Pet Talk: Flea allergy dermatitis

From College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University

All pet owners recognize the signs—the itching, the scratching, the biting, the licking. While fleas can be an annoyance for any pet, for some, they can trigger a much bigger problem.

Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common allergy for dogs and cats, and can cause itchy skin disease, along with hair loss, skin discoloration, red bumps and scabs.

“The flea bite, or saliva, is actually what causes the irritation, not the flea itself,” explains Dr. Adam Patterson, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “While not all animals bitten by fleas will be allergic, the ones that are hypersensitive can be affected by just a few bites.”

Some symptoms that your pet might have flea allergy dermatitis are that they will lick, chew, bite or scratch their hind quarters.

“For the most part, the symptoms will present on the rump, back of thighs and tail head,” says Patterson. “The animal doesn’t have to be bitten in these places, it’s just where you will notice the itch, bumps and hair loss, etc.”

If your pet is allergic to fleas and you haven’t already put them on a flea control regimen, you should contact your veterinarian and get them on one immediately.

Patterson says: “Many people are what I call in ‘flea-nile.’ They don’t want to believe that their pet has fleas because they don’t want to deal with it. It is, however, important to have your animals on flea control and keep them on year-round flea control, especially if they are allergic. There are a plethora of safe flea control options, both topical and oral, that can be discussed with your veterinarian. Some products also protect against ticks.”

Patterson does note that there is no such thing as flea repellent and nothing kills fleas instantaneously. Flea control products only kill adult fleas that come in contact with the pet, so if you don’t keep your pet on the medication, you have not solved the problem.

Patterson notes: “Only 5 percent of fleas you see at any given time are the adult fleas on your pet. Ninety-five percent of the flea burden is the unseen eggs, larvae and cocoons that are in your carpet, upholstery, outside environment, etc. It can take two weeks to six months for all of these eggs to hatch, so if you don’t keep all of the fur-bearing animals in your home on flea control, you are giving them an opportunity to come right back.”

If you are only seeing a few fleas on your pets, it is fine to just treat the animals in your house with flea control products. But if there is an infestation, then you will possibly have to treat your house and your yard as well.

Patterson suggests: “Again, there are many products to treat your house and yard with, but this should be something you discuss with your veterinarian. Some products may be harmful to some animals in your household, so they will recommend the best ones for you.”

While symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis such as itchy red bumps and scabs can be bothersome to pets, other problems can also arise from flea and tick bites.

“Some pets, especially small puppies and kittens, can actually suffer from anemia if a lot of fleas are sucking their blood,” explains Patterson. “They can also lead to tapeworms and transmit several blood-born diseases to your pets.”

Because of the scratching and biting associated with flea bites, pets might develop bacterial skin infections as a result, and may require antibiotics.

“As with anything, if you notice any signs of skin disease, infection, lethargy, or loss of appetite in your pet, you should always take them to the veterinarian,” advises Patterson. “The good news with fleas and ticks is that there are very good preventatives you can use. If you are consistent and vigilant, you shouldn’t have to worry about complications from these pests.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

From the Jan. 13-19, 2010 issue.

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