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miliary dermatitis in cats what is it

Miliary Dermatitis in Cats - What Is It? How Do I Treat It?

Written by Steph McCulloch


Military dermatitis is a skin condition affecting cats that causes itchy, scaly patches and crusting. This blog post explores the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for feline military dermatitis. Learn about the most common locations for lesions, diagnostic tests vets use, medication and supplement options, potential complications, and how to best manage this frustrating skin condition in cats.
a grey and white cat sitting on the floor itching himself


Miliary dermatitis is a common skin condition affecting many cats around the world. Also known as miliary eczema, it causes irritation, itchy skin, and hair loss that can significantly impact a cat's quality of life. While it may seem like it's a simple allergies in cats or dry skin at first, proper diagnosis and treatment of miliary dermatitis requires veterinary expertise. Left untreated, this frustrating skin disease can worsen over time.

In this post, our experts will present everything you need to know about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for miliary dermatitis in cats. We'll provide guidance on when to seek veterinary attention for this common feline skin condition, as well as tips for managing flare-ups.

Getting to the root cause of skin issues through accurate diagnosis is key, as miliary dermatitis can have several underlying triggers ranging from parasites to immune disorders.

Miliary dermatitis in cats: an overview

a cat itching himself with a dog laying behind him

As mentioned above, miliary dermatitis is a common skin condition affecting cats. It's also known as miliary eczema and is a specific medical term used to describe a certain presentation of irritated skin and hair loss in cats.

Miliary dermatitis in cats presents as localised patches of skin inflammation that cause redness, itchiness (pruritus), papules, crusting, and hair loss (alopecia). The affected areas of skin take on a bumpy texture resembling millet seeds, which is where the name miliary comes from.

This bothersome skin condition is estimated to impact around 10% of the general cat population. Certain breeds such as Siamese and Rex cats appear genetically prone, but miliary dermatitis can arise in any breed or mixed breed feline. It typically first manifests in young adult cats between 2-6 years old. Recurring flare-ups are common, causing chronic issues for many affected cats. Consulting a veterinarian for proper diagnosis is important to rule out other potential causes and determine appropriate treatment.

Veterinary examination and diagnosis

When a cat is exhibiting signs of skin irritation and hair loss, an accurate diagnosis by a veterinarian is important to determine the underlying cause and rule out conditions beyond basic allergies. Here is an overview of the veterinary diagnostic process for suspected miliary dermatitis in cats:

During an initial physical examination, the veterinarian will visually inspect the cat's skin and take note of the physical characteristics of the lesions, their location, symmetry, and how extensively they're distributed. They will palpate the affected areas to check for inflammation and associated pain. The cat's body will also be thoroughly examined for the presence of parasites like fleas or mange mites.

To aid diagnosis of feline miliary dermatitis, tests may include skin scrapings, tape preps, skin cytology, and hair plucks to check for parasitic organisms or abnormal cell types. Bloodwork may also be recommended to assess organ function and identify potential systemic issues. Biopsies of the cat's affected skin tissue may be taken for histopathology.

Veterinarians will consider the cat's full history, clinical signs, distribution patterns, and diagnostic test results together. This clinical workup allows them to definitively diagnose miliary dermatitis versus other potential causes of skin problems like allergic skin disease, infections, immune disorders, or metabolic conditions. As always, obtaining an accurate diagnosis guides effective treatment.

Uncovering the cause of feline miliary dermatitis

One of the most prevalent causes of feline miliary dermatitis is flea allergy dermatitis. Common allergens like flea saliva proteins cause intense itching, irritation, and hair loss in flea-sensitised cats. Even a few flea bites can trigger significant flare-ups. Flea preventatives are a must to keep triggering allergies at bay.

Along with fleas, miliary dermatitis is also frequently associated with environmental allergies in cats to things like pollen, dust mites, or mould spores. Inhalant allergies lead to skin lesions concentrated on the head, neck, and around the ear base. Dietary allergies to ingredients like beef, dairy, or fish can also manifest dermatitis.

Parasites like ear mites, Cheyletiella mites, and certain fungal infections are other possible causes of irritated skin lesions. Bacterial skin infections may develop secondary to miliary dermatitis, worsening symptoms. Diagnostic testing like skin scrapings and cytology help differentiate parasitic infections from primary allergic dermatitis.

