Fleas are a nuisance. All pet owners, especially cat owners, know the annoyance they present. But fleas pose more of a risk than just an itchy pet.
“Fleas are not just a nuisance; they actually carry disease,” says Erin Lashnits, assistant professor of small animal internal medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.
Lashnits and his colleagues at North Carolina State University recently published research in the journal Parasites & Vectors, revealing exactly which pathogenic bacteria carry cat fleas. The aim of the study was to better understand which flea-borne pathogens are present in individual fleas and their implications for cats and humans.
Researchers explored these questions by collecting and examining fleas on free-ranging cats brought in for neutering or neutering in community Trap-Neuter-Release programs. The cats were then returned to their original location.
A 2021 award from the Companion Animal Fund grant program at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine supported the study.
Below, Lashnits discusses the findings and ways to protect yourself and your cat from flea-borne diseases.
UW SVM: This project is in collaboration with North Carolina State University. How did it start?
Eyelashes: The first author, Charlotte Manvell, is a doctoral student at North Carolina State. When I was a doctoral student there, she was an undergraduate. Together with Edward Breitschwerdt in his Intercellular Pathogens Research Laboratory at NC State, we designed this project to learn more about flea-borne bacterial pathogens. It is a very understudied type of vector-borne disease in the United States. Charlotte offered to examine the flea microbiome as part of her PhD, and I was able to continue that work with her as a new faculty member here at UW-Madison.
What was the idea behind examining the individual flea microbiome?
The idea was to test individual fleas and see not only what bacterial pathogens that cause disease were in the fleas, but also what other bacteria were in the flea. We know that the microbiomes of ticks and mosquitoes (the whole community of bacteria that live there) have a great influence on their ability to transmit or not transmit different diseases. Nobody looked at this for fleas. So we wanted to do this with individual chips. Because, as you can imagine, if you pour a bunch of fleas together in a vial and look at their bacteria, you don’t know what’s in a flea.
What types of pathogens have you found in fleas?
We found that three different bacterial genera were common to all fleas: Bartonella, Rickettsia and Wolbachia. Many species of Bartonelle and Rickettsia cause disease in humans, but can also cause disease in cats.
What does this mean for cat owners and veterinarians?
My big takeaway is that fleas can carry pathogens and are not just a nuisance or something to be overlooked. Fortunately, there are effective and simple ways to prevent fleas. Flea products are effective and inexpensive. Flea prevention helps prevent flea infestation in the first place.
What is the next step in this research?
Our next step is to watch the cats. For this study, we only looked at fleas, but we are now also working with cats. We will compare the pathogens we find in fleas to those we find in free-range cats.
The big step is to add people to the mix. Because at the end of the day, of course, we want cats to be healthy. We don’t want them to catch these diseases. But in many ways, it matters to people. Because if people are exposed to flea diseases on loose cats, it has a big impact on human health.
We want to know the risk factors for people who get these infections from fleas. What can we do to break this cycle of transmission before people get infected and, ideally, before cats get infected? Would standard flea prevention methods break this transmission? Or is there something else? These are the questions we want to answer.
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