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Flea Infestation in Cats

By: Dr. Debra Primovic

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Diagnosis In-depth

Fleas are a common cause of itching and scratching in cats; however, other medical problems can lead to similar symptoms.

  • Other skin disorders can cause similar signs of flea infestation and should be ruled out before appropriate treatment can be given. Some disorders include: food allergy, atopy (hereditary allergy), trauma or other cause of local skin irritation, sarcoptic mange, cheyletiellosis, ear infections and primary keratinization defects.

  • Remember that many pets may have more than one problem. For example, in some cats, scratching due to fleas can cause a skin sore which becomes infected with bacteria.

    Diagnostic tests are often performed to confirm the diagnosis of fleas and exclude other diseases that may cause similar symptoms. A complete medical history can often help differentiate fleas from other causes of skin disease. Be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Does your pet itch?
  • Which areas of the body does he/she scratch or chew?
  • Is there a prior history of skin problems?
  • Has there been a response to therapy?
  • Does your pet have any concurrent medical conditions?

    In addition to a medical history, a complete physical examination will be performed, including a thorough examination of the skin.

    Additional tests may include:

  • Fecal analysis can be performed to determine the presence of concurrent gastrointestinal (stomach or intestine) parasites or the evidence of tapeworms (which are transmitted via fleas).

  • Complete blood count (CBC) and blood biochemistry tests may be indicated if symptoms are recurrent or there are signs of another illness.

  • Skin scrapings may be done to determine the presence of mites (mange).

  • Allergy testing with radioallergosorbent test (RAST) and/or the enzyme linked immunosrobent assay (ELISA) are sometimes used. These tests have variable accuracy.

  • Intradermal allergy testing to identify the cause of the allergy (most flea allergic pets will react to the flea antigen).

  • Ear slide/cytology may be recommended to evaluate for mites or infectious organisms.

    Treatment In-depth

    Treatments for fleas will depend 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)
  • Whether your pet has an allergy to the fleas

  • Prescription flea control products are superior and include prevention products such as Program® (lufenuron) that prevent development of fleas that attack your pet and topical treatments that both kill and prevent fleas and ticks. Some topical treatments include Frontline® (fipronil) and Advantage® (imidacloprid). The new topical treatment, Revolution® (selamectin), prevents fleas, heartworms and some intestinal parasites.

  • If your pet already has fleas, then you need to kill them first with a product like Capstar® (nitenpyram), Frontline Plus® or Advantage®. Capstar® is an oral tablet that will result in flea death within 4 hours after administration.

  • Local and regional needs and recommendations vary and there are a number of excellent product options. There are new and better products available all the time, so see your veterinarian for current recommendations. In difficult cases, a comprehensive flea control program may be needed requiring treatment of the pet, yard and house.

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