The Cat Owner?s Guide to Parasites

Fleas, mosquitoes, mites, ticks, lice and sand flies are ectoparasites that can bug your cat.

By Craig D. Reid, Ph.D.

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The Cat Owner’s Guide to Parasites
Excessive scratching can be an indicator that ectoparasites are bugging your cat.
Mosquitoes, sand flies, ticks, lice, fleas and mites are the six ectoparasites known for bugging your cat. An ectoparasite is a parasite that lives on the exterior of its host.

Mosquitoes
Location: Nationwide
Mosquitoes feed on infected dogs and transmit heartworm to cats.

Sand Flies
Location: South Central United States
Sand flies feed on infected rodents and can cause an infection called leishmaniasis (albeit rare).

Mosquito and Sand Fly Solutions:
Beyond using insecticides where these pests accumulate (mosquitoes in standing water; sand flies in moist cracks), maintain a regimen of heartworm medications. Keep your cats away from dogs and rodents whenever possible.

Ticks
Location: Nationwide
There are four ticks in the United States that can attach to your cat if you allow your pet to roam in grassy areas or fields: American dog ticks (ADT), lone star ticks (LST), black-legged ticks (BLT) and spinose ear ticks (SET).

American dog ticks can cause paralysis if attached along a cat’s spinal column or to the skull base. They also can transmit the non-host-specific tick diseases ehrlichiosis and babesiosis. In 2007, a new fatal, ADT-borne disease was discovered in cats. As of this writing, there is still no cure or treatment for the disease, known as “bobcat fever.”

LSTs infect cats with bacteria that cause fever, lethargy, anorexia, joint pain, strained breathing, vomiting and diarrhea. Similar to all ticks, SETs cause anemia, pruritis and irritation.

Lice
Location: Worldwide
Distributed worldwide, chewing lice that feed on dry skin can be found in large numbers on older or diseased cats. Infestations usually go unnoticed, but heavy infestations can cause restlessness, nervousness, scratching, a ruffled coat and alopecia.
      
Fleas
Location: Worldwide
Wherever cats exist, the common cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) can be found. Other fleas that can attack your cat are the human flea (Pulex irritans), the poultry sticktight flea (Echidnophaga gallinacean), and a flea commonly found on wild animals (Pulex simulans).

Suspected of transmitting murine typhus and the plague to humans, fleas also can serve as an intermediary host for tapeworms. Scratching the itch caused by flea bites can lead to hair loss, inflammation, dermatitis and secondary skin infections.     

Mites
Location: Nationwide
Several mites also can irritate your cat. The nonburrowing hairclasping mite (aka “walking dandruff”) found in Hawaii and the Florida Keys can cause gastrointestinal problems, rectal irritation and hairballs (from excessive grooming).

Ear mange mites infect a cat’s ear canal to produce secondary infections around the head. Mites can cause notoedric mange, an infection that produces scabby, scaly skin. Highly prevalent Demodex mites also cause mange.

Distributed in the Florida Keys, notoedric mites cause “feline scabies,” which can lead to self-mutilation, weight loss, fever and sometimes death. The self-limiting infections (infections a cat’s immune system normally controls by itself) of Demodex mites cause inflammatory lesions around the eyes, face, head and neck, which can manifest into secondary bacterial infections, scaly skin and can produce a greasy ear discharge.

Flea, Ticks, Lice and Mite Solutions:
Treatments can include topically applied internal growth regulators like methoprene and pyriproxyfen, the orally administered insect development inhibitor lufenuron and the topical medicinal prescriptions imidacloprid, fipronil or selamectin. Because effective use of each compound depends on the life stage of the specific ectoparasite being targeted, it is essential to read labels carefully to ensure safe use.

Dr. Craig D. Reid earned a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana), with specialties in pest management, chemical ecology and medical entomology. Reid has been a freelance writer for 15 years covering science, health and animal topics in outlets such as Reuters, National Wildlife Magazine, FDA Consumer and CAT FANCY.

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Reader Comments

Laura    Alden, IA

4/18/2010 11:56:39 AM

Thanks for some info about lice--it is really really hard to find any info for cat external parasites other than ear mites and fleas. However, I wish there were some example products listed--I have no idea what those chemicals are if I need to look for them at a store!

Silvia    San Deigo, CA

3/18/2008 4:35:27 PM

It is great to see a well researched article on cat parasites written by someone with the legitimate credentials. Keep up the good work. It would be curious to know what the endoparasites of cats are in a similar way as this article.

Brie    Iowa City, IA

3/18/2008 8:03:56 AM

helpful, thanks!

Jennifer    Pittsburgh, PA

3/17/2008 3:14:56 PM

Very informative. I thought because my cat is inside she would be okay, but I'm going to get some advantage multi just to be on the safe side

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