Why Is My Cat Licking So Much? The Flea Connection


Fleas are a very common problem for cats. According to the 2016 State of Pet Health Report by Banfield Pet Hospital, the prevalence of fleas in cats is almost twice as high as in dogs – with 10.9 cases per 100 cats compared to only 5.9 cases per 100 dogs. This highlights the need for greater education and prevention when it comes to feline flea infestations.

When cats have fleas, one of the most common behaviors is excessive licking and scratching. But why do cats lick themselves so much when they have fleas? In this article, we’ll explore the link between flea bites and excessive feline grooming, and provide tips for treating infestations and relieving your cat’s itchiness.

What Are Fleas?

Fleas are small, wingless, parasitic insects that feed on the blood of their hosts. There are over 2,000 known flea species, but the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) is the most common flea found on domestic cats. The flea lifecycle has four stages – egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Depending on environmental conditions, the lifecycle can range from a couple weeks to several months or even years.

Adult fleas are only 1-3 mm long, making them difficult to spot. They are flat-bodied, allowing them to move easily through fur and hair. Fleas use their sharp mouthparts to pierce the skin and feed on blood. Their saliva contains proteins that have an anticoagulant effect, allowing blood to flow freely. Flea bites are itchy and irritating for cats.

Fleas thrive in warm, humid environments. They can live in carpets, bedding, upholstery, pet beds, and anywhere pets spend time. Flea eggs fall off the host into these environments, developing into larvae and eventually mature fleas who jump onto a host to feed. This allows infestations to quickly grow out of control.

Good control of the home environment combined with flea prevention on pets is the best way to eliminate flea infestations. If fleas are present, they should be addressed quickly to prevent significant irritation, infections, and anemia in heavy infestations.

Why Do Cats Lick Themselves?

Cats are known for fastidious grooming habits. This self-grooming behavior serves several important purposes. As part of their normal routine, cats will lick their fur to distribute oils across their coat, remove dirt and debris, detangle, stimulate blood flow, and monitor their environment through scent glands on their skin [1]. Cats typically spend about 30-50% of their waking hours grooming and licking themselves [2].

Self-grooming helps cats maintain cleanliness, regulate body temperature, reduce stress, and bond with their humans and feline housemates. It is an important part of their behavior and overall health and wellbeing.

Flea Bites Lead to Excessive Licking

Flea bites are irritating and itchy for cats. The saliva of fleas contains antigens and compounds that provoke allergic reactions in cats, especially those with flea allergy dermatitis (source). When a flea bites a cat, it injects this saliva into the cat’s skin. The compounds trigger inflammation, redness, and intense itchiness at the bite sites.

The itchiness leads cats to lick, scratch, and bite themselves excessively. The licking behavior is a response to the discomfort, itchiness, and inflammation caused by the flea allergen compounds (source). Licking and biting at the irritated skin is an instinctive reaction for cats aiming to alleviate the itchiness. However, excessive licking only makes the irritation worse and can lead to hair loss, wounds, and skin infections.

Diagnosing Flea Allergy Dermatitis

The main symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis in cats are excessive licking and scratching. Cats with this condition are extremely itchy due to their sensitivity to flea bites. The excessive licking and scratching leads to skin reactions like redness, scabs, hair loss, and sometimes skin infections.

To confirm a diagnosis of flea allergy dermatitis, veterinarians may perform intradermal skin tests (similar to allergy tests in humans) or specialized blood tests (IgE tests) to identify antibodies against flea saliva. These tests can help definitively diagnose flea allergy dermatitis.

Veterinarians may also look for signs of flea infestation like flea dirt or flea eggs. Finding live fleas or flea evidence supports a diagnosis of flea allergy dermatitis. Overall, the combination of clinical symptoms and diagnostic testing helps vets confirm flea allergy dermatitis in cats.

Dangers of Excessive Licking

Excessive licking and over-grooming behaviors in cats can lead to some concerning health issues. One major problem is hair loss and skin damage. Cats have rough tongues, and constant licking can literally lick the fur right off the body, leading to bald patches usually on the belly, legs, back or tail. The excessive friction leads to irritation, redness, and wounds on the skin’s surface. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, these open wounds are prime targets for bacterial and fungal infections to take hold (source).

