Feline External Parasites
A quick primer on feline external parasites.
Fleas: A small wingless insect about 1mm in length. Like a grasshopper, they
spring through the air to reach fresh victims. Once there, they live on the skin
amongst hair follicles. Their primary purpose in life is to suck blood and make
more fleas. These little vampires can be picked up outdoors or from other animals.
Typically they’re more of an irritant than a serious problem, however, a large
infestation can make a cat’s life rather unpleasant and even cause anemia if
enough blood is lost. They can transfer easily via nearby animals and
people. In a worst case scenario, they can also transmit tapeworm and
Fortunately for us desert dwellers, fleas are relatively uncommon among
felis domesticus and cannot live long on people. They’re more common in
feral colonies and kitties that have recently arrived from other regions. They’re
pretty easy to spot by spreading the fur away and examine the skin.
Ticks: These creatures burrow into the skin and can carry serious
infectious diseases! They can be physically removed with a device called a tick
twister. They should not be squeezed, lest they explode their infectious
payload into the wound. Like fleas, ticks aren’t too common in the desert.
They tend to thrive in environments where there are mice and deer. So if you have
a dog that you bring up North, it’s possible to bring some home where they’ll get
on the cat.
Ear Mites: Formally known as Otodectes Mites, this is the most common type of
mite found in cats and kittens and is moderately common in the deserts. They live
on wax and debris in the ear canal. They don’t burrow into the skin like ticks do,
but they itch like crazy and a cat might scratch their ear until they bleed
possibly instigating an infection. A black gunk in the ears is a sign of possible
ear mites, but some cats just have dirty ears so a swabbing and a quick
microscope exam is usually all it takes to properly diagnose the problem. They’re
pretty easy to eliminate with over the counter treatments available at most pet
stores or your vet has drops available.
Scabies: Aka Sarcoptes Mites, these tiny insects live in the surface layer of the
skin creating tunnels as they eat and laying eggs. A skin scraping can be taken
and examined under the microscope, but they’re highly mobile and may avoid
detection. Often the best approach is to start treatment. These mites are highly
contagious but not very common in cats.
Lice: Not that common in cats, there are biting lice and sucking lice. Given
enough of them it can be a problem, but they’re species-specific so a cat would
have to get them from another cat. If you have many cats or work in a rescue
group, it could happen but fortunately it’s pretty easy to treat with over-the-
counter meds or stuff available from your vet.
Ringworm: When this fungus is among us watch out! It’s rather contagious
via touch and through the air from cat to human to cat and is a hardy
survivor, but has nothing to do with worms as the name would imply. It’s a fungal
infection of the hair shafts and causes rings to form on the skin. It’s more common
in kittens and causes scaly bare spots of hair loss. It looks ugly but it’s not
fatal and most adult cats will eventually outgrow it.
Sometimes it can be detected using a Wood’s Lamp, which is an ultraviolet light of
a specific wavelength. The black-light over your Pink Floyd poster won’t work here
and even if it did only some variants of ringworm will fluoresce. A culture test is a
more reliable method of detection. As the signs are usually pretty obvious it’s
common to bypass the test and apply the cure, typically a shampoo and/or an
anti-fungal cream. Sometimes an oral medication is needed and it’s not
uncommon to dip batches of infected kittens in a lime sulfur solution.
Also note this pesky fungus is pretty hardy and spores can exist without a host for
many months. Keeping a clean environment is critical as spores can an
accumulate in air handler filters, rugs and fabric. We see it often in this region. If
you get it yourself don’t freak out, it’s no worse than athlete’s foot. It can be
treated with anti-fungal creams and you can always pass it off as a hickey!
Mosquitoes: These fly from mammal to mammal in search of fresh blood. They
can hit many hosts in a short time and tend to leave some fluid behind
which is what makes them both dangerous and an irritant. They can
transfer many diseases and this is how dogs (and occasionally cats) get
Detection, Prevention & Treatment: Even indoors-only kitties can get
unwanted guests. Check for anything unusual on the skin, hair or in the ears as
well as persistent scratching. When possible, prevention is the best
strategy! There are effective over-the-counter treatments easily applied to the
skin that repel and eliminate a range of pests including fleas, ticks and
mosquitoes. There are also prescription drops, pills and injections. Some problems
will require a specific medication. Don’t hesitate to consult with your vet, many
vets will discuss treatment options without needing an office call.
Article and photo by Ken Ranous