Is your cat scratching excessively, or overgrooming and biting or chewing their skin? These symptoms are often the first sign that your cat has flea allergy dermatitis. This is a surprisingly common skin condition in cats that occurs as a result of an allergic reaction to flea bites.
In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for flea allergy dermatitis in cats and how you can help your cat if they are affected by this condition.
What causes a flea allergy in cats?
Flea allergic dermatitis is caused when cats develop an allergy to the saliva of fleas. Most cats are relatively unbothered by flea bites, but some cats will develop a rash and experience intense itching when bitten by just one flea.
This occurs when the immune system of the cat becomes hypersensitive to specific allergens – in this case, proteins contained in the saliva of fleas. In an unaffected cat, a flea bite will cause minimal itching. Whereas, in a cat with a flea allergy, the immune system overreacts and causes a severe allergic response that can last for days or weeks.
Signs and symptoms of a flea allergy
The most common symptom of a flea allergy in cats is itchy skin and over-grooming. Cats will scratch, lick, chew and bite their own skin in an attempt to stop the itch. This can lead to patches of hair loss, red and inflamed skin, and the formation of small bumps or papules.
A classic indication of flea allergy dermatitis is a gritty, bumpy feel to the cat’s skin under their fur. This is caused by tiny scabs which develop around affected area. You may also see flea dirt (small, black specks which are flea droppings) or even the fleas themselves.
If left untreated, your cat is at risk of developing secondary skin problems as a result of over-grooming and constant scratching. Skin infections are common, or a long-term chronic skin condition called eosinophilic dermatitis may occur. This can be very painful and impact your cat’s quality of life, so it is vital to seek treatment as soon as possible.
How flea allergy dermatitis is diagnosed
To diagnose flea allergy dermatitis, your veterinarian will firstly perform a physical exam. They’ll examine your cat’s skin and look for signs of fleas such as live fleas or flea dirt. However, these can be very hard to spot, as cats with a flea allergy tend to overgroom to the extent that all indications of fleas are removed. They will also look for characteristic signs of flea allergy dermatitis including redness, skin irritation or inflammation and hair loss.
If fleas aren’t visible, your veterinarian will likely do a flea combing. This involves running a fine-toothed comb through your cat’s fur, especially in areas prone to flea infestation, such as the head, neck, back and near the base of the tail. The collected debris, including fleas or flea dirt, is then examined under a microscope. Finding fleas or their droppings confirms the presence of fleas and supports a diagnosis.
Providing information about your cat’s symptoms, their exposure to fleas, and response to previous treatments can also help. Flea allergies often have a seasonal pattern, worsening during flea season (usually spring to summer, but it can be year-round if you live in a warmer, humid climate).
Additionally, your veterinarian may conduct a flea allergy test, such as a skin prick or intradermal skin test, to confirm whether your cat has an allergic response to flea saliva.
Treatment options for flea allergy dermatitis
Treatment of flea allergy dermatitis in cats focuses on: 1) reducing the risk of flea bites, and 2) treating the symptoms of any allergic reactions.
Effective flea control is essential to prevent further exposure and eliminate fleas from the cat’s environment. Use topical or oral flea medications that have been recommended by your veterinarian, and make sure to treat all cats and dogs in the house, not just the affected cat.
The issue with many flea control treatments is that they only kill the flea after they have bitten the animal, which will still trigger an allergic response in the cat. So, as well as using flea control treatments, it is advisable to apply a flea-repellent to the cat. Flea repellents come in various forms such as sprays, shampoos, or wipes and usually have an odour or taste that is unpleasant to fleas. They can help reduce the likelihood of flea bites and infestations.
Unfortunately, your cat will inevitably be bitten by a flea at some point, no matter how stringent your flea control methods are. When this occurs, your veterinarian may prescribe antihistamines or corticosteroids to reduce the allergic response and relieve the intense itching and inflammation. If a skin infection occurs, antibiotics may also be prescribed.
Although many creams and lotions claim to help cats with flea allergy dermatitis, it is vital to only use topical treatments that have been prescribed or recommended by your veterinarian. When the right product is used, ointments and sprays can be very beneficial for reducing itching and speeding up the healing process.
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A lot of people (including us) have had success when supplementing their cat’s diet with an omega 3 fatty acid supplement, such as salmon oil. Omega 3’s are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and can provide relief for dry and itchy skin, also improving the health of their fur.
Our calico girl Polly had an ongoing battle against flea allergy dermatitis, despite flea control measures in our multi-cat home. It all started one summer when she began scratching, over-grooming and biting herself around her back and rump area. She developed small scabs and red bumps on her skin and started to lose patches of fur. Even worse, she was agitated and restless. In addition to the flea prevention treatments and steroid injections recommended by our vet we tried medicated shampoos and hypoallergenic bedding which did help. The game changer for Polly though, was when we introduced salmon oil into her diet. It significantly improved her skin inflammation and over time, helped her dry and flaky skin to heal.
Caring for cats with flea allergies at home
Did you know that only around 5% of the flea population lives on your pets? The rest are hidden in your home, which is pretty unpleasant to think about! This means that treating your home for fleas is a key step in helping a cat with a flea allergy, as this is the most effective way to rapidly reduce the number of fleas in their home environment.
As well as using a good-quality home flea control product, regularly vacuum your floors and soft furnishings to remove fleas and their eggs. Pet beds should be regularly washed and the surrounding area treated for fleas.
In the event of an outbreak of itching and scabs on your cat’s skin, it may be necessary to use a soft e-collar or feline vest to prevent overgrooming. This is a short-term solution, and should never be used without also seeking veterinary advice. Once your cat’s medication has had a chance to take effect – around 12 to 24 hours – they should be allowed to groom as normal.
If your cat’s skin is not sore or scabby, regular grooming can help remove excess dirt or dander and keep their coat in good condition. This also gives you a good opportunity to check for any evidence of fleas, so you can take prompt action if reinfestation is suspected.
Although flea allergy dermatitis is a life-long condition, with the correct prevention methods and treatments most cats will live a comfortable and pain-free life. By administering regular flea control treatments and being vigilant for signs of a flare-up, this debilitating problem can be kept at bay and your cat can continue to enjoy life to the full.