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Dr. Michael Fox, Published May 03 2013

Pet care: Flea allergy or thyroid disorder?

Dear Dr. Fox: I adopted two sweet sister cats nine years ago – Chase and Chochi. They’ve not had any major health issues until recently. They are indoor cats, although they are allowed to go out on our deck with us.

More than a year ago, I noticed Chase had lost some fur on her lower abdomen. Shortly after, we embarked on a home renovation that was loud, dusty and forced us to leave our Maryland home for several months and move into a vacation home in West Virginia. In West Virginia, I found a vet who said Chase was overgrooming due to a flea saliva allergy. She recommended Comfortis. She also noticed Chochi was overgrooming the same area, so both cats began the drug. Neither cat improved, so we went back to the vet, who found Chase, in particular, had redness and a possible staph overgrowth. Blood work on Chase was normal. Both cats received antibiotic injections, two doses one week apart. Chochi improved, but Chase began removing more fur. She received a shot of steroids and two laser treatments. The vet also recommended resuming the Comfortis, and the redness went away.

We moved back to Maryland, and Chase continued to overgroom. She now has bare-looking thighs, abdomen and upper chest. I took her to a vet two weeks ago, and this vet observed that Chase had no noticeable irritation and diagnosed her as having “psychogenic alopecia.” She recommended continuing the flea treatment and starting with a homeopathic remedy. It seems to have had no effect. The next recommendation was Prozac.

Help! Since the cats are essentially indoor cats, I have wondered about the accuracy of the flea allergy diagnosis and treatment. I have never seen a flea, although at the start of the treatment ordeal, the vet did observe some possible flea casings in Chase’s fur. The deck in West Virginia occasionally gets mouse and squirrel visits; the Maryland deck has only birds.

Both cats threw up shortly after the Comfortis after the last two injections. In looking at other options, I was recommended Frontline or Revolution. Both vets felt the symptoms were inconsistent with ringworm. – P.H., Silver Spring, Md.

Dear P.H.: Fleas leave telltale feces, not “casings” in animals’ fur. Since you make no mention of your cats being tested for hyperthyroidism – meaning it was not considered by the veterinarians – I would seek a third opinion.

Considering your cats’ ages and symptoms, hyperthyroidism is the first possible cause to consider and rule out before considering a specific allergy. Excessive grooming in our formally feral cat was quickly resolved when salmon was removed from his diet.

Let me know if thyroid disease is the problem, and inform the veterinarians, who should have considered this possibility from the start.

Dear Dr. Fox: One of my dogs had chronically loose stools. I have made one simple change that has completely resolved the issue.

We adopted the dog as a 1-year-old and have had him for three years. He is a labradoodle and is lean and otherwise healthy. I feed all three of my dogs a mixture of wet and dry Wellness food and some fish oil. For the labradoodle, I tried all sorts of added ingredients, including sweet potato, psyllium flakes and yogurt. Each one helped at first, but the benefit did not last. The owner of his littermate said his dog had the same issue, so I thought it must be part of this particular breeding line.

My dogs had free access to a large backyard where they could romp around at will, though most of the activity involved charging out to bark at a squirrel or a neighboring dog. They also got 30 minutes off-leash every day at a dog park. I thought things were going well.

We recently moved to a house in the hills with no yard at all. This requires me to give the dogs regular scheduled walks on a variety of routes around the neighborhood. It’s not even for very long, sometimes just a brisk 20 minutes twice a day if that’s all I can fit in. And every few days we have a two-hour off-leash hike where they can go full speed up and down the trails. That is the only change. With this routine, the labradoodle’s stools are now healthy, and the other male dog has stopped marking inside – though that may be due to less stimulation from other dogs walking past the house.

I just want to reinforce to your readers the importance of brisk and perhaps routinely scheduled walks. – G.W., Topanga, Calif.

Dear G.W.: Brisk, routinely scheduled walks and off-leash romps in safe and dog-sanctioned open space are all part of holistic canine health care. Experienced veterinarians always determine such lifestyle factors in making a diagnosis and in recommending appropriate treatment for a variety of health problems.

A strict activity routine before meals helps prime the dog’s appetite and digestive system before coming home and anticipating food. This mimics the dog’s natural hunting/gathering/scavenging behavior – physical activity to various degrees of strenuousness before eating two or three small meals daily. One big meal can mean bloating, vomiting, indigestion and loose stools.

Send your questions to Dr. Fox in care of The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns. Visit Dr. Fox’s Web site at www.twobitdog.com/DrFox.