Itchy and scratchy


Pete Wedderburn

Name: Mary Hayes, from Bray, County Wicklow

Animal: Holly, her 10-year-old cat

Problem: Every autumn, Holly gets itchy skin

Mary lives at the edge of Bray town, with her garden bordering on fields and woodland. Holly loves exploring and she'll often vanish for hours, coming home tired in the evening.

This active outdoor lifestyle is good for her in most ways -- she is a fit, healthy cat with no hint of obesity that's common in less active pets. There's only one downside, and it only happens in the autumn: Holly comes into contact with Harvest mites.

These pests are present all over Ireland, with the parasites lurking in meadows and scrubby land, hiding in grass and other vegetation. They wait for passing warm-blooded animals, and then launch on them. After grabbing hold with their spidery legs, they crawl into a secure part of the animal's body, sticking themselves to the underside of dogs, cats and wild animals. They remain attached for several days, feeding on the skin of their host, before falling off back into the field to complete their life cycle. Not all pets are badly affected by harvest mites: it's only when an animal, like Holly, develops an allergy to them that a problem is seen.


Most other parasites, like fleas, occur all year round, with peaks and troughs during different months. Harvest mites are much more specific about their timing. They emerge in late August and September, and by early October, they vanish. When pets get itchy at this time of year, harvest mites are the prime suspect. As a vet, I know to check between the toes and on the underside of the body: the pin-point, orange mites are easy to spot.

Holly is a typical example of an animal that's allergic to the mites. The problem happens every September, and Mary has learned to spot the early signs. It's subtle enough at first: Holly starts grooming herself more often.


Like many cats, Holly is a creature of habit. When she comes home in the evening, she eats her dinner, then she grooms herself before settling down for a snooze on a chair. When she develops the problem, her behaviour changes. When she's finished grooming herself after dinner, she pauses, then she shakes herself, and she starts licking her body again. She then keeps on grooming for much of the evening.

The first year that this happened, Mary didn't do anything at first: she just wondered why Holly had become such an enthusiastic self-groomer. Holly went on to develop a skin rash, with scabs and sore, bald areas on her feet and her underside. She needed an intensive course of treatment.

Now, Mary brings Holly to the vet at the first sign of "over-grooming".

The problem is easy to nip in the bud if Holly is given early treatment, and the full-scale skin rash doesn't have a chance to develop.

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