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Flea Infestation in Cats

By: Dr. Debra Primovic

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The flea is a common problem for cats as well as their owners. As if flea bites aren't bad enough, some pets are "flea allergic" and develop severe itching with even trivial infestations of fleas. This occurs because the animal becomes hypersensitive to the antigens in flea saliva.

The itching component to flea allergy can be treated with antihistamines or even steroids (prescribed by your veterinarian) but the best approach is to kill the flea and prevent its return. Like all parasites, fleas pose a health-hazard to your pet (and to you), and can make him miserable. These worrisome pests can be treated and prevented.

Fleabite hypersensitivity or "flea allergy" can occur in any breed with the average age of first occurrence being three to six years. There appears to be no sex predilection. Fleas are typically seasonal in Northern climates and non-seasonal (year-round) in Southern climates.

What to Watch For

  • Itching, chewing and licking
  • Flea "dirt" (black pepper type discharge on the skin)
  • Skin lesions such as moist dermatitis
  • Presence of fleas

    Diagnosis

    Diagnostic tests may not be needed to recognize fleas but they may be important to determine if flea-associated illness is occurring. Tests may include:

  • Complete medical history and physical examination. Fleas can usually be diagnosed based on the history and physical examination. Flea combing helps to find fleas or flea "dirt."

  • Fecal examination for tapeworm eggs, which can be secondary to flea infestation, may be recommended.

    Treatment

    Treatment for fleas may be dependent on the following: the degree of infestation; whether you have both cats and dogs; the time of the year; area of exposure (yard vs. park); and whether your pet has an allergy to the fleas.

    Recommendations may include the following:

  • Many products are available for the treatment of flea infestations. All products have advantages and disadvantages and may or may not be safe to use with other products. Some of the over-the-counter powders, sprays and collars (such as Hartz® or Sargeant's® products) contain pyrethrin, which is moderately effective. However, the best flea products are obtainable only with a prescription.

  • In tough cases, a comprehensive flea control program may be needed that involves treatment of your pet, yard and house.

    Home Care and Prevention

    Optimal treatment for your pet requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up is important especially in cases of flea allergic pets. Make sure to administer all veterinary prescribed medications and follow preventative recommendations.

    Be certain to contact your veterinarian if you are experiencing problems treating your pet or the environment. Some microscopic eggs can live in the environment like the yard for weeks to months and cause re-infection. If your yard has a severe infestation, use products recommended by your veterinarian.

    Minimize roaming in places like parks and fields where exposure and infection are possible. Minimize contact with rabbits, rodents and/or fleas to minimize exposure to tapeworms.

    Monitor all pets in your household for evidence of fleas on a regular basis. Use a flea comb to check for fleas. A flea comb is a comb with very fine teeth that will catch the flea as you comb, giving you evidence of its presence.

    Flea prevention is recommended when there is a reasonable chance of flea infestation or in a flea-allergic pet living in an area infested by fleas. Products, such as Program® (lufenuron), are popular for this purpose; they prevent development of fleas that attack your pet. With few exceptions, these are far more effective than most collars or tags.

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