And the culprit is…


by Dr. Scott G. Nachbar

Article originally published in the Springville Journal March 2001.

“Hello, Doctor, my name is Helen and I hope you can help my cat, Sam. Poor Sam has lost his hair from the waist down!” As I brought Sam out of his carrier onto the exam table, I could see that Helen wasn’t exaggerating. Her large, 12 pound orange tabby had a beautiful hair coat on his head, which began thinning to a fine stubble by his abdomen. His legs, belly, and tail looked like they were freshly shaved. Here and there were a few tiny red scabs about the size of the head of a pin. “I don’t understand it. He started losing his hair about 6 weeks ago, and it has steadily gotten worse since then. The other cats and the dog at home are fine!” said Helen. “I haven’t changed his food, and I know he doesn’t have fleas because I checked his fur. And besides, the other animals at home don’t scratch and it’s the middle of winter.”

As I examined Sam, I could find nothing else abnormal except for the hair loss, an occasional tiny scab, and a little excess baggage on his belly. He was clean as a whistle. “Helen,” I said, “Even though you don’t think so, I’m strongly suspicious that Sam has fleas.” I could see the doubt in Helen’s eyes as I reached for the fine-toothed flea comb and began combing Sam’s remaining fur. I looked for the telltale black flea dirt usually found at the base of the hairs, but Sam was clean. Helen looked skeptical. Sam enjoyed the grooming and started to purr. I began to sweat, thinking of some of the other more rare conditions that may cause Sam to look this way. Then suddenly, I saw flicker of black jump off of Sam’s shoulder and land on my hand. “A Ha!” I exclaimed as I grabbed the flea between my thumb and index finger. “Here is the culprit.” “But … why … the other animals … no flea dirt … winter?” stammered Helen.

“Well,” I replied, “Sam is highly allergic to flea bites. When a flea bites him, it starts an intensely itchy reaction, which causes Sam to groom himself vigorously, trying to catch the offending flea. He chases that flea all over his body, to the places he can reach, and in the process, licks out all the hair. There is no flea dirt because he licks that up as well. And the worst part of it is that your house has fleas, too. They probably rode in on the dog last fall and set up winter camp in your carpeting.” Helen looked horrified at the thought of fleas in her living room. “But why don’t the other animals scratch?” queried Helen. “Because, unlike Sam, they don’t react nearly as much to flea bites because they aren’t allergic to them.” I replied. “But they are still being bitten and acting as a food source for the flea colony at home. As the adult fleas bite your animals, they lay eggs. The eggs aren’t sticky, so they fall off and land on the carpet, bed, furniture cushions, and anywhere your animal spends time. Those eggs hatch in a couple of days, and out comes a tiny larva, like a caterpillar, that feeds on organic matter in the carpet or fabric. After a time of growing, the larvae crawl up on a fiber of carpet and spin a tiny cocoon, and like a butterfly, undergo metamorphosis and change into an adult flea inside the cocoon. The cocoon, or pupa, then matures and waits for some motion or agitation to shake it, like Sam walking across the carpet. Upon shaking motion, the pupa breaks open and out pops a hungry new adult flea, right on to Sam, to bite and lay eggs and complete the cycle.”

“That’s awful. It gives me the creeps just thinking about it!” Helen exclaimed. “How do I get rid of them?” I answered, “First, we need to get Sam here some relief from itching,” as I gave him an injection to calm his allergic reaction to the fleabites. “Next, we need to prevent Sam from getting any more flea bites by using a safe, effective topical treatment, like Advantage. This will last 4 weeks and kill any flea that jumps onto him before it can lay any eggs. You need to treat all your pets the same way to break the flea reproductive cycle. Finally, here is a spray for your house, which will kill the eggs and larva in the rug and furniture. Make sure you don’t spray Sam or the other animals with this, only the house, and be sure to cover up the fish tank and take the bird out of the room until the spray is dry.” “Wow,” said Helen, “I’m glad to know Sam will feel better soon. And I’ll feel better as soon as those fleas are gone!”

There are several good safe and effective prescription flea control products available from your veterinarian. Please be careful to read the label of any over-the-counter product. They are generally not as effective or safe, and some are FATAL to cats. I have treated several cases of this type of poisoning. The convulsions are severe and the outcome is not always good. If you want to know more about fleas and flea prevention, feel free to call or stop in. Meanwhile, pray for Spring!