Pets itch when they have fleas. But your pet will be especially miserable if he happens to be allergic to the tiny pests.
So how do you tell if your pet is itching from fleas or itching from allergies?
"In the past we have often told clients that one flea bite is enough to cause a reaction if your pet is allergic," says Christine L. Cain, DVM, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. "In reality, that probably isn’t the case, since none of our (flea control) products can 100% prevent fleas from biting."
What happens if your pet is allergic to fleas? Look for itchy spots, red bumps, or hair loss on the back half of her body, especially around the base of the tail, the inner thigh, groin, and stomach. Cats with flea allergies may also be itchy around their necks. Allergic cats can get crusty little bumps called "miliary dermatitis" all over their bodies.
Fleas usually avoid an animal’s feet and head, so if those areas are what’s bothering your furry friend, it’s probably due to something else, Cain says.
If your pet is allergic to fleas, you’ll probably notice him gnawing at irritated areas. Look out for the "lick, chew, rub, or roll," says William Miller, VMD, medical director of the Companion Animal Hospital at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
This makes matters worse -- leading to hair loss, raw skin, scabs, even infections. "Affected pets feel bad, look horrible, and often develop a severe staph infection, which could even kill the animal if it becomes very deep and widespread," Miller says.
If your pet gets a bacterial or yeast infection from his flea allergy, he might need to take antibiotics or an antifungal medication. And if he’s especially miserable, he might also need an anti-itch remedy such as an antihistamine or steroids.
Like people, pets can be allergic to mold spores, pollen, and dust mites. Animals with those allergies often struggle with fleas, too. What they are actually reacting to is the flea’s saliva, which contains all sorts of irritating things that can stir up the immune system. Cats tend to be a little less allergic in general than dogs. Certain dog breeds, such as terriers, Labradors, and golden retrievers, seem to be especially allergy prone, Cain says.
Vets can test your pet for many allergies using blood tests or pinpricks like doctors do for people. And pets can be given allergy shots or under-the-tongue drops for their allergies.
But if fleas are the main problem, the easiest and best way to solve the problem is to get rid of the bugs.
"It’s almost impossible to avoid environmental allergens" like pollen or mold, Cain says. "But we can pretty effectively avoid fleas."
Flea control products can be given by mouth, put on the skin, or worn as flea collars. There are many products on the market, with new ones coming out all the time. Most of them work well, Cain says.