When pet lovers gripe about fleas, they're usually complaining about the problems the parasites cause for them -- the annoyance of hearing pets scratch and chew, the expense of sprays, dips and vet bills.
But if they could look at fleas from a pet's point of view, chances are they'd tell a different story. That's because fleas are more than an annoyance to pets: They are a serious health risk.
Sacramento, Calif., veterinarian Laurel Collins has seen her share of flea-caused catastrophes. A 22-year veteran of the flea wars, Collins is a board-certified companion animal specialist, one of fewer than 300 in the country.
"In some cases, fleas can be life-threatening," she said. "We've seen a case or two a year where the animal was so anemic [from loss of blood] that had it not received a transfusion it would certainly have died."
Although fatal flea cases are not common, the misery caused by the nimble parasite can be seen at any veterinary practice. From Dr. Collins, here's a list of the worst problems:
* Skin problems. "An animal doesn't have to be allergic to flea bites to develop a skin problem like a 'hot spot,' " said Dr. Collins. "They just need to get bitten enough to start chewing on themselves, and that frequently prompts a secondary infection."
Dr. Collins says hot spots -- vets call them "acute moist dermatitis" -- are treated by clipping the hair away and cleaning the area with antiseptic soap or hydrogen peroxide. Depending on the severity of the problem,the vet may also prescribe antihistamines or antibiotics, administer cortisone or send the animal home in a cone-shaped "Elizabethan collar" to prevent it from chewing itself and keeping the inflammation going.
"It's like poison oak. Your mom tells you not to scratch but you can't help it and that makes it worse," said Dr. Collins. "The key is breaking the itch-and-scratch cycle."
A more serious problem is flea-bite dermatitis, where the animal is allergic to the protein in flea saliva, which is injected under the skin with every bite. With such pets, even a single flea can trigger massive skin eruptions guaranteed to drive an animal crazy.
"The only real treatment for flea-bite dermatitis is to keep the animal flea-free," said Dr. Collins. "Desensitizing is typically unrewarding and excruciatingly expensive, and so not really an option.
"Some pets can be kept on antihistamines. Others can stay on a low level of cortisone, but the side effects must be considered. That makes flea control the most important course of treatment."
* Tapeworms. Fleas are an intermediate host for tapeworms, pests that thrive in the small intestine when an animal swallows an infested flea or flea excrement. Pet owners typically notice flat, white active parasites or sesame-seedlike dried-up segments around the anal area or in stools.
"Tapeworms are mostly an aesthetic problem," said Dr. Collins. Using an over-the-counter wormer to treat the problem will not work, she said, since those products are generally designed for roundworms, not tapes.
"Those products may give the animal a belly ache, and may cause diarrhea containing some segments, but that's not getting rid of the problem," said Dr. Collins, who noted that tapeworm treatment must be prescribed by a veterinarian.
* Iron-deficiency anemia. "These animals, usually older cats or young kittens or puppies, are covered with clusters of fleas," said Dr. Collins. "The fleas have sucked so much blood that the animal has a shortage of red blood cells, and those that are left are not carrying oxygen efficiently because of the lack of iron in the body."
Dr. Collins says the animals are usually brought in because of weakness, lethargy or a lack of appetite. Their gums are often pale, almost white.
"With iron supplements and flea control, you'll see improvement in a couple of days, maybe a week," she said. "If the animal is at death's door, it'll probably need a blood transfusion and more time to recover."
* Feline infectious anemia. Similar symptoms to iron-deficiency anemia can be attributed to a flea-borne microscopic parasite that attaches itself to the red blood cells of cats.
"The parasite is more commonly transmitted through bite wounds," said Dr. Collins, "but it can also go from cat to cat via a flea." Treatment is with antibiotics, but there is no permanent cure.
"The goal is to get the cat healthy enough to tolerate the parasite," said Dr. Collins.
* Plague. Fortunately for our pets -- and for us -- dog and cat fleas are poor carriers of the bubonic plague. But those who take their pets camping or live in plague areas need to make sure their animals stay clear of rodents such as mice, rats, squirrels and chipmunks and the fleas they carry. That's because rodent fleas are the primary carrier of the disease that wiped out much of medieval Europe.
The plague is still claiming victims today, including cats (dogs are more resistant).
"In most cases what people notice is a cat not eating or drinking, one that feels hot," said Dr. Collins. "Lymph nodes around the cat's head and neck will be swollen or oozing and could be mistaken for a cat-bite abscess."
In some forms, the disease can be fatal, while other animals may respond to antibiotic treatment. Dr. Collins sais that in any case, prevention is the best defense. Keep pets and children away from wild animals -- advice that also serves to protect them against rabies.
It's amazing that something as small as a flea can cause so many big problems. Faced with such misery, it's clear the best thing a person can do for a pet is maintain a solid flea-control regimen.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278