While allergies and parasites are most common, veterinarians also need to rule out underlying endocrine, metabolic, or autoimmune conditions. A thorough diagnostic workup guides targeted treatment of the specific root trigger.

Recognising signs of miliary dermatitis

brown cat laying down and itching his ears

The primary skin lesions associated with feline miliary dermatitis appear as red bumps and scaly patches that cause hair loss, crusting, and flaking. The irritated skin has a distinctive rough, sandpaper-like texture.

These skin reactions typically first manifest on the head, neck, and face area in symmetrical distributions. The ears, muzzle, eyelids, lips, and chin are often affected. As the condition progresses, lesions can spread to the armpits, groin, abdomen, legs, and feet.

Intense itchiness (pruritus) and resultant self-trauma from licking, scratching, and biting at irritated areas may worsen reactions. Hair loss, reddening, scabbing, open sores, and thickened skin can result. The paw pads may also become scaly.

Flare-ups refer to the waxing and waning of lesions. While symptoms may subside at times, recurrences are common and long-term management is needed. Catching mild cases early allows for better control. Monitoring for signs and consulting a vet at their onset is advised.

The affected cat: dealing with miliary dermatitis

A cat suffering from miliary dermatitis often exhibits signs of significant skin inflammation and discomfort. The characteristic skin lesions start out as small red bumps that develop into scaly, crusted lesions with a rough texture. These rashes typically first appear symmetrically on the head, neck and face.

As the condition worsens, the irritated, inflamed skin can become thickened and take on a scabby appearance, hence why miliary dermatitis is sometimes referred to as "scabby cat disease".
Hair loss, reddening, and open sores may result from the cat excessively scratching, licking and biting at affected areas.

Cats with miliary dermatitis frequently scratch relentlessly at their itchy skin in an attempt to relieve the intense itchiness. This self-trauma can cause wounds and complications like secondary infections. You may see your cat rubbing up against furniture or shaking their head frequently trying to alleviate discomfort.

Careful monitoring for lesions, rashes, crusts and scabs along with changes in behaviour helps identify flare-ups. Prompt veterinary attention for accurate diagnosis and treatment helps reduce the misery of this irritating skin disease for affected cats.

Treatment approaches

cat licking his paw

Once the underlying trigger is identified through diagnosis, appropriate treatment can be implemented. For allergy-driven miliary dermatitis, strict flea control is essential. Effective topical flea preventatives will minimise exposure to biting allergens. Reducing contact with environmental allergens through bathing, vacuuming, and air filtration may also help.

Corticosteroids and antihistamines like prednisolone and diphenhydramine provide relief from itchiness and inflammation. Topical ointments containing hydrocortisone or other steroids are often prescribed though antibiotics may be needed for secondary skin infections.

Immunosuppressants like cyclosporine can be effective for cats with overactive immune responses.
Dietary adjustments to novel or hydrolysed proteins may be recommended to address food allergies. This means adding more essential fatty acids to your cat's diet, for example, as they support skin health.

Multimodal therapy combining topical treatments, oral medication, and flea/environmental control offers the best chance of managing this chronic condition long-term. We recommend working closely with your vet to tailor an optimal treatment plan for your cat's case of miliary dermatitis.


In short, when it comes to feline miliary dermatitis, quick action is crucial for your cats' skin health. Getting your vet involved early is key to lessening the impact of this skin issue. It's super important, as a pet owner, to reach out to a professional as soon as you notice anything unusual with your cat's skin, such as raw skin or excessive scratching.

A precise diagnosis is the key to creating a treatment plan that works. Vets, armed with their knowledge, are integral to figuring out and fixing the complexity of feline dermatitis. Understanding the cat's hypersensitivity reaction to common allergens and addressing any adverse reactions is crucial. And let's not forget how vital it is to use the right treatments that target the root causes and make our cats feel better, especially when dealing with conditions akin to atopic dermatitis.

As cat caretakers, it's on us to spot the signs, bring in a vet immediately, ensure an accurate diagnosis, and make sure the right treatments happen. By teaming up with vets, we can tackle the challenges of this skin problem and boost the happiness and well-being of our furry companions.

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Additional resources

To help you on your journey of cat ownership, we’ve put together a list of other health issues and further reading.

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