You know what they say about fleas – where there is one, there are a whole lot more you just haven't seen. Not only can fleas cause your cat to itch and scratch, but their bites can actually cause an allergic reaction in some cats.
What is Flea Allergy in Cats?
An allergic response happens when the cat’s immune system overreacts to a foreign substance, also known as an allergen. In the case of flea allergy, that foreign substance is the flea’s saliva. A cat without an allergy to fleas will only suffer from minor irritation to the skin with a fleabite, but one with a flea allergy might develop severe itching and inflammation – even respiratory problems or digestive issues, although less common.
What Happens When Your Cat Is Bitten by A Flea?
When a flea bites your cat, it injects some of its saliva into the skin as it feeds. If the cat is allergic, the bite will cause the area to swell up and become inflamed – it will also cause severe itching that can last for several days at a time. For a cat with flea allergies, a single flea can be a problem – it doesn’t take a whole infestation. In response to the itching and inflammation, the cat will usually lick, chew, or scratch the affected area. This, in turn, may lead to hair loss and can cause the bite to become an open sore that might lead to secondary bacterial infection.
Signs of Flea Allergies in Cats
Fleas can be found anywhere on a cat’s body, but are mostly present at the base of the tail or on the neck and head. If you notice signs of hair loss or extreme itching in either of these areas, it could be a sign of flea allergy. You might also find many small scabs, also known as miliary lesions, on the cat’s neck and around the head. In extreme cases, some cats develop respiratory problems like coughing, wheezing and sneezing in response to the allergy – they may also have nasal or ocular discharge. Some cats even develop digestive problems like vomiting or diarrhea.
Treating and Preventing Flea Allergies
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose flea allergies in cats because they are such thorough groomers – you may not be able to find evidence of fleas in your cat’s coat. However, your veterinarian will be able to perform skin (intradermal allergy tests) and blood tests (IgE tests) to help confirm the allergy.
The most important part of treatment for flea allergies in cats involves preventing flea bites – a topical flea preventive is the most common option for this. You should also take steps to avoid your cat being exposed to fleas by regularly vacuuming known hot spots (radiators, behind sofas etc) and using veterinary approved flea spray for the home. Please only use flea products recommended by your veterinarian.
Where flea allergy is causing severe discomfort to the cat, corticosteroids can be used to alleviate symptoms while the flea eradication steps are being taken. Your veterinarian will advise as to the best course of action here.
Desensitization steps can be taken with cats known to be allergic. Here flea saliva extract (flea antigen) is injected under the skin in tiny amounts over a period of time. The aim is to reset the cats immune response so that it responds more normally to future insults.
If you suspect your cat may be allergic to fleas, take him to your veterinarian for a checkup and make sure that he gets started on a topical flea and tick preventive treatment. Like the proverbial saying goes, “Prevention is better than cure”.
Content reviewed by a veterinarian.