Very few creatures on this planet have brought more plague and death upon humanity than the humble flea. This small blood-seeking menace was (in part) responsible for the death of 25-50 million Europeans during the middle ages as the carrier of the bacteria that caused the Black Plague. Although the odds of getting plague from fleas is now incredibly small and localized to very limited locales in the US, they are still a scourge that far too many cat owners struggle with. As our feline friends have exquisitely sensitive (and sometimes hyperactive immune systems), a few flea nibbles can cause an extensive and irritating reaction. Even as we type this, our skin is crawling thinking about how they also bite people (some more than others) in addition to our felines.
A little denial
Every veterinary professional has a story of adamant flea-infestation denial. This is further complicated by the fact that our fastidious felines are so phenomenal at cleaning themselves and because of this, we (your trusted veterinary professionals) often don’t see fleas or flea dirt. So, without clear evidence of fleas and flee poop, how do we know (and often times get it right) that your pet has unwanted hitch-hikers? In short, we look for the telltale signs of flea bites. This can include specific types of scabs localized to certain areas on your kitty. In addition, tell-tale hair pulling (especially at or near the tail or on or near the neck or back etc.) can be indicative of a vampiric infestation. Another tell-tale sign of flea infestation actually has nothing to do with observations of itching, scratching or skin problems but is the sighting of a closely-linked creep-crawly, tapeworm segments. Tapeworm segments are often visible as rice like objects near or on the rectum of your kitty and are a strong indicator that your kitty has ingested fleas while cleaning. For even the most seasoned veterinary professionals, tapeworms (and their associated “ick” factor) are a huge reason why we protect even our own pets year-round.
Tis the season
In a moderate climate, like the Pacific Northwest, South or Mid-south, there are active populations of wild animals that do not hibernate and can act as carriers of fleas year-round. Additionally, the lack of hard and pro-longed freezes mean that fleas can survive for longer periods year-round. Particularly problematic to the active lifestyles of many in the Pacific Northwest (specifically), is that fact that via hiking and other outdoor activities, fleas can be easily brought into the most secure of homes. As many “pet” owners (**Cough** Dogs…) bring their pets to pet stores, groomers, boarding facilities, etc. even one unprotected animal can spread fleas to many different locations. This animal brushes up against you or your dog, then you go home and your feline is infested.
An extremely common misconception is that a feline that is indoor only is unlikely to get fleas. Although this depends somewhat on the home, generally, it is not a safe assumption. As indoor/outdoor cats that see regular veterinary attention are most likely to get preventative treatment, there is an argument that indoor cats are even more likely to get infested and for you to not be aware due to lack of vigilance and/or treatment. Indoor environments like apartments and condominiums often have carpet “highways” where one infested household can lead to a spreading plague of nibbles and bites. Even without carpet, any environment (even the most clean and modern) can harbor mice, rats or vermin or all of the above can be just outside screened windows or doors. This all adds risk. Bottom line, you can minimize risk in your household, but it is never zero. Regardless, veterinary professionals define indoor/outdoor cats as any kitty that spends time outdoors (yes, screened in porches or enclosures count as outdoors) and these kitties should be on year-round flea, tick and worm preventatives.
You get what you pay for
The good thing about flea prevention/treatment is there are options. The problem is these options are not created equal. There are proven (and our experience greatly supports) efficacy (or how well they work) issues with at least a few over-the-counter flea remedies. While a simple bath in a dish detergent like Dawn™ can smother and suffocate adult fleas quite effectively, it will not rid your cat of eggs, etc. Likewise, over-the-counter topical treatments are not held to the same rigorous standards nor do they usually contain the most modern ingredients effective for flea eradication and for longevity of protection. Although prescription options can be more pricey, when purchased in bulk (up to a year’s supply), they often come with incentive free doses. Sometimes more affordable, some natural remedies that contain plant-based chemicals can be toxic or irritating to your feline and are not tested for safety like Rx options. Even amongst prescription options, you should look for a wide-spectrum preventative that prevents fleas (all life cycles) but will also kill those that don’t jump ship.—Those treatments that just interfere with flea reproduction or with single life cycle stages (often as a 6-month acting injection), can still allow adults to live and bite and greatly increase the risk of hypersensitive reactions to flea bites. As a side-note, some of the most effective and well-tested flea preventatives will also pull double duty and help prevent intestinal parasites and ear mites.
Toxic… Chemicals… No…
One of the most common arguments for not applying topical treatments is the desire to keep your cat and household homeopathic and free from toxic chemicals. Ironically, many of the most potent prescription flea control products are based on compounds produced naturally by soil organisms and plants. These “natural products” are produced in nature by organisms to naturally protect against parasites, insect pests, etc. While all things carry some risk (even penicillin, another well-known and massively used and recognized as safe antibiotic has significant risks), at their core, these natural products are not much different than the essential oils and compounds found in plants that have anti-flea activity and that are also used in holistic flea-prevention. They have, however, been tested for efficacy and safety and are held to the rigorous standards of other prescription drugs. Holistic and organic methods are not generally held to these same standards. Having the exact and right dosage is as important for continued flea prevention as it is for the safety of your cat. The right dosage includes the right concentration of flea preventative as well as the right (and thoroughly tested) dosage ranges for the weight of your feline. Too much, your pet may get ill. Too little, your pet will get fleas.—Holistic measures often don’t have these types of controls and pets/cats have and do continue to get sick from them.
Notes from the practice manager:
"Flea prevention is universally the most lauded and ridiculed product that we offer. Lauded when someone got fleas and ridiculed when it’s been years since an infestation. As with anything, weighing your cat’s risk factors such as lifestyle, skin allergies, etc. is important when balancing your cat’s needs with your budget. Looking for volume deals (often come in 12 packs) can help soften the budgetary sting. With everything, you get what you pay for when it comes to over-the-counter vs prescription products. Whatever route you chose, staying in touch with your cat veterinarian and getting their opinion on which are the over-the-counter options they trust is a good plan. Remember, they have seen more cases of fleas than anyone and know what works and what doesn’t."
Notes from the doctor:
"Our cat clinic (and most other veterinary centers throughout the area) have reported that 2017 was one of the worst years ever for flea infestations. The relatively temperate weather, indoor/outdoor lifestyles of many active PNWers and the high density housing (close houses, shared spaces like hallways, etc.) means that fleas are year-round and common menace here. As we head into the wet and cool Fall and Winter seasons, it’s still vital to maintain flea prevention year-round. As my practice manager mentioned, you get what you pay for in the world of parasite prevention so choosing wisely can prevent future expenditure and headache. If your fur baby does pick up fleas, keep in mind that you should treat them for 90 days minimally to account for and protect against all life cycles of the flea. Too short a treatment and any eggs or fleas in the carpet, etc. will hatch and merely re-infect your cat. It is nearly impossible to rid most houses of each and every flea so flea dips or single treatments are rarely effective."
Meadows Cat Hospital is proud to offer a number of economical and highly effective flea prevention. Just call us at 425-392-8770 to schedule an appointment with one of our wonderful cat veterinarians.