The Animal Doctor by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Itchy Cats: Don’t Give Anti-Flea Treatment First

DEAR DR. FOX: My cats have been scratching themselves continually for the last few weeks. I thought it was from fleas, so I purchased flea medication and applied it to their necks. It didn’t do anything for them. I bought flea and tick traps, but caught nothing.

I read your recent column about itchiness possibly being food-related, and I will try your recipe for a feeding alternative. They currently eat Fancy Feast canned, Meow Mix Tender Favorites, and Blue Buffalo Adult Salmon and Brown Rice.

I hope your recipe will help them. -- Diane S., Lake Worth Beach, Florida

DEAR D.S.: When two or more animals in the same household develop the same symptoms, you have a provisional diagnosis of a shared condition. The possibility of fleas should be determined using a flea comb: check the fur for flea poop, which looks like shiny black particles of coal dust. Put some of these particles on a wet piece of white paper, and if they make a reddish-brown stain, you have the answer: digested cat blood in the flea poop.

Too many people apply anti-flea pesticides to their cats and dogs as soon as they see them scratching. That can make the animals ill, or even kill them, and may not have been warranted in the first place. There are other reasons why animals start to scratch themselves and lick and groom excessively.

Any new floor and upholstery cleaners used in the household, or air fresheners/deodorizers, could trigger such behavior in your cats -- cats are highly chemical-sensitive. A new carpet can release irritating volatile chemicals; carpets have caused cats to begin to self-mutilate from excessive scratching and self-grooming.

You may be correct that both cats have a food allergy or intolerance. You need to be sure that the problem is not the fish or beef, especially, in the canned food you are feeding to them: Many cats are allergic to beef and do not like fish. Also, beware of the phrase “meat byproducts” on the label, as that can mean other animal protein from pigs and rendered remains of dead, diseased and dying animals were recycled into the cat food.

Try my home-prepared cat food diet or freeze-dried cat foods from The Honest Kitchen. Cats are generally finicky eaters, so it is important to transition them gradually onto a new diet.

I presume you are a responsible cat caregiver, and do not allow your cats to roam free outdoors, where they could pick up heaven-knows-what -- especially allergy-triggering pollens -- and suffer the consequences.

DEAR DR. FOX: Errors of fact abound in the letter from “R.Q., Tulsa” published in one of your recent columns.

Sadly, your reply was also riddled with counterfactual assertions. You missed a golden opportunity to reassure your readers with facts and give perspective on life with some common sense.

I recommend to you Hans Rosling’s book “Factfulness,” which documents, with government data, a steady improvement in the state of the world for the last 200 years. I also recommend Matt Ridley of The Rational Optimist, whose column “We’ve Just Had the Best Decade in Human History. Seriously” was just published on Dec. 21, 2019.

R.Q.’s despair about the “extinction crisis worldwide” is simply not in the real-world data. Estimates on the number of species worldwide range from 8 to 10 million, with thousands of new species discovered yearly. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has documented the extinction of about 560 species. Most of those actual extinctions were in the 16th through the 19th centuries, on islands newly visited by hungry sailors with dogs, carried by ships with rats.

This is not to say that overfishing is not a problem. It deserves attention and careful stewardship, but not despair.

Likewise with all the problems mentioned in R.Q.’s letter and your response: All of them deserve care and attention. None of them warrant panic and despair.

Rosling’s excellent book documents the phenomenal improvements in air quality over the last 200 years. I can testify to that myself. The pea-soup fogs (actually coal-smoke smog) of London, the foul air of the Kanawha Valley in West Virginia, the biting industrial atmosphere I knew in St. Louis in the 1960s -- all gone. The snow in Pittsburgh is white in winter, not black with cinders, as it was in the 1940s. Likewise, the nation has the cleanest water since the Industrial Revolution. Water-borne diseases such as typhus, cholera, etc. are horror stories from the past, not present threats. And to describe the minor policy tweaks of the present political administration to reduce the EPA’s overreach as “gutting the Environmental Protection Agency” is counterfactual hyperbole.

You close by advocating “principles of planetary and cultural CPR.” CPR is given to people in cardiac arrest who are about to die. The planet is not about to die. To perform CPR on a patient who is not in cardiac arrest is medical malpractice. To advocate “planetary CPR” on a beautiful world as healthy as ours is shameful panic-mongering. -- D.R.McI., Tulsa, Oklahoma

DEAR D.R.McI.: I had to shorten your communication for the column.

Unfortunately, my own knowledge base, drawn from reading the scientific literature in several areas -- from biophysics and biodiversity to evaluations of the release of pesticides, GMOs, industrial pollutants, plastics and, more recently, electropollution -- does not make me feel as good as you do about the rapidly deteriorating state of planet Earth.

To respond to two of your points:

The snow in Pittsburgh may be white now, but now -- as recently discovered as far away as the Arctic -- snow contains microplastics. As for the “pea-soup fogs of London,” which I experienced as a student: London and other cities now have lung-damaging microparticulate matter in the air and increasing intensities of electro-smog, which will intensify with 5G telecommunications, Amazon’s drone deliveries, self-driving “smart cars” and public surveillance systems.

I am neither a “rational optimist” nor a pessimist, but a realist -- yes, an apocalyptarian, if you wish! Nowhere in your deliberated communication, which I appreciate, did you mention the core issue of human overpopulation and, where there is more income, overconsumption. My often-used term “planetary and cultural CPR” refers to Conservation, Protection and Restoration: actions long overdue to save biological and cultural diversity in this beautiful world.

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. 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 website at