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Ask a Vet: How can I protect my treatment-sensitive cat from fleas?

April 26, 2010 |  6:34 pm

Have a non-emergency question about your pet's health? Dr. Heather Oxford of L.A. veterinary hospital California Animal Rehabilitation (CARE) is here to help! In this installment of Ask a Vet, Dr. Oxford offers some advice to reader Sarah K about breaking the vicious flea cycle.

Kitty Sarah's question: My cat is very susceptible to worms and fleas but has had bad reactions to topical flea treatments. We always treat the environment (home and lawn) as well as the cat, but she still gets fleas! I can't bring myself to lock her indoors all the time. What are some natural or less irritating ways to fight fleas for my cat?

Heather Oxford, DVM: Great question! It sounds as though your cat may have developed a tapeworm infestation or two due to fleas. The link between the two parasites is fascinating. The type of tapeworm that commonly affects dogs and cats is completely dependent on fleas for survival.

The tapeworm eggs are passed in animal feces and then ingested by flea larvae, where they transform into an immature larval form. Once the flea larva matures into the jumping pest we all know and hate, the tapeworm larva is developed inside the flea. If the dog or cat eats the flea while grooming, the infective tapeworm larva is released into the dog or cat's intestinal tract and matures to become a tapeworm. The adult tapeworms release eggs that are shed into the feces, and the cycle continues. Hence, if the fleas and flea larvae are not around in the environment, the cycle will be broken.

Any adult fleas you see on your pets make up only 5% of the total flea, egg and larvae population in the environment. Is your skin crawling yet? To take care of the environmental flea burden, you have to treat the environment and the individual pet. There are plenty of Insect Growth Inhibitors that are in liquid or spray formulation to treat interior carpets and upholsteries, as well as exteriors. This will break the flea life cycle and last for four to six months.

Most topical flea preventives for pets that are sold by veterinarians contain pesticides that kill 100% of fleas within 24 hours of exposure, designed for use every three to four weeks. They work by being absorbed into the oil glands of the skin which distributes the product all over the body without being absorbed into the systemic circulation. Most of these products also contain insect growth inhibitors that prevent larvae from developing from eggs.

If you have tried different types of topical flea preventives from your veterinarian and your pet has had repeated reactions, there are spray-on products that can be applied to your pet each time he or she enters a potentially flea-infested environment. They won't kill fleas that jump on the pet, but they contain aromatic ingredients that naturally repel the insects from jumping on your pet in the first place. These include a variety of sprays containing rosemary, lavender, cinnamon or lemongrass. These products are gaining popularity with pet owners and are now sold in most pet stores right beside the chemical flea products.

To submit your question for Dr. Oxford, just leave a comment on this post or send us a tweet @LATunleashed and look for her answer in an upcoming installment of Ask a Vet!

About our vet:Dr. Oxford received her bachelor of science degree at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. She also received a master's of public health degree in epidemiology from Emory University and went on to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She then went to the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine, where she received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree.  She practices at California Animal Rehabilitation and is also certified in veterinary rehabilitation and acupuncture. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Wade, and German shepherd, Tess.

Photo: Shannon Sano / Shannon Sano Photography

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