No, this is no advertisement for Advantage and its familiars. This is the truth and consequences of fleas on pets—even indoor pets, as this case will prove.

Dingleberry (so named for his long fur’s talent for capturing stray fecal balls in the litterbox) was a beautiful black Persian cat we’d occasionally undertake to anesthetically groom (he wouldn’t have it any other way and his fur required more attention than he would deign to permit). But when I saw Dingleberry for the first time this year I was appalled at his condition.

“What happened to him?” I asked (perhaps indelicately), believing his owner might have a better clue as to his state than I would.

“I don’t know,” she explained, “A few days ago he just stopped acting like himself and now he only picks at his food.”

(A few days…?)

Dingleberry had lost almost 30% of his body weight. His fur, once puff-ball black, had faded to a brittle copper in odd patches. What’s more, he had that depressed, hang-dog look about him (if any cat can be said to look so).

On closer inspection, his gums were pale, ashy and sticky, the skin of his scruff stuck straight up when tented (a sign of dehydration to match his dry mouth), and fleas riddled the surface of his skin once his fur was parted.

Now, Dingleberry’s mom is an ordinarily conscientious person with a bit of an anti-chemical streak about her—and I can’t really blame her for that. After all, I tend to pass on chemicals, too—whenever possible. This wasn’t one of these times. I popped little, emaciated Dingle a Capstar just before drawing just enough blood to run basic tests (I didn’t want to take even one drop more than I had to).

Dinglebery had been bled dry by the fleas—right under his mom’s nose. Of course she knew he had fleas—but she had no earthly idea how many (since he doesn’t allow his fur to be manipulated in any way). How she missed his dramatic deterioration before a few days ago is a whole other issue…

Before the day was out, Dingleberry had received a blood transfusion, fluids, antibiotics (he also had a urinary tract infection) and multiple, careful rounds of flea-picking. The Capstar had done its job but not quickly enough for me. I didn’t want even one flea to undo any of our work with its vampiric mouthparts.

Dingle may well need another transfusion. He’ll be with us at least a few more days. After that, he’ll be going home with some Advantage and a lifetime supply of iron-supplemented vitamins.

As I said before, I eschew chemicals whenever possible, but not at the expense of my patients’ lives. In Florida, even indoor pets like Dingleberry are at risk of flea infestation and life-threatening anemia—especially given that we consider our screened-in patios “indoors.”

Fleas are dastardly and wily and our pets’ natural defenses are no match for their collective bloodlust. And while few infestations are ever as severe as Dingle’s, years of untreated, low-level flea exposure can be chronically taxing. So consider this cautionary tale next time you turn up your nose at a preventative. Unless you can examine your pets thoroughly and ensure they’re truly flea-free, prevention is your best bet.