Summer means fleas are all around outside. Any pet going outside can pick up fleas and bring them in. Fleas or their eggs can also come in on shoes or any object that has been in contact with the ground. Even with topical flea treatment, some cats develop flea allergic dermatitis. A visit to the vet may be in order for diagnosis and a whole home treatment plan. While this may be a bit of work, it is well worth the effort to keep pets and humans flea free.
Flea bite hypersensitivity or flea allergic dermatitis is very common in cats. In fact, it is the most common skin disease to be diagnosed in pets. Flea allergies usually develop when cats are young (less than one and up to five years of age), but can begin at any age. Flea saliva is actually believed to be the cause for the allergy or sensitivity.
An allergy occurs when the cat’s immune system “overreacts” to foreign substances called allergens or antigens. Allergens and antigens are simply foreign proteins that the body’s immune system tries to remove. These overreactions are manifested in one of three ways:
1. The most common manifestation is itching of the skin, either localized in one area or a generalized reaction all over the cat’s body.
2. Another manifestation involves the respiratory system and may result in coughing, sneezing, and wheezing. Sometimes, there may be an associated nasal or ocular (eye) discharge.
3. The third manifestation involves the digestive system, resulting in vomiting, flatulence or diarrhea.
The flea life cycle includes the adult flea, egg, larva and pupa. Adult fleas do bite, but cannot survive long if they are not on an animal. Once the adult flea lays its eggs on the host cat it will fall off, leaving the eggs to mutate through the rest of their life cycles. The rest of the flea’s life cycle then occurs on the host cat, and the generational cycle continues and grows until the flea population has been eradicated entirely.
Flea bite hypersensitivity or flea allergic dermatitis usually causes severe itching, a condition that is medically referred to as pruritis. Since as few as one or two flea bites a week can cause pruritis, symptoms will often persist even after some form of flea control has been applied. Most cats will have symptoms that worsen with age, but symptoms are also often episodic. Cats especially will sometimes suffer from a related condition called neurodermatoses, a behavioral problem that comes about as the result of anxiety related flea bite hypersensitivity.
Most owners will first notice frequent and severe itching and scratching, hair loss, and scabs on their cat’s skin. Many times the hind end is affected more than the front of the body or the head, however, cats that are suffering from an allergy to fleas can have lesions anywhere on the body. Moreover, fleas or flea dirt may or may not be readily visible.
Using a flea comb to inspect your cat, fleas or flea dirt may be seen more easily. Skin tests for mites or bacterial skin diseases may also be recommended if the fleas cannot be seen. Sometimes the best diagnostic method is just to treat for fleas.
Since the flea saliva causes the reaction, the most important treatment for flea allergy is to prevent fleabites. Strict flea control is the foundation of successful treatment. There are many highly efficacious flea control products, both for treating the cat and for controlling fleas in the environment.
While treating for the fleas, cortisone tablets, such as prednisone, or injections that block the allergic reaction and relieve the itching are sometimes needed to make the cat comfortable. Steroids should only be given under veterinary guidance. Antihistamines and omega-3 fatty acids may also help to reduce the inflammation.
Treat sores with a topical antibiotic/steroid ointment. Aloe ointments or an aloe plant’s juice are also soothing and safe. If the cause of the allergy can be determined and eliminated from the cat’s environment, such as removing all feather pillows, that would be ideal. However, this is not always possible. Hyposensitization (using injections of flea allergens of increasing strength to desensitize a cat’s immune system) can make cats much more comfortable but requires multiple, long-term therapy.
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