, Salem, MA

October 5, 2012

Vet Connection: A little bug can cause big problems for you and your pet

Vet Connection Dr. Elizabeth Bradt
The Salem News

---- — Yesterday a dying cat was presented to our hospital. She was about 10 years old, owned by a couple that had likely never taken her to the vet before. She was dehydrated and extremely pale, lying curled up on her side unresponsive and breathing very shallow breaths and her temperature was very low. The gentleman said to his wife, “Don’t worry, the vet will save her.” Unfortunately I could not. She had to be humanely euthanized. It was heartbreaking.

The saddest part about this cat’s death is that it was most likely preventable. This kitty was crawling with fleas. After she died fleas were jumping off of her like sailors off a sinking ship. They knew her lifeblood and their next meal was not flowing anymore. We had to perform an emergency flea cleanup to prevent the hospital from becoming infested.

Fleas infest and bite mammals to obtain a blood meal. They defecate “flea dirt” which looks like black coffee grounds all over the skin. Since one female flea lays 2,000 eggs and they hatch out in two weeks, you can have millions of fleas infesting a home by the end of the summer. The fleas living outside die in the frost that usually occurs in October, but indoors fleas live on. Fleas will usually parasitize your pets first. If the animal leaves the household they will then start biting humans. If you have flea bites you will notice little red itchy bumps usually around your legs and ankles but they could be anywhere on your body if fleas are in your bed.

Fleas may transmit a few diseases to people and animals. Fleas carry tapeworm larvae. If a pet chewing its fur ingests a flea it will get tapeworms. Fleas also transmit disease through biting. Bubonic plague, which is the bacteria Yersinia pestis, can be transmitted to pets and humans via flea a bite.

Cat scratch fever or Bartonella henselae is transmitted when a flea bites a cat. Some cats will have symptoms of inflammation at the back of their mouths or inflamed eyes and severe skin lesions. Many cats exhibit no symptoms but the bug can be found in their hearts, lymph nodes, kidneys and liver. Cats can in turn infect their owners via scratches, sometimes while exhibiting absolutely no sign of infection. People can develop severe skin lesions.

The best way to prevent these diseases is to keep your cat or dog parasite free. We no longer prevent or treat fleas with just baths and dips. Topical and oral medications are used to flight fleas these days. I do not advise choosing flea and tick preventive medicine from the pet store shelf or online store. There are some flea and tick topical products that are 30-year-old technology and are very ineffective. Other flea and tick products have the active ingredient fipronil but do not have the chemical that allows that flea preventative to be carried transdermally into the fat layer throughout the body. This makes them much less effective. There are products on the shelf that can cause cats and small dogs to have severe reactions and seizure. Consult your veterinarian about which flea and tick preventative she recommends. Your veterinarian will recommend the correct product based on your individual pet’s lifestyle.

Purchasing a quality flea product from your veterinarian is often less expensive per dose than the same products from the big box stores. The complimentary doses that come with the box and the large coupon savings offered only by your veterinarian make the pricing very competitive. You can also be sure that the product is from a legitimate manufacturer and not a knock off look-alike package with questionable ingredients from an unknown source.

If you already use flea preventative medicine it’s almost unimaginable that fleas could cause a cat to die. I have rarely seen that in my practice life and I hope to never see it again. Your veterinarian is dedicated to preventing disease from entering your household. That is why the veterinary hospital team discusses flea medication during your pet’s wellness appointment.


Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem ( She is a member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. Email your pet questions to Please title your email “Vet Connection.”