hair loss, and redness are the most common symptoms of mange mites in a cat. Skin crusting and small skin bumps may also be seen in some cats with mange. If the mange is located in the ears of a cat, a cat will also have excessive ear debris that is dry and dark when compared to normal ear wax. When mange is severe, there can be a foul odor to the infected areas, as well.
Mange of all types is an intensely itchy condition. Your cat will scratch frequently and intensely at the infected areas, and often will also bite and lick the areas as well in an attempt to gain relief. The scratching can lead to further skin inflammation and irritation, along with secondary bacterial infections.
Most types of mange cause inflammation in the skin and hair follicles, which leads to patchy bald spots in the areas of infection as hair falls out of the damaged follicles. The intense scratching caused by mange also damages and loosens hairs, furthering the hair loss. Fortunately, the fur generally grows back once the mange is treated.
Most forms of mange cause a rash on the host's skin, usually in the form of small, reddened bumps or blisters. Scratching the itchy rash can damage the skin further, and lead to secondary bacterial infection.
Whitish, yellowish, or grayish crusts over the inflamed areas are very common with mange. If untreated, the crusts can thicken, giving the affected skin a wrinkled, leathery appearance.
Skin inflamed by mange typically becomes pink or red, particularly in the areas your cat scratches the most.
If your cat has ear mites, you'll typically spot black, red, or yellow debris in the ear canals, often in clumps sticking to the skin or hair. Your cat will shake its head, scratch at its ears, or attempt to paw at them in an effort to relieve the itch.
Causes of Mange
Most mange mites are contagious, so they are easily spread if your cat interacts closely with an infected cat, or even with bedding that an infected cat used. Some mites are also found in the environment and can hitch a ride on your cat if it roams outdoors. Other mites, like Demodex mites, are naturally present on your cat and only cause issues if your cat's immune system is compromised.
Generally, mange is far more common on cats that spend time outdoors and fairly rare on cats that are indoor-only. Mange is most common in feral cats that congregate in colonies. Still, any cat is potentially at risk for this itchy skin condition.
Diagnosing Mange in Cats
If you suspect your cat has mange, your veterinarian will perform a full physical examination of your cat and take some small scrapings of the skin, fur, or ear debris depending on the affected area. They will examine these samples under the microscope or with a magnifying glass to look for the mange mites or mite eggs.
Your veterinarian may also want to draw blood and run tests to look for underlying diseases that might have led to a weakened immune system, thus making your cat more susceptible to mange. Diabetes, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) are some of the diseases that can weaken a cat's immune system.
With treatment, mange is quite curable, although it can take persistence and patience to eliminate all of the mites and their eggs. Various anti-parasitic drugs are used to kill mange mites. Depending on the type of mite and the severity and location of the infestation, your veterinarian will recommend either a topical, oral, or injectable medication, although topically applied gels, liquids, and ointments are most common.
Some of the most-prescribed topical medications for mange include ivermectin, selamectin, and fipronil. Medicated dips or baths are also sometimes prescribed. Generally, these treatments are applied weekly for several weeks until your pet tests clear of mites and mite eggs.
Medicated ear drops are the treatment for ear mites. These are typically applied once or twice a day for several days until all signs of mites are gone.
If you have other pets in the home, your veterinarian might recommend that all of them be treated, even those not showing signs of mange, to ward off the spread of the mites.
Prognosis for Cats With Mange
While the itching and discomfort can be intense, fortunately, all types of mange are entirely curable in cats. Should your cat be infected with mange, keep it in an isolated area away from any other pets in the home until the mange is gone, and take care to wash all bedding or other surfaces where the cat might have slept.
How to Prevent Mange
The best way to prevent your cat from getting mange is to keep it indoors where it won't be exposed to stray animals that might be carrying mites. A healthy diet will help keep your pet's immune system strong and regular veterinarian visits can help detect illnesses before they become serious enough to weaken your cat's immune system, thus making it more susceptible to an infestation of mites.
Some topical treatments used to prevent flea and tick infestations also work to kill various types of mange mites. If your cat must go outdoors, ask your veterinarian if they recommend selamectin (Revolution), moxidectin (Advantage Multi), sarolaner (Revolution Plus), or fluralaner (Bravecto) for preventing mange mites in your cat. These same drugs may also help protect your cat against fleas, heartworms, ticks, and intestinal parasites.
Is It Contagious to Humans?
Some types of mange are contagious not only to other pets, including cats, dogs, and rabbits, but also to humans. Sarcoptic mange (Sarcoptes scabei) is the most common type of zoonotic mange, meaning it can spread from an animal to a human. Other types of mange mites are typically self-limiting in people, but can be very itchy and distressing during the active infection.
How contagious is mange in cats?
Many forms of mange are highly contagious and cat spread easily between cats.
How much does it cost to treat mange in cats?
The price range to treat mange will vary based on your location and type of treatment. Between vet exams, testing, and treatment (which involves weekly dips in a lime-sulfur solution) expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars, if not more.
How does mange start in cats?
Mange is caused by teeny parasites; the first sign of a problem is itchy skin, patchy hair loss, and excessive licking/biting.
Dryden, M. Mite Infestation of Cats. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Horne, K. Taking the Bite Out of Feline Mites. Today’s Veterinary Nurse.