What to do for cats with flea allergies

Ticks are white to grey in colour, egg-shaped and around five millimetres endless. They are picked up in grassland areas and drop off eventually, but it is probably best to remove them. As their mouthparts are firmly embedded, it is significant that these are removed at the same time so it is best to see the vet. As a preventative measure, you can also get treatments from your vet which kill ticks if they attach.

Manifestations of feline pruritus

Common manifestations of pruritic skin disease in cats include:

  1. Overt itching, scratching and self-induced skin damage
  2. ‘Miliary’ dermatitis – this form of skin disease is characterised by the presence of tiny 2-3 mm diameter crusts throughout the body surface.

    The skin and jacket may also be greasy and own excessive dandruff

  3. Symmetrical hair loss
  4. Eosinophilic granuloma complicated – see eosinophilic granuloma complicated in cats – this is a variety of skin lesions (indolent ulcer that affects the upper lip, and eosinophilic plagues or eosinophilic granulomas that can affect various areas of the body and also the oral cavity. They are generally associated with allergies. Every of these manifestations of pruritus glance completely diverse, but can every be caused by the same things — in most instances the cause is fleas but other parasites and allergies can be involved.

    Some cats may own more than one manifestation of disease present simultaneously eg, indolent ulcer and symmetrical hair loss.

I own just noticed a horrible sore patch on my cat. What should I do?

Contact your vet as soon as possible. Meanwhile, prevent scratching or licking the sore patch, as this makes it bigger and more sore. Use an Elizabethan collar or put socks on your cat’s feet. Bathe the area with cool salt water (a teaspoonful of salt to a pint of water) or apply ice. Do not use products meant for people on cats – some of them can be toxic.

Flea bites are a common cause of soreness; attempt to purchase your animal’s flea treatment from your vet as this is most effective.

My cat has “gritty bits” and scabs in his jacket. The vet says it is fleas but I’ve never seen a flea on him!​

You do not see fleas on your pet unless they own lots. Fleas only spend about ten per cent of their time actually on an animal. Their eggs tend to build up in cracks and crevices, such as below the sides of armchairs.

What to do for cats with flea allergies

Eggs survive for at least six months and, in the warmer months, can even be laid exterior. They are the most common cause of skin problems, but are often hard to discover. The only way to be certain that your pet does not own them is by using regular, excellent quality flea control. A single application of any product is not sufficient.

A cat’s lifestyle makes prevention hard. You must treat the cat, the home and other areas such as the garage, either with an aerosol spray, or with medication that stops fleas from developing. Even so, it can take a endless time (up to a year in some cases) to get rid of them.

Regular treatment is essential for every cats, dogs and rabbits in the household. Cats that go out may own “hidey holes” in garden sheds which will also need treatment. In the summer, fleas can survive in piles of garden refuse, so make certain these are tidied away and cannot be accessed by your cat. Enquire your vet for advice on instituting a flea control programme with dependable products, and follow the instructions carefully.

Flea combs, powders, and shampoos are not effective for flea control, nor generally, are collars, as none of them own a sufficiently long-term effect.

Herbal products are also ineffective and some (e.g. tea tree oil) can be toxic.

What can cause cats to itch other than fleas?

Important causes of pruritus other than fleas include:

  1. Food intolerance/allergy
  2. Ear mites and other mites
  3. Insect bites
  4. Atopy (house dust and pollen allergy)
  5. Bacterial infections

Atopy (atopic dermatitis; dust and pollen allergy)

Atopy is not well characterised in cats. In humans and dogs, the term is strictly used to describe an inherited predisposition to develop allergic reactions to environmental allergens (such as pollen and home dust).

Allergies to pollen and home dust happen in cats, and may be a potential cause of pruritus, but they are hard to diagnose and it is unknown whether there is an inherited component to the disease.

In most cats, atopy is diagnosed by ruling out other potential causes of pruritus, including fleas and other parasites, and food. Allergy testing can be performed on cats (for example intra-derma skin tests) but the results are rather unreliable.

Blood tests are also offered by some laboratories to ‘diagnose’ atopy and the underlying cause of the allergy, but these are less dependable than skin tests, and both untrue positive and untrue negative tests are well recognised.

Atopy is incurable and life-long medication is needed to prevent unacceptable discomfort. Treatment with essential fatty acids and anti-histamines is successful in only a minority of cases. Numerous cats need long-term corticosteroids or other immunosuppressive drugs such as cyclosporin.

