Conquer Fleas and Ticks Forever!

These pesky varmints can wreak havoc on your cat and in your home.

Posted: Tue Feb 20 00:00:00 PST 2001

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By Kathy Swanwick

Walking across her carpeted bedroom floor, Cheryl Cain watched in disgust as a tiny black flea hopped onto her white sock. The sight confirmed what Cain feared: her cat, dogs and Sacramento, Calif., house were infested with fleas.

Feeling confident she curbed the problem by treating the house twice with flea-fighting foggers, Cain ran a flea comb through the fur of her cat Nickel. Each swipe filled the tiny teeth of the comb. The final tally: 123 fleas.

Courtesy of Merial

"I was at my wit's end trying to battle fleas," she said.

Across the country in Wallkill, N.Y., Robert Jansen couldn't shake a mild fever. Within four days, his temperature escalated to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, his skin turned grayish and he needed to be hospitalized for dehydration. His diagnosis: Lyme disease, caused by a tick bite.

Disease-carrying fleas and ticks have menaced pets and people for centuries. Dating back as early as the mid-14th century, fleas were responsible for causing Black Death, a form of the bubonic plague, a disease transmitted to humans by rat-borne fleas. The plague killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe during the time of the Black Death, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

In the early 1900s, the plague was introduced into San Francisco when ships infested with plague-infected rats docked at the city's ports, said epidemiologist Kathy Orloski, DVM, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. As the rats left the ships, they spread the plague throughout the city's rat population. Eventually, the plague was transmitted to wild rodents and spread throughout the western United States.

Modern-day medicine and improved sanitary conditions have helped contain the plague, although epidemics still break out in less-developed countries and those with large rat populations, according to the Schaumberg, Ill.-based American Veterinary Medical Association. Even in the United States, five to 15 cases of plague are reported annually to the CDC, Orloski said. Most of these cases occur in the Southwest, the AVMA reports.

Flea Facts

- Fleas can jump 150 times their own length, vertically or horizontally.
- A flea's armored shell can withstand a cat's scratching and biting.
- Bristles and spines point backward on a flea's exterior, making it difficult to pull the flea from your cat's fur.
- Fleas, as carriers of plague and disease, have killed more people than all wars combined.

Source: The Best of The Old Farmer's Almanac (Random House, 1992)

Cat fleas are not particularly good carriers of plague, but cats can get the disease from a rat's fleas, or by ingesting an infected rodent, Dr. Orloski said. They can pass it to their owners or veterinary staff through respiratory contact. The good news is plague is rare and easily treated, she said.

In most households today, fleas and ticks may not lead to plague, but they are more than pesky nuisances. They can inflict serious, even fatal, diseases if left untreated. Flea-related diseases comprise more than 50 percent of dermatology cases to veterinarians, according to the AVMA. Lyme disease, caused by infected, blood-sucking deer ticks, is nearly epidemic in the Northeast, said Steven A. Levy, VMD, president of the American Veterinary Lyme Disease Society whose Durham, N.C. practice is devoted to treating tick diseases.

Fortunately, newer, safer and more effective treatments are giving owners and their pets added ammunition in the war against these intrusive invaders. Flea control, in particular, has developed into almost an exact science.

"Flea prevention has changed dramatically in the last five years, and for the better," said Candace Sousa, DVM, of the Animal Dermatology Clinic in Sacramento, Calif.

Fighting Fleas
Many of the new flea- and tick-fighting products on the market are very safe to use and are available in topical applications and sprays. In particular, products containing fipronil can kill both ticks and fleas.

In Cain's case, her cat, Nickel, and her dog, Max, qualified for inclusion in the final clinical test phase of a new flea and heartworm product made with an insecticide containing selamectin. After one topical application, the number of fleas on Nickel and Max diminished significantly. Within a few months, her pets were free from fleas. "They completely disappeared. I was amazed," Cain said.

How To Rid Your House Of Fleas

Flea eggs and larvae can survive year-round in your home, veterinarians said. Fight back with vigor. Try these flea-fleeing strategies:

- Vacuum floors, carpets and furniture daily, said Candace Sousa, DVM, of The Animal Dermatology Clinic in Sacramento, Calif. "A thorough vacuuming is the best way to get rid of fleas," Dr. Sousa said. Toss the bag in an outside garbage container immediately before the eggs hatch.
- Wash cat bedding, towels and blankets in hot water weekly to kill adult fleas.
- Barricade your cat from hard-to-clean areas or vacuum such areas often. Train your cats to sleep in easy-to-clean spots like cat beds on hard surfaces, advises Karen Logan, in her book, Clean House, Clean Planet. Clean Your House for Pennies a Day The Safe, Nontoxic Way (Pocket Books, 1997).
- Bathe your cat regularly.
- After each stroke of your flea comb, dip it in warm, soapy water and wipe it with a paper towel to dislodge dead fleas and eggs, Logan advised.

- Kathy Swanwick

Another flea control product contains lufenuron. It can be taken orally or by injection. A third new topical product contains imidacloprid, which works on fleas only. Insect growth regulators (IGRs) and artificial insect hormones are being used to prevent fleas from reproducing effectively, according to the AVMA. These flea-control programs break the flea's life cycle. They are also safer than many household insecticides, which often don't kill the flea pupae.

"IGRs are unique," said Kevin Corr, DVM, of the Orange County Veterinary Hospital in Goshen, N.Y. "They are not traditional chemicals. They're incredibly safe."

