Don’t take your eye off the ball when fleas are around

FLEAS, fleas, fleas! At the moment they are everywhere and we are seeing loads of itchy dogs and cats.

Whenever people bring their scratching pets to us and we utter the ‘flea’ word the reply is ‘Oh we’ve been checking and seen nothing’. Considering the majority of the flea life cycle is in the environment and not on your pet, then it’s not surprising that the culprits are never seen.

There may be only five per cent of the flea population on the animal at any one time and even the most acute vision can miss the flea as it scurries into the pet’s undercoat away from the light as you part the hair intent on your search.

Then there’s the issue of flea allergic dermatitis.

If a pet has been sensitised to flea saliva from a previous encounter then just one flea bite can cause an intense inflammatory reaction exacerbated by the animal’s constant scratching and licking.

In dogs, there is often thinning of the hair along the back extending towards the tail, with scabs and redness of the skin.

Cats, in which the condition is even more common, will over groom due to the irritation and if left untreated they will present with patchy alopecia or ulcerated dermatitis, the papillae on their tongues causing the secondary changes.

Occasionally, in cats, the signs may be just around the neck or on the face in between the eye and ear.

In an ideal world we would all diligently treat all of our pets every four to six weeks throughout the year, irrespective of season.

There are various reasons why this doesn’t always happen. Some people believe only cats get fleas, some describe their cats as indoor pets but actually they do go into the garden, most owners believe it to be a problem only in the summer months and some seem to think only dogs that keep dubious company get fleas!

Until a few months ago our beloved elderly lady cat Ulghi (pronounced Uffy), recently passed away, was a useful reminder for me to treat our own pets for fleas as she did have flea allergy and if we slipped up she would start undressing herself!

Since her loss, my husband has taken her place as my flea monitor, being very vocal if they so much as dare bite his ankles!

There are more reliable reminders to treat your pet than these as most flea products now come with stickers for your calendar.

Flea products come in a variety of forms, spot ons, sprays, a collar, injections and tablets.

Most products combine an adulticide with an insect growth regulator in order to kill as many of the life stages as possible.

With regular use of these pet products you may not have to treat the environment per se as contamination will be low, but if you see actual fleas on your pet then the environmental product must be used to prevent reinfestation of the animal as the eggs laid by those fleas fall off into the pet’s bed or your carpet, hatch and produce the next generation.

If the environmental population of fleas is ignored the situation can deteriorate to the point of requiring the services of a professional pest controller.

A word about the seasonality of flea problems. In our practice we have seen ‘flea epidemics’ every September and October for the last few years.

Owners are more diligent with flea treatments in the summer months but then ease off into autumn, believing the colder weather will kill them off, forgetting that they have just put the central heating on and produced a lovely environment for a bit of flea reproduction!

So if your vet mentions fleas as a possible cause of your pet’s skin problems, don’t be offended, the treatment is a lot cheaper than having a lot of diagnostic tests and potentially unnecessary treatment for a skin problem that later turns out to be due to a flea!

JANE BARWICK-NESBIT, Director and Senior Vet