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Ticks and Fleas on Cats Q&A

WebMD veterinary expert answers common questions pet owners have about fleas and ticks on their cats.
By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

With just a few exceptions in the United States, fleas and ticks are a common problem for us, and our cats. So we went to internationally known flea and tick expert Michael Dryden to find out how to fight the flea and eliminate the tick. Dryden has a doctorate in veterinary parasitology, is a founding member of the Companion Animal Parasite Council, and has conducted research on almost every major flea and tick product on the market.


Q: How can I tell if my cat has fleas or ticks?

A: Run your hand across them, part the fur, and look at them. Generally, on cats, look around the ears and the eyes for ticks. As far as fleas go, the easiest thing to do is roll it over and look at its belly. Look for fleas or flea dirt, which is basically the dried blood the fleas are defecating.


Q: Can my cat get sick from fleas and ticks?

A: Probably the most common problem is, when these fleas are feeding, they’re injecting saliva into the skin. These salivary proteins are often allergenic and animals end up with allergy. The most common skin disease of dogs and cats is what’s called flea allergy dermatitis, where they bite and scratch and lose their hair.

If you have a lot of fleas, since they’re blood-sucking insects, especially if you have kittens, pets can become anemic and even die with heavy infestations. Fleas also commonly transmit tapeworms to our pets, at least one species.

Now ticks are different in cats than in dogs. There are some diseases that dogs get that cats don’t. For instance, cats don’t get Lyme disease. They get those ticks, they just don’t get the disease. But they can get anaplasmosis; that’s one that’s not uncommon in cats. Cats can get tularemia. I believe they can get Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And they get cytauxzoonosis, which is the lethal one. It’s a blood parasite of cats that occurs from about central Kansas almost in a straight line down to about Jacksonville, Fla. In some areas it’s fairly rare, in others it’s very prevalent. There is no effective treatment.


Q: Are fleas and ticks worse in some areas? Where?

A: Ticks and fleas can be worse from one area to another and can vary seasonally and from year to year. There’s one particular flea species that we find on dogs and cats in North America that predominates. If you look it up it’s called Ctenocephalides felis, or the cat flea, because its species name is felis. For that flea, the primary determining factor of populations is humidity. So why are their more fleas in Tampa, Fla., than in Kansas City? Why are there more fleas in Kansas City then Denver? Humidity. Once you get into the Rocky Mountain states, for example, or even the Western areas of the plains states, fleas on dogs and cats are not that much of a problem because it’s just too dry. The Gulf Coast region of North America and the Southeast region are the flea capital. As you move inland, however, depending on the rainfall in a given year, it can be OK or get very horrid at times.

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