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The Dangers of Fleas in Cats

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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If you have a cat, you are probably familiar with fleas. And you're probably familiar with the many commercials and advertisements that encourage you to purchase products to get rid of fleas or prevent them from feeding on your pet. We place a lot of importance in preventing fleas in our pets because fleas are more than just blood-sucking insects; fleas are responsible for causing and transmitting diseases in cats. Some of these include:

Flea allergy dermatitis is a common ailment associated with flea bites. Though each bite from a flea can cause minor skin irritation, some cats can develop an allergy to the saliva of the flea. What this means is that just one flea bite can result in significant irritation, itchiness and aggravation. Flea allergy dermatitis is an itchy illness and cats will commonly scratch, resulting in hair loss. Typically, the hair at the base of the tail is usually affected but small scabs and redness are present all over the cat's body. The primary treatment of flea allergy dermatitis is to remove the existing fleas and prevent future flea bites.

Tapeworms are a common parasite associated with fleas. Though not transmitted by bites, fleas cause tapeworm infestations when the cat grooms and ingests a flea carrying the tapeworm larva. After ingestion, the tapeworm larva continues to develop in the cat's gastrointestinal tract. When developed, the head of the tapeworm attaches to the intestinal wall and small egg-filled segments periodically break off and are passed out the rectum. These segments are fed on by flea larva and the cycle continues. Though tapeworms do not usually result in illness in the cat, removal of the tapeworm is recommended.

Flea bite anemia occurs in severe flea infestations or in tiny kittens. When a flea bites, it feeds on blood. With many fleas feeding at the same time, significant blood loss can occur, resulting in severe anemia. Blood transfusions, iron supplementation and hospitalization are frequently necessary. Some cats may not survive flea bite anemia.

Hemobartonella is a blood parasite transmitted by fleas. This parasite attaches to red blood cells, resulting in the eventual destruction of these oxygen carrying cells. If left untreated, hemobartonella results in serious anemia. Blood transfusions and hospitalization, as well as specific antibiotics, are needed to give the cat a chance of survival. About a third of the cats affected with hemobartonella do not survive.

The plague is not a thing of the past. Still occurring in the American southwest, Yersinia pestis, the bacterial cause of the plague, is transmitted by fleas. Cats and humans are susceptible to this bacteria. Cats affected may show signs of abscesses, breathing difficulty, weakness or fever. Treatment includes hospitalization, intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Removal of the fleas is crucial.

By learning the potential illnesses that can be caused by those fleas, you may understand why there are so many flea products available. Not only is the flea a nuisance, it can also be life-threatening.

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