Hey, Who Let these Pests in Here?

One flea is all it takes to start a reaction

September 21, 2015 (published)
By Laura Hedden, editor of VIN This Week


I thought I knew a little something more than the average pet owner about taking care of my pets. I've had pets my entire life, and I've worked in a veterinary clinic as a receptionist/assistant. In my current job, I work with dozens of veterinarians and see oodles of veterinary information.  I thought I was in-the-know.

And then my strictly indoor cat got fleas (or flea, I should say since I really only saw one with my own eyes), and I, with my "insider" education on all things cat, completely failed her.

Deadbolts, window bars, security cameras, and burglar alarms are all great ways to keep unwanted human visitors from entering your home, but how do you keep out those sinister little pests who are after something more vital than your flat screen TV or your grandmother’s wedding ring?

Even if you keep your cat strictly indoors, fleas, ticks, and other havoc-wreaking bugs can – and WILL – get in. They will hitchhike on other pets, visiting guests, your clothing, or even just the breeze coming through an open window. And much like potato chips, although infinitely less enjoyable, you can’t have just one.

It took me a while to figure out what was causing the excessive itching, scratching, and hair loss because I was laboring under the false assumptions that 1) because I didn’t see any actual fleas or signs of them, they weren’t there, and 2) she couldn’t have fleas because she is strictly an indoor cat (well there was that one time...).

In the meantime, she gradually stopped being a sweet, chatty, snugglebug who daily reinforced the notion that cats are curious creatures. She went from being interested in everything and liking everyone she met to being a quiet loner who would tolerate only a few pets at a time and could hardly dredge up any curiosity in new toys and visitors. Also, I had to stop using one of my favorite nicknames for her – Fluffybutt – because her fanny went bald.

According to my veterinarian, if your cat or dog is allergic to flea bites, one flea is all it takes to start a reaction and cause your pet weeks of discomfort. I thought I knew things, but that was not one of them.

There are many tell-tale signs that your cat has fleas, and some are easier to spot than others. Sometimes though, flea infestation can go undetected until it has had an obvious negative effect on the pet’s health.

Seeing actual fleas on the pet during petting or at bath time is, of course, the most tell-tale sign of infestation. But if you don’t actually see fleas bouncing off your pet’s face or in your carpets how can you tell?

Maybe it occurs to you that Fluffy or Fido has been grooming and scratching a lot more than usual lately. Maybe you thought some practical joker was sprinkling ground pepper on the cat? Another sign of flea infestation is flea “dirt” - a nice name for flea feces - which is composed mainly of the blood the flea ingested from your pet. It can look like bits of black pepper or dirt on your pet's skin and on her favorite napping spots. (If you get it a little wet and it turns red, it’s flea dirt.)

Not all pets will itch when they have fleas. And if your pet is grooming excessively they could be removing all the traces of fleas before you get a chance to spot them.

Yeah, those darn fleas can be stealthy like that. Trust me. Under the right circumstances, an infestation of fleas can successfully hop along under the radar for quite a while.

I did notice that Lily seemed itchy, and she seemed to be grooming more frequently. Cold, gooey hairballs lurking in the camouflage of the multi-colored shag carpet (which of course I found with my bare feet in the middle of the night) provided disgusting confirmation of my over-grooming theory.

Even though I hadn’t seen any uninvited critters anywhere in the house or on Lily, I still considered they might be the cause. Much to Lily’s dismay, I gave her a bath and a thorough inspection. Nothing.

Even a prolonged brushing session, which removed what seemed like several pounds of undercoat fur, revealed no flea dirt nor a single flea.

I doubted there were fleas. I didn’t see any. Where could they be? Were they little Klingon fleas activating their cloaking devices when I got too close?

I wondered if she was just nervous and territorial about the three kitties who’d been making their home in the backyard for the past few months. I have no doubt those cats have picked up at least a few fleas over the summer, but they don’t seem the least bit concerned about it and although their rear ends may not be as fluffy as Lily’s had been, they are at least fully covered.

