Fleas are wingless, blood-sucking insects with flat bodies that are found on mammals and birds. Only the adult stage lives on the animal with eggs and immature stages being found in the environment. Fleas can carry a number of diseases.
There are several species of fleas, however, it is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis felis) that causes the majority of clinical disease to cats and dogs around the world. Other species of fleas may cause problems in particular regions. The cat flea is remarkably non-specific about its host, which means it will infest your cats, dogs, rabbits or ferrets. Once these fleas enter your home, they will infect whichever animal the adult flea first comes into contact.
Owners often fail to spot an itchy cat as their clinical signs are often much more subtle than dogs.
There is also a great variation in signs of flea allergy dermatitis for cats, they can be localised or general distributed over the body and they may or may not be symmetrical. Cats can develop eosinophilic plaques, itchy swellings that can occur on the body or lips. Miliary dermatitis is another common reaction for cats to get in response to a flea allergy. Miliary dermatitis is characterised by numerous small papules under the skin that can be appreciated better through touch than visual examination.
When itchy cats are more likely to overgroom or rub themselves on objects rather than scratch at themselves, these behaviours are more difficult for owners to interpret as itchiness.
The presence of fleas can severely affect your cat’s quality of life, particularly if they have a severe flea allergy. There are however other clinical affects beyond skin irritation. In young, old or debilitated cats a heavy infestation of fleas can cause anaemia.
Fleas also carry the larvae of tapeworm D. caninum which is ingested during grooming, presence of this tapeworm is a strong indicator or a current or recent flea infestation.
Fleas spread bacteria Bartonella henselae, the bacteria that causes cat scratch fever, between cats. This bacterium can cause disease to humans, particularly children and those with a weak immune system. Consistent flea treatment is the best way to avoid cat-scratch fever.
Fleas found on cats and dogs can not live on humans, however, that does not mean they won’t try to sample your blood. Flea bites often occur in groups of two or three, they may be itchy but these hitchhikers will not hang around for long. If your home is infested with fleas from your pet you may find bites around your ankles.
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Written by Lindsay Rose MA VetMB CertAVP CertVBM MRCVS.