Flea Prevention for Outside Cats

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Mr. Mistofolees is a six year old black, domestic short hair. Her owners consider her just as magical as her namesake, a well known feline in the very popular musical, Cats. Although a phenomenal cat, Misty, as she is more commonly called, has never "produced seven kittens right out of a hat". However, a few weeks ago she did produce something that truly shocked her owners and initiated a visit to her veterinarian.

Almost every evening, when Misty's family retires to the family room to enjoy watching some television, she selects a lap to curl up on. Ensconced on her throne, eyes closed, Misty keeps her rumbling purr just quiet enough to not interfere with the television audio.  Periodic strokes over her back or an occasional tickle behind her ear is all that Misty asks and she will gladly share her affections for the whole evening.  Recently, during one of these mutual enjoyment sessions between pet and owner, Mrs. O. noticed something she had never seen before. Attached to the hair of Misty's tail, near its base where it attaches to the body, were two small particles of material. Each looked about the size of a grain of rice or a sesame seed and they were a white/beige colour. Mrs. O. collected them and took them along to be identified the next day when she visited the animal hospital.

During the visit with the veterinarian, Mrs. O. learned that actually the whole story had begun last summer. You see, Misty loves to enjoy a bit of the great outdoors during the warm weather months. She never leaves her own backyard. In fact, she usually just stretches out on the patio, listens to the birds nearby, watches the squirrels above her in the tree tops and undoubtedly dreams in the warm sunshine. There are no stray cats to cause her any distress and though Mr. and Mrs. O. are aware that outside time does pose some dangers for a pet cat, they just cannot bring themselves to deny Misty this small pleasure.

Last October, almost at the end of backyard visit season, it was discovered Misty had indeed fallen prey to one of these hazards. Misty had picked up some fleas and required some medication prescribed by her veterinarian to solve that problem. Well, that was problem enough, but, now the other shoe had dropped.

Cats are very fastidious about their appearance and usually are constantly grooming themselves with that fabulous grooming device called a tongue. Among other features for good coat care, the tongue has some very sharp little barbs on its top surface. Those barbs are very efficient at removing irritants in the cat's hair or on the skin. Fleas certainly fall into that classification of things. Veterinarians know that even when you are quite sure your feline patient has fleas, it may be difficult to find an adult flea because the cat is so adept at removing them in their grooming. Most often, removed by their tongue, the cat then swallows the flea. Unfortunately, there will be more and it's unlikely to solve the flea problem and just as occurred with Misty, ingesting the adult flea can also lead to another problem. Misty now was infected with Dipylidium canis, probably the most common kind of tapeworm in our area. When the tapeworm reaches adulthood in the intestine of a dog or cat, egg-containing segments from the worm begin to exit through the pet's anus. It is usually these segments being noticed by an owner that leads to a diagnosis of tapeworm infection in their pet.

Now Misty was successfully treated to eliminate her tapeworm infection.  But, here is the lesson to be learned from her story. Any cat that spends even a small bit of time outside should be protected against flea infection with a preventive medication. Spring is the time to start this protection. Dog owners are now familiar with getting started at this time of year with heartworm medication for their pet. Most owners now choose medication that protects their dog against both heartworm and fleas. Cat owners need to remember that although heartworm disease is much less a danger for them, outside cats also should be sure that in the spring they start their flea protection.

There are many options for preventive treatment. There are medications that can be given once month as drops applied to their skin, an injection that offers six months of flea control or another medicine that can be given once a month in the food. Ask your veterinarian about flea protection for your cat.