Meanwhile, in contrast, Lily’s hind quarters were growing noticeably less fluffy. The tail her veterinarian once referred to as "fancy" was looking pretty bargain-basement. Her neck felt crunchy with tiny scabs. Her over-grooming had progressed to fur-mowing.

I knew that this pattern is usually considered to be a standard indicator of flea allergic dermatitis. But I was still held hostage by the idea that if I didn’t see fleas, there were't any. So I just tuned out my little voice – you know, the one that’s ALWAYS right – and kept looking for other answers. Through further research I learned that the same pattern can also be typical of food or other allergies. Fleas are hardly the only thing that can cause a cat or dog to itch and scratch.

A food allergy trial (bring on the guilt trips and kitty’s best begging face!), seemed like a logical next step and something I could handle on my own.

A couple of weeks into the trial and already hating her expensive new lamb rations, Lily’s itching and fur-mowing hadn’t abated at all and her rear end looked like it had been shaved.

Then one day – faster than a jumping flea – everything changed. I finally spotted it. One random, rogue, robust little flea. I’ve never been so happy to see a flea in my life. I cried out with joy – AHA! It’s much easier to fight the enemy when you know who the enemy is! After a quick call to the vet I soon had a supply of her favorite topical solution, which she said would kill the fleas and stop the females from laying eggs while simultaneously killing ear mites, ticks, roundworms, and hookworms. Who could ask for more? All I had to do was squeeze the tiny vial of liquid onto the back of Lily’s neck; she was feeling much better within the week. A few weeks later and her tail was fancy, I’m calling her Fluffybutt again, and she’s back to trying to find out whether or not curiosity really is fatal to felines.

They say hindsight is always 20/20 and they’re not kidding. Looking back I know my first – and most egregious - mistake was not consulting my veterinarian for expert advice immediately.

I learned the hard way (mostly at Lily’s expense unfortunately, but I suffered too, seeing her so unhappy) that it’s not always possible to recognize a flea infestation before it affects your pet’s health. If your pet is allergic, it’s even more important to maintain a regular program of flea control all year long, particularly if you live in a climate where it doesn’t freeze regularly in the winter.  This even applies to cats that are never allowed outside.

The good news is you don’t have to learn the hard way because I’ve already done all the work for us! During the Great Flea Fiasco, as I like to call it, I learned many important things about parasites and pets:

  • Strictly indoor cats can get fleas!
  • Long-haired cats do not look good with bald rears.
  • If your pet is not allergic to flea saliva, they may not itch.
  • When cats and dogs are itchy, they scratch and lick themselves in an effort to remove the source of the itching. You may notice a pattern of fur mowing along the rear end, along with small scabs around the neck and lower back near the tail. Often, your pet may effectively remove the adult fleas (and all the flea dirt too!) before you ever lay eyes on them – but not before they lay eggs on the pet.
  • The eggs hatch and eventually mature into adult fleas that begin feeding on your pet. Then those fleas lay eggs, and so on and so on. Typically, a flea will live just a few months, but in that time a female flea can lay as many as 500 or more eggs.
  • A flea infestation can turn into a serious problem if not quickly and effectively treated, especially for kittens, puppies, senior pets, and those who are allergic. An untreated infestation can result in flea anemia, a life-threatening situation for at-risk pets.
  • It’s crucial to take steps to also rid your pet’s environment of all adult fleas and other parasites such as ticks, and ensure that pests in other stages of development cannot mature and breed.

With all of the advancements in insecticides and insect growth regulators, this task has been made considerably easier for pet owners than it used to be. There are many safe, effective, and affordable products available that target the various stages of the flea life cycle, and they come in several different forms such as topical solutions, pills, chewables, sprays, shampoos, and dips. Some treatments require a prescription from your veterinarian.

If you’re not currently using any method of parasite prevention on your pets, you can save them from weeks or months of misery by keeping up with regular treatments. The best place to start is a visit to your veterinarian. Fleas are not the only guests your pet may be unwittingly harboring and a thorough examination by your veterinarian is the best way to determine what prevention method will be best to protect your pet, your family, and your sanity!

Now that this crisis is over, I’ll be giving my little voice some much needed lessons in assertiveness!

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