My cat is losing hair and has a rash. Is it a flea allergy?

Dear Sinéad and Siouxsie:
My cat, Stan, is starting to lose some hair on his back, and the skin underneath is really red and bumpy and looks painful. I'm assuming it's fleas, but I only noticed this today. The missing hair definitely wasn't there last time I sat down and hung out with him. I know you are cat goddesses, so I am asking you: Is there anything else that could be the problem? I am getting him a flea collar, but should I give him a flea bath myself or take him to the vet?

Thanks,
Emily

Sinéad: The most common cause for red and bumpy skin in cats is an allergic reaction. The allergic reaction can be to fleas, or to household cleaning products, or even a new laundry detergent you used to wash Stan's bed.

Siouxsie: There can be other reasons for skin inflammation, too. Cats can get skin infections such as mange or ringworm (which is actually a fungus, not a worm at all). Also, skin eruptions can be a symptom of other, more complex physical problems, such as thyroid issues.

Sinéad: Some cats engage in compulsive grooming when they're anxious. Sometimes this results in loss of hair and skin irritation (if the grooming is too intense).

Siouxsie: Because skin rashes and eruptions can have a variety of origins, we strongly recommend that you take Stan to the veterinarian and get him checked out--just to make sure his skin problems are nothing more than a flea allergy.

Sinéad: If Stan does have fleas, your vet might give you some spot-on flea repellent to keep the fleas off him. These spot-on treatments--marketed under brand names such as Frontline and Advantage--are supposed to be quite effective.

Siouxsie: Your vet may want to give Stan a shot of cortisone or some sort of steroid to reduce the inflammation of his skin. We personally recommend against using cortisone creams or shots, and many vets are beginning to see that these steroids do more harm than good for cats.

Sinéad: To soothe inflamed skin, we prefer aloe gel. Get the unscented, 99 percent pure kind at your local health food store or drugstore, and rub it on the inflamed spots. Aloe is nontoxic to cats, and it contains ingredients that are soothing to the skin. As an extra added bonus, you can use it on sunburns or scalds from cooking, too.

Siouxsie: Flea collars are pretty much useless. They don't repel fleas, and they're dangerous because cats can get hung up on them and choke.

Sinéad: Also, the chemicals in the collar--and the plastic collar itself--can cause chafing and skin irritation.

Siouxsie: If you'd prefer not to use chemical flea treatments, your only other option is bathing your cat. Needless to say, this won't be much fun for you or Stan. But it is a good way to get rid of fleas. Put a rubber mat in the bottom of the sink so Stan has something to dig his claws into; he'll feel more secure that way.

Sinéad: Avena Botanicals of Rockport, Maine, makes an all-natural flea shampoo called Flea-B-Gone. It has pennyroyal and lots of other natural ingredients that slow down and repel fleas. Mama used it on Siouxsie and me when we got fleas.

Siouxsie: If you have other cats in your house, you should bathe and/or get flea treatments for them, too. If one cat has fleas, the odds are good that all of them do.

Sinéad: After you bathe Stan, comb through his fur with a very fine-toothed comb. This will help you spot and get rid of any fleas. The good thing is that they'll be moving slowly since they're half drowned.

Siouxsie: You can keep a jar of water with a film of oil or dish detergent on top. Take it with you whenever you sit down, and if you see a flea on Stan while he's sitting on your lap, pluck it off and drown it in the detergent-water.

Sinéad: You will also need to vacuum your whole house (even under the furniture and in corners) at least once a week for the next three weeks, and throw away the used bag, in an outdoor dumpster or trash can, immediately. Fleas live in all sorts of tiny crevices, in carpets, and all over the place, and vacuuming will help you get rid of the eggs and fleas.

Siouxsie: Mama says that sprinkling a mixture of common table salt and baking soda on the floors and carpets can help kill fleas. She did this when we got fleas, too. She sprinkled the stuff on the floor, let it sit for an hour, and then vacuumed it up.

Sinéad: The salt attracts the fleas, and the baking soda clogs the holes in their sides that they breathe through. And best of all, it's not toxic to pets or people!

Siouxsie: You should also wash all the bedding in your house, as well as all throw rugs, couch blankets, cat beds, pillow cases, and the like. Wash them in hot water to kill any flea eggs living in them.

Sinéad: It's a lot of work, but if you vacuum, bathe the cats, and wash your laundry, in three or four weeks, your flea problems should be gone. And you won't have had to poison your house to get rid of the fleas.

Siouxsie: If your cat gets fleas, you need to be extra vigilant about tapeworms, too. Our vet explained that tapeworm eggs are carried in fleas' stomachs, and when a cat eats a flea in the process of grooming, the tapeworm eggs go through the stomach and hatch in the cat's intestines.

Sinéad: You'll know your cat has tapeworms if you see little white things about the size of rice grains on your cat's excrement, or on his butt near his anus. It's a dead giveaway if the "rice grains" are moving. Eeewww! Disgusting!

Siouxsie: If your cat has tapeworms, the most effective treatment is a prescription de-wormer that you can get from your vet.

Sinéad: The worming pills you can get at pet stores aren't of the same quality as the prescription medicine, and we've never had any experience with herbal de-wormers, so we can't tell you for sure how well those work.

Siouxsie: But again, we really do recommend a trip to the vet, just to make sure that Stan's problem is a flea allergy and not ringworm (which is contagious to humans and other animals) or mange (which is contagious to other animals).

Sinéad: Good luck, Emily. And Stan, too! We know how yucky it is to have fleas.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.