All this licking and scratching is also very uncomfortable for cats. The constant irritation can cause significant distress, pain, and behavioral issues. Cats may become obsessed with licking certain areas and can damage their skin extensively through this obsessive over-grooming. It’s a vicious cycle too – the more they lick and scratch, the more irritation and discomfort they feel, leading to even more compulsive licking. This constant skin irritation and damage can impact their quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to break the cycle of over-grooming.

Treating Flea Infestations

Getting rid of fleas requires treating both your cat and their environment. Topical and oral treatments can kill fleas and prevent reinfestation.

Topical flea treatments like Frontline Plus, Advantage II, and Cheristin are applied to your cat’s skin and spread over their body. They kill adult fleas and prevent eggs from hatching. Oral treatments like Capstar, Comfortis, and Bravecto are given as pills or chews. They enter your cat’s bloodstream and kill fleas quickly.

It’s important to treat any secondary skin infections caused by flea allergy dermatitis. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics, medicated shampoos, or anti-itch sprays to soothe skin irritation and prevent bacterial infections.

You’ll also need to treat your home environment. Vacuum carpets, furniture, and cat bedding regularly to remove eggs and larvae. Use flea sprays or powders on upholstery and carpets. Wash your cat’s bedding frequently in hot water. Thorough environmental flea control is essential for getting rid of an infestation.

With diligent treatment of your cat and home, you can eliminate fleas and prevent frustrating reinfestations. Consult your vet to develop a tailored flea control plan that protects your cat’s health.[1]

Providing Relief from Itching and Inflammation

There are several ways to help provide relief when your cat is excessively itching and licking due to flea allergy dermatitis:

Anti-itch shampoos and sprays containing oatmeal, aloe vera, or hydrocortisone can help soothe itchy skin. According to WebMD, “Anti-itch shampoos made specifically for pets can provide relief while moisturizing the skin.”1 These shampoos can provide temporary relief when used regularly.

Veterinarians may prescribe corticosteroids or antihistamines to reduce inflammation and itching. Corticosteroids like prednisolone help control the immune response while antihistamines like chlorpheniramine block histamine reactions.2 These medications provide relief from the symptoms while addressing the underlying allergies.

Preventing licking with e-collars or bitter anti-lick strips can allow skin to heal and reduce infection risk. As HolistaPet notes, “The use of an Elizabethan collar is one of the best ways to keep a cat from licking, scratching or chewing affected areas.”3 Limiting access to irritated skin can help break the itch-lick cycle.

Caring for Your Cat’s Skin

If your cat is suffering from flea allergy dermatitis, it’s important to take steps to care for their irritated skin. This can help soothe inflammation and prevent further skin damage from excessive licking and scratching.

Gentle bathing can help remove allergens, dirt, and dead skin cells. Use a sensitive skin cat shampoo and lukewarm water. Avoid bathing too often, as this can dry out the skin. Gently brushing your cat with a soft bristle brush stimulates blood circulation and removes loose hair and dander. Be extra gentle over any sore spots.

Applying a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free moisturizer after bathing can help replenish moisture and oils stripped away by bathing. Look for moisturizers containing colloidal oatmeal, aloe vera, vitamin E or plant oils like jojoba or coconut oil. Apply to clean, dry skin and massage gently.

Making sure your cat eats a nutritious diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can also help improve skin health from the inside out. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties. Consider an omega-3 rich cat food or fish oil supplements (consult your vet first).

When to See the Vet

If your cat is excessively licking or scratching due to a flea infestation, it’s important to take them to the vet. Excessive licking and scratching can lead to skin infections or other medical issues that require treatment.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals, “Although most topical insecticides kill adult fleas, many have limited effectiveness because they only work for a few hours after application.”

For this reason, your vet may prescribe oral or topical flea prevention medications that work for longer periods of time to fully clear the infestation.

Your vet can also check for skin infections that may have developed from all of the biting, licking, and scratching. They may prescribe antibiotics or medicated shampoos to treat any infections present on the skin.

It’s a good idea to follow up with your vet after treating a flea infestation. Your vet can examine your cat and determine if the treatment was effective or if additional medications are needed to get rid of all of the fleas.

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