If an allergy test has successfully identified the offending allergen, then it is possible to use a ‘hyposensitisation vaccine’ as a therapy – these rarely resolve the disease but in some cases reduce the need for drug therapy.

Other mites

Harvest mites are a recognised cause of skin disease in cats in some areas in tardy summer and autumn – see harvest mite infection in cats. These tiny orange dot sized mites are visible to the naked eye and generally found between the toes and in Henry’s pocket of the ear flap.

In some parts of the world, the mites Noedres cati and Sarcoptes scabiei may be found on cats and may be a cause of intense pruritus.

Ear mites – Otodectes cynotis

Ear mites are well known as the major cause of otitis externa (ear inflammation) in young cats and in breeding colonies – see common ear problems in cats.

However, it is also possible for the mites to wander onto the skin around the head and neck and cause pruritic skin disease at these sites. As cats sleep curled up, spread of infection (and subsequent dermatitis) to the rump and tail may also occur.

Insect bites

Insects such as wasps and bees can cause stings that lead to dramatic, painful and swollen skin. However, some other insects including fleas, midges, flies and mosquitoes may bite and the reaction to the bite (or the insect saliva) may cause intense irritation and pruritus. Flying insects generally bite relatively hairless areas such as the bridge of the nose and ears. Notably, mosquitoes own been reported to cause an eosinophilic granuloma-like reaction on the bridge of the nose of some cats (mosquito-bite hypersensitivity).

Food intolerance or allergy

No-one knows the exact mechanisms by which certain foods can make animals and humans itch.

Allergy may be involved, but in some cases, it is possible that the pruritus may result from chemical reactions to the food or to additives and preservatives.

However, it is well recognised that changing the diet to a food that cats own not previously been exposed to can cure some cases of pruritic skin disease. Most of these are probably food allergies but the terms ‘food intolerance’ or ‘food-responsive’ skin disease are sometimes used as a specific diagnosis is often not made.

Cats may need to be fed an alternative diet for a period of 6-8 weeks to law out food-response dermatitis, and the choice of food is significant.

This is not simply switching one brand of cat food for another, as the ingredients are often extremely similar. Your vet will advise you on the most appropriate diet to use – this might be a home-prepared diet, or your vet may propose a special ‘hypoallergenic’ diet for the trial period. Numerous cats also hunt or may be fed by neighbours, which can complicate the trial as it is significant that no other foods are eaten during the trial period.

Bacterial skin infections (pyoderma) and fungal (yeast) infections

Although bacterial skin disease in cats is unusual, it may happen and there are occasional cases of spectacular recovery following antibiotic treatment in pruritic cats.

This is unusual, but more work is needed in this area.

Dermatophytosis (infection with a dermatophyte fungal organism) is not generally pruritic, but skin infection with yeasts (Malassezia) can be a problem in some cats – this is often secondary to allergic skin disease, but the yeasts may also contribute to the pruritus.

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Studies own shown that food allergies overall are the third most common type of feline allergy, outranked in frequency only by allergies to flea bites and inhaled substances.

Although itchy, irritating skin problems are the most common signs of this allergy, an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of affected cats also exhibit gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting and diarrhea.

The itching that typically signals the presence of a food allergy is caused by the eruption of little, pale, fluid-filled lumps on a cat’s skin, which form in response to the presence of an allergen, a substance to which the animal’s system is abnormally sensitive.

“The itching eruptions primarily affect the head and neck area,” says Carolyn McDaniel, VMD, a lecturer in clinical sciences at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“They’re not always in that area, but often enough to serve as a clue that the source is a food allergy.”

In themselves, the aggravating lesions do not pose a significant health hazard. But the incessant scratching that they immediate may cause secondary skin wounds and a resulting vulnerability to severe bacterial infection. In addition, gastrointestinal problems stemming from a food allergy may own far-reaching systemic implications, including food avoidance that can result in health-compromising weight loss.

The most visible signs of a food allergy—the persistent scratching, the emergence of skin lesions, loss of hair, and a general deterioration of the coat—do not develop overnight. Instead, they tend to become evident and intensify over extended periods of time—months or even longer—as the animal’s immune system gradually mounts a defense against certain protein and carbohydrate molecules that are present in most standard cat foods. “We don’t know why this allergy develops,” says Dr. McDaniel. “A cat of any age can be affected, and it can happen in a cat that has been on the same diet for years.”

When the signs appear, a cat should get immediate veterinary care.

If a food allergy is indeed suspected, the specific allergen should be identified and removed from the animal’s diet.

After other potential causes of the skin eruptions, such as flea bites, are ruled out and a food allergy is identified as the probable cause of the clinical signs, the next challenge is to identify what precisely in the cat’s diet is responsible for the problem. This process will most effectively be carried out at home by the owner’s introduction of what is termed a “novel” diet, which is based on the fact that most feline food allergies are traceable to the protein or carbohydrate content of an affected animal’s normal fare.

The most commonly used protein sources in cat food include beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and eggs. Since protein is a fundamental component of living cells and is necessary for the proper functioning of an organism, the novel diet must contain protein—but it must be derived from a source to which an affected cat has not been previously exposed, such as venison or kangaroo meat. Since the same holds true for carbohydrates, the vegetables that are frequently used in cat foods—wheat, barley, and corn, for instance—would be excluded from the novel diet and replaced by, for example, potato.

If a cat consumes nothing but the novel diet and water for a period of at least eight to 10 weeks, it is likely that the allergic signs will gradually vanish. In that case, the owner can assume that the allergen was a component of the previous diet. And to identify the specific offending allergen, the owner subsequently reintroduces components of the cat’s original diet one by one and watches carefully for the reemergence of allergic symptoms. If the symptoms recur, they will probably do so within a week or two, in which case the owner will own confirmed at least one source of the allergy.

Through repeated systematic testing—and a lot of patience—it is possible for the owner to pinpoint every dietary ingredients to which a cat is allergic. Therapy, it follows, requires the permanent exclusion of these ingredients from the cat’s diet.

All cats benefit from regular grooming and it helps reduce hair-shedding in the home. For long-haired cats, it is essential and should be done daily, especially on the backs of the legs and the tummy, where matting often develops. Ideally, start from kittenhood and use a brush firm enough to penetrate the thick undercoat. Where an older cat is heavily matted, seek veterinary assist to remove the matted hair as sedation is sometimes needed – thereafter, be certain to groom daily.

My cat is 18 months ancient and often gets a sore patch on his hindleg that the vet says could be a food allergy – but he is always fed the same food

In normal circumstances, our immune system acts to protect us from attack by “foreign” substances, such as bacteria and viruses, thus preventing disease.

However, in allergic individuals, the immune system overreacts to essentially harmless substances, such as pollens, home dust or food proteins. Often, people wheeze or sneeze but cats tend to get an itchy skin, often noted by licking or over-grooming, which may produce a sore patch. Some of these cats own allergies to food. The only way to diagnose it is by “trial” feeding a low allergy diet, and seeing if the condition improves.

Some animals and people are born with the tendency to develop allergies, but do not generally show symptoms from birth. Allergies often do not emerge until six months of age or even later in life. This is because a endless period of contact with the allergen is needed.

So should I purchase another brand of food?

Unfortunately it is not so simple.

Most common brands of pet food – even numerous of those described as low allergy or hypoallergenic – contain multiple ingredients. What is needed is a simple diet, preferably of ingredients the cat has not had before, as you are aiming to avoid the food that produces the allergy – but there is no single diet that can be guaranteed effective in every cases. Your vet can recommend special commercial foods, or foods you can cook yourself. It is most significant that your pet is fed only this diet and water (no titbits or milk) for eight to 12 weeks, otherwise you will ruin the entire trial.

You may need to hold your cat indoors if he/she is a hunter or may be eating food from a neighbours.

The low allergy diet did not work – what about an allergy test?

Allergies can be caused by things other than flea bites or food. Home dust mites, pollens and moulds are also common causes. Some cats own multiple allergies – a condition known as atopy.

Allergy tests can be helpful, but do not always give the finish picture. They are not always needed to confirm diagnosis, as vets can do this by excluding other causes of itchiness and looking at the pattern of the itch.

Medication has to be stopped some time before testing and, in a severely itchy cat, this may not be practical.

Allergy testing is needed if you wish to attempt injections for desensitisation. These assist some cats, but own to be given lifelong thereafter.

Can anything be done to stop the itch?

For most allergic animals, a single course of tablets will not produce a cure. A lifelong treatment plan is required. Excellent quality flea control is essential, because itches can “add up”. A cat with an allergy to moulds will itch much more if there are also fleas present.

Several drugs may be used. Scratching and licking causes skin damage which leads to infection with bacteria or yeasts.

This in turn increases the itch. Treating infection often helps. Antihistamines work for some cats, but steroids or other immunosuppressants are necessary for others. There are concerns about side effects, and your vet will prescribe treatment to minimise these. Always follow your vet’s instructions.


What to do for cats with flea allergies