Chris Kouwenhoven

Flea allergy dermatitis

According to the poets, in Springtime a "young man's fancy turns to love"; according to your dog, cat and family veterinarian, it's flea time on the old homestead. Yes, I know it's hard to believe, but for most of those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, those pesky critters are back again. Those of our subscribers living south of the Equator are looking forward to a " flea-free" break. And before I get a thousand e-mails about it, yes, I know, many of you must battle fleas all year-round. You have my sincere sympathy; what we will discuss today is doubly important for your pets.

In a previous newsletter we have discussed some of the many methods humans have utilized in the battle against fleas on our pets. In my professional lifetime we have gone through powders, dips, baths, sprays, many evolutions of flea/tick collars, and scores of non-chemical herbal and "natural" products. But fleas are still with us.

Fleas are a significant threat to the health of humans, our livestock, and our pets. In addition to the misery of scratching, they transmit a wide variety of diseases and allergies. Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD) is yet another misery fleas bring to us and our pets. FAD is the most common dermatologic disease in dogs in the United States and causes significant dermatitis in cats, too. Mammals develop a hypersensitivity to the flea's saliva which goes way beyond the normal irritation and scratching caused by the flea itself. When a flea feeds, it injects tiny amounts of saliva into the target animal. It is this flea saliva that causes the production of antibodies that, in turn cause the skin reactions. Interestingly, some dogs and cats continuously exposed to fleas, seem to develop a tolerance to these flea bites and show less sensitivity to the flea saliva. But those pets exposed to seasonal flea bites often show some signs of FAD every year.

Clinically in FAD we often seen certain areas of the dog more involved than others. The lower back, around the base of the tail, the back and inside of the thighs are the classical areas affected. In cats, the allergy is manifested by the formation of papules along the neck, back and face. The papules are not the result of the actual flea bite, but rather are a manifestation of the body's reaction to the allergens in the flea saliva. FAD is more commonly seen well into the flea season, after the hypersensitivity has developed and the flea population is at its peak. Because it is an allergy, it takes repeated exposure to develop the signs; therefore we generally do not see it in animals of less than a year of age.

Control of FAD is directed towards reducing the flea population, both on the animal and in the animal's environment. Bedding should be washed in hot water, carpets vacuumed and application of flea control products to the animal offer the best strategy in my experience. As I have stated in previous articles, application of those products that interfere with the life cycle of the flea are, in my opinion, the best approach. The goal here is to so reduce the flea population, on and around the animal, that the pet's hypersensitivity reaction does not manifest itself. Whatever means you choose to do that is your choice; but I suggest consulting your pet's veterinarian if FAD is a problem in your pet. Together you can bring relief for your pet in this continuing battle with the eternal flea. Your veterinarian should be consulted prior to using these products on your pet. While these products are safe for the vast majority of animals, there are a few medical conditions that preclude their use.

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