Most of the newer flea products are available by prescription or through veterinary hospitals. Ask your veterinarian about which products are best suited for your cat, its lifestyle and the weather conditions in your area.

These products can be costly. A single application of a prescription topical averages $9 per month. In multi-cat households, the cost can quickly escalate. But if you compare them to traditional methods, they are often less expensive and more effective in the long run.

If you choose an over-the-counter product, read the label carefully. Make sure it is labeled for use on cats. Products formulated solely for dogs should never be used on a cat, even in smaller doses. "You can kill a cat with a flea product designed strictly for dogs,'' warned Dr. Sousa.

Use caution with flea products containing pyrethrin , an insecticide made from chrysanthemums, and permethrin, the synthetic form of pyrethrin, said Robert Dammeyer, DVM, of the Olympic Veterinary Hospital, in Silverdale, Wash.

"They can be fairly toxic to cats,'' he said. Follow label instructions carefully and make sure the formula can be used on cats.

Remember any chemical, even in the newer, safer products can be dangerous if not used properly. Also, ask your veterinarian before using more than one product at the same time on or around your cat; the interaction of different chemicals might be dangerous.

Taking on Ticks
In some parts of the country ticks can be even more harmful to cats, dogs and people than fleas. The Northeast and parts of the Midwest are infested with deer ticks, which transmit Lyme disease to both animals and humans. Not all ticks are disease-carriers, but those that are can pose serious health risks, in addition to Lyme disease.

Cats may have less of a chance of contracting Lyme disease because their fastidious grooming

Diseases Cats Can Get From Fleas and Ticks

According to Candace Sousa, DVM, of The Animal Dermatology Clinic in Sacramento, Calif., and Kathy Orloski, DVM, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., cats may develop these diseases or painful conditions from fleas and ticks:

- Severe anemia: Kittens can die from being bitten by too many fleas, which drain their bodies of needed red blood cells.
- Tapeworms: Caused by a cat ingesting an infected flea while grooming.
- Allergic reactions: Some cats are allergic to flea saliva.
- Plague: In rare cases, it can occur. A cat can get the bacteria that causes the plague from a rat flea or by ingesting a dead infected animal. Symptoms include high fever and enlarged lymph nodes. Plague, more common in Western states, is highly treatable if caught early.
- Lyme disease: Ticks can pass on the bacterium that causes Lyme disease to cats, but studies have yet to prove that they develop the disease. The tick, however, can hop off the cat and infect a person.
- Tularemia: This rare disease, spread by the American dog tick in the East and by the wood tick in the West, causes high fevers, lethargy and enlarged lymph nodes. Cats and people can catch the disease from the bite of an infected tick.
- Paralysis: Ticks can paralyze cats, but the condition can be reversed. Tick paralysis is chemically induced and can only continue while the tick is embedded, according to the Somers, N.Y.-based American Lyme Disease Foundation Inc.
- Feline ehrlichiosis: An infected tick can cause fever, lethargy, weight loss and possibly an enlarged spleen in cats.

- Kathy Swanwick

habits help them dislodge ticks before they've had the chance to attach and spread the bacterium, Dr. Levy said. Studies have shown cats may have a degree of resistance to the disease, but that doesn't mean they can't get it, he said.

Cats infected with Lyme disease suffer from high fevers, lameness, swelling and lethargy. Antibiotics are effective treatments, Dr. Levy said.

Jansen, who never saw or felt the infected tick that bit him, bore the classic bull's eye ring around the site of the bite. Now, during the spring, summer and fall, when ticks are most active, he treats both his cat and dog with a fipronil-based product claiming to kill ticks within 24 to 48 hours. He also checks both animals carefully when they come in from outside, even though his cat spends most of its time indoors.

"There are a lot of deer in our yard. The cat could get them from the dog. The do g constantly has ticks,'' he said.

Once attached, it takes about 24 to 36 hours for an infected tick to transmit Lyme disease to its host, Dr. Corr said. It's important to get the tick off the animal or human quickly. Using a pointed set of tweezers, grasp the tick where the head is attached to the skin and steadily and gently pull it out. Ask your veterinarian to demonstrate the proper tick-removal procedure as you want to avoid leaving the head of the tick embedded.

"Lyme is endemic in this area [the Northeast] and ticks are horrendous. Time is of the essence when removing a tick,'' Dr. Corr said.

Jelane Dooley, one of Dr. Corr's clients, was picking ticks off her cats daily. "It was gross. The ticks really freaked me out, worrying that I'd get Lyme disease," she said. Since treating her cats with a fipronil-based topical, the tick problem has been substantially reduced.

Kathy Ruggiero, of Plattekill, N.Y., concurs. Three of her five cats spend most of the day outdoors in her wooded area. She constantly spotted tiny deer ticks on her cats' eyelids and gums. Since using a monthly fipronil-based flea and tick product, the number of fleas and ticks has dropped dramatically.

Even though advanced research has yielded more effective tick-fighting products, none can guarantee you will have a tick-free cat, Dr. Corr said. Nor can they guarantee a tick or two won't drop off in your house. "Around here, the deer come right into your yard. I can't tell anyone you'll never see a tick in your house. You do the best you can," he said.

What's the best way to prevent fleas and ticks from infesting your cat and your home? Keep your cats indoors to limit their exposure to these disease-carriers, veterinarians urge.

Unless they share a house with a dog, which might bring the pests inside, an indoor cat is safe from many parasites and other perils of the great outdoors.

"It's just healthier for a cat to be inside,'' Dr. Sousa said.

This article originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of Cat Fancy.

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