Pet owners may suffer flea denial
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URBANA -- A pet's itchiness can be due to irritation and
allergy, including that caused by flea bites. However, many pet
owners may suffer flea denial, assuming that fleas cannot be the
source of the problem. Some people may associate fleas with poor pet
hygiene, but the cleanest pet, even pets kept indoors all the time,
can suffer flea bites and flea allergies.
Dr. Karen Campbell, veterinary dermatologist at the University of
Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, explains there are
many reasons pet owners may assume their itchy pet can't have fleas.
"Often owners will tell me they've never seen a flea on their pet,
but cats and dogs groom themselves well, removing the fleas before
anyone sees them."
"It only takes a single flea to cause an allergic reaction," she
points out, so a pet doesn't need to be infested with fleas to have
seriously itchy, red skin. If a pet develops an allergy to flea
saliva, a single bite can cause irritation that can affect a fairly
large area of skin.
The flea goes through several stages during its life cycle. The
adult flea spends virtually its entire life on its host, where the
female adult lays her eggs. These eggs fall off the host into the
environment, where they develop into legless but mobile larvae and
feed off organic debris in the indoor or outdoor environment. The
larvae develop into pupae that are highly resistant to parasiticides
and are encapsulated in tough, sticky cocoons. When they hatch into
adults, they can leap onto an unsuspecting host.
Some people believe that if their pet stays in the yard, or stays
indoors altogether, there's no way the pet can get fleas. On the
contrary, flea larvae can live in the backyard grass, and any life
stage can hitch a ride indoors on the shoes, socks or clothing of
family members. Since larvae don't like light, they will burrow deep
in carpeting and cracks in floorboards, where even the most
obsessive vacuuming and cleaning cannot reach.
Although there are many causes of itchy skin and dermatitis,
there are some characteristic patterns associated with flea bite
allergy. Dogs usually get inflammation on the rump, belly, and the
insides and backs of the thighs. There may be papules (small bumps)
and crust on the skin.
Flea allergy manifests a bit differently in cats; they often get
a condition called "miliary dermatitis" -- small white spherical
lesions that look like millet seeds. A flea-bitten cat gets these
lesions on the rump and around the neck and may have hair loss on
the belly from excessively licking at the skin.
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Flea allergy can be diagnosed with a physical examination, and a
veterinarian may use a special comb to look for evidence of fleas,
such as dark flea feces, known as "flea dirt," under the hair.
Veterinarians can also perform an intradermal skin allergy test,
similar to that performed on humans, to determine which substances
an animal reacts to.
The first step in treating a flea allergy is to eliminate the
fleas. There are several types of parasiticides on the market,
including shampoos, sprays, foams and oral medications. Each product
works differently. For example, some medications require a flea to
bite before they kill the flea, whereas others kill fleas simply on
Some products even have residual action. Parasiticides that get
absorbed into the hair shaft get carried into the indoor environment
when hairs and skin flakes are shed, killing fleas in carpeting and
furniture and sometimes eliminating the need for harsh aerosol
To reduce the itching and inflammation, a veterinarian may
prescribe and anti-itch or anti-inflammatory medication. Some cases
may require antibiotic treatment to prevent secondary bacterial
infection of irritated, damaged skin.
To minimize pets' exposure to fleas, Campbell recommends some
simple strategies. Cutting grass short will provide less dark space
for light-sensitive larvae to hide in, and keeping the yard clean of
organic debris provides less food for their survival. Since flea
larvae cannot survive dry environments (relative humidity below 50
percent), a dehumidifier can help control fleas indoors. Campbell
also recommends washing a pet's bedding regularly.
For more information about flea control and treatments, consult
[Kim Marie Labak, Veterinary Extension, Office of Public
Engagement, University of
Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine]