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Miliary dermatitis in cats

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Miliary dermatitis is a general term used to describe any condition in which there are small bumps (about the size of millet seeds) on the cat's skin. Miliary dermatitis is most often caused by an allergic reaction, often to flea bites. In cats that become extremely sensitive to flea bites, a single bite may lead to a severe skin reaction. Other causes of miliary dermatitis include Cheyletiella mites (fur mites or "walking dandruff") and other allergies (eg, to pollens, specific foods, etc).

The first sign of miliary dermatitis in cats is an itchy rash that quickly progresses to small lesions covered by scabs. These lesions can result from the allergic reaction itself or can be a result of the cat licking, biting, and scratching the itchy skin. Miliary dermatitis is most common along the back and around the base of the tail, although the neck, sides, and belly can also be involved. The fur often becomes thin and broken. In severe cases, the scabby "millet seeds" can become infected and develop into "pimple-like" pustules.

Diagnosis is based primarily on the history and clinical signs. The cause is often assumed to be flea allergy until proven otherwise (it is important to note that live fleas are seldom seen). Your veterinarian may recommend additional diagnostic tests, including skin scrapings, skin biopsies, allergy tests, or a trial diet with a hypoallergenic food. In some cases, your vet may refer you to a veterinary dermatologist or a veterinary teaching hospital.

Treatment is directed at removing the problem allergens and relieving your cat's discomfort. If your cat is not on a monthly flea preventive, your vet will likely recommend starting one. Anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids can be used on a short-term basis to reduce the itchiness and make your cat more comfortable. Medicated baths, dips, or sprays may be needed in cases of infection with other parasites such as Cheyletiella. Your vet will discuss the best treatment strategy for your cat's individual needs.

Q&A

How does this condition get its name?

It is called miliary dermatitis because the skin bumps are often the size and shape of millet seeds.

What causes this condition in cats?

Miliary dermatitis is most often caused by an allergic reaction to flea bites, and fleas are often considered to be the problem until proven otherwise.  Other causes include Cheyletiella mites (fur mites or “walking dandruff”) and other allergens (eg, pollens, specific foods, etc).


Where on the skin are these lesions usually found?

Miliary dermatitis is most common along the back and around the base of the tail, although the neck, sides, and belly can also be involved. 

How is miliary dermatitis treated in cats?

Treatment is directed at removing the problem allergens and relieving your cat’s discomfort.  Monthly preventive should be used to control fleas, and corticosteroid drugs can be given on a short-term basis to provide relief from the constant itch.  Topical or oral antibiotics may sometimes be needed to combat secondary infection.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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