Help with cat that sheds ashy particles
January 8, 2008 1:45 PM   Subscribe

My cat is shedding fine dark particles that look like ash...

Our cat is seven years old and is suddenly shedding fine dark particles of some substance I can't identify. There's tons of it. Don't know where it's coming from--she's an indoor cat. We have one large planter with a single plant, and she sniffs the leaves, but I don't think she's actually jumping up into the soil. This stuff doesn't really look like soil. It's both gritty and flaky and dark gray or black. It's on the sofa and in our bedsheets and whereever she parks herself that day.

We've noticed she's cleaning herself obsessively, and I wonder if it's bothering her too. She doesn't seem to be scratching, so I don't think its fleas. I thought it might be from her litter box, but we change it out and use different kinds. Anyway, it's not coming from her paws--it's mostly on her back, and comes off when I brush her. It looks like ash, but we don't have a fireplace.

My husband's suggestion was that the heaters where we are, which are square vents stuck in the wall in four places, might be the culprit. Our condo is a converted apartment, and the contractors did some cosmetic work but didn't take care of underlying problems we've had since moving in--electrical, plumbing, etc.

I would appreciate any thoughts if you have them. If this continues, we'll take her to the vet.
posted by frosty_hut to Pets & Animals (22 answers total)
Sounds like flea dust.
posted by occhiblu at 1:49 PM on January 8, 2008

It really sounds like flea 'dirt' (dirt being a gentle euphemism). Gather a little on a wet paper towel and see if they stain the paper towel red. If so, you've got fleas. A treatment of Frontline or your choice will take care of it. (Unfortunately, being indoors doesn't always keep the fleas away. Someone else in the complex might have fleas which have traveled to your cat.)
posted by wg at 1:50 PM on January 8, 2008

(And when my cat had fleas, she didn't really scratch, either, just groomed herself a lot.)
posted by occhiblu at 1:51 PM on January 8, 2008

It's probably flea dirt, which is actually flea output and is made mostly out of blood. You can pick up a flea comb just about anywhere pet products are sold. The comb will scoop up the dirt and any fleas hanging around. You want a small bowl or cup of water with one drop of liquid soap (to break the surface tension, not to foam up - fleas can walk on foam), after each pass bring the comb quickly to the cup or bowl and tap or use your fingers to remove any debris/fur/lifeforms from the comb and drop it in the water, where fleas will drown. (Keep the comb dry.)

Pick up some flea preventative from the vet as soon as you can.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:54 PM on January 8, 2008

Ditto fleas, and they can be hard to see. Look on her tummy, or chin area for them, Hard to see them sometimes. It's easy enough to get rid of, and they can show up on strictly inside kitties.
posted by mightshould at 1:58 PM on January 8, 2008

Yep, as a 30-year cat owner -- it's flea shit.
posted by zenpop at 2:02 PM on January 8, 2008

When flea eggs hatch, it's what the larvae eat.
posted by jamjam at 2:09 PM on January 8, 2008

Assume fleas. Flea medication can be ordered cheaply off the internet. Visiting the vet is expensive. You want to buy two kinds: Capstar, which can be taken daily until the active flea infestation has been eradicated, and Frontline, which is administered monthly as a preventative. You can use the flea comb (as described) until you have determined that the infestation is gone. You must also thoroughly vacuum all carpets and furniture used by kitty. For optimal results, you can sprinkle borax on the surface and leave it for some time before vacuuming.
posted by crazycanuck at 2:11 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sounds like fleas. Not all cats react to fleas by scratching. Indoor cats can get fleas, too. Fleas can hitch a ride into the house on you or they can show up because of other critters (mice).

Get some frontline plus from the vet.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:16 PM on January 8, 2008

Running a comb down the cats back to pull out the gritty dark grey or black dirt is how the vet actually diagnoses fleas. So you've got a pretty conclusive case there.
posted by shelleycat at 2:23 PM on January 8, 2008

My dog had a bad tick infestation once. What I thought was orange dust was actually hundreds and hundreds of little ticks walking on our white carpet.

Ditto fleas.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:30 PM on January 8, 2008

If it is fleas, please don't buy spot treatment at any department store. I did and it almost killed my cat. I used Advantage after (you can buy online) and she was flea free in under a day.
posted by heavenstobetsy at 2:42 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Fun parlor trick -- put some flea dirt on a paper towel and run water over it -- it will turn red.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:04 PM on January 8, 2008

If you have air-blown heat, you should check the air filters in the furnace. They can fill up fast and should be checked frequently anyway.

Otherwise, what they said.
posted by Riverine at 3:09 PM on January 8, 2008

^what heavenstobetsy said. Hartz/cheap supermarket flea stuff is bad news (because it's sometimes overly toxic). You can buy Advantage and the like from vets and some good pet stores if you want to have it immediately.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:12 PM on January 8, 2008

well, i was gonna say fleas, but everyone else has.

i'd also suggest checking the filters in your ac/heating unit because sometimes they break up and the particles go flying everywereh.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:29 PM on January 8, 2008

I'm seconding heavenstobetsy and Riverine on the Advantage. It kills a lot more in the way of nasties than most others (including mites, some worms, ticks and so on), you don't need to go to a vet to get it and - bonus - because it breaks the breeding cycle of fleas, you can wipe out an entire infestation. We had a flea plague in the house this time last year - the heat and humidity sent them crazy. I applied Advantage to the cat and the fleas were coming off her face within 20 minutes or so. We have not seen another flea since. It's also relatively easy to apply and - unlike bathing - won't leave you shredded by your psycho kitty.
posted by ninazer0 at 4:50 PM on January 8, 2008

I nth fleas. The water test mentioned above is a good way to determine if this is the case. If it is fleas, you are likely to see no sign of them on her, as cats are well known for grooming adult fleas off and eating them, which is, by the way, an excellent way to get tapeworms. So keep an eye out for shed tapeworm segments around the cat's rear and in fresh stool (they will look like wriggly rice). You can pick up some topical flea treatment from the vet, probably either Frontline, Advantage, or Revolution brand--and I would avoid the grocery store brands, as they are ineffective and in fact, dangerous. The vet might also offer you a Capstar pill to feed her, which will kill all the fleas currently on her. Look into sprays for getting her bedding, as well.
posted by internet!Hannah at 5:58 PM on January 8, 2008

Yeah - all of the between-the-shoulder-blades DMSO-solvent anti-flea treatments are pretty amazing. They're way better than anything that was available before.

And even if you've got a significant flea infestation in the house, fleaproofing your animal(s) with the Advantage-type stuff will mean all of the other fleas will die off in due course, without any need for obsessive vacuuming unless you really really hate ever being bitten by a flea yourself.

Cat fleas (which are also commonly found on dogs) certainly can bite humans, but they can't live on us. If all they have to feed on is humans, they'll soon all be dead.
posted by dansdata at 6:02 PM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: Oh jayzus. I had no idea what that red stuff was...It's all coming together now! (blech)

Thank you all so much for this great info :)
posted by frosty_hut at 6:20 PM on January 8, 2008

nthing the fleas, and the Advantage treatment. One tip for application of said treatment though. All of my cats really dislike something wet on the back of their neck/shoulder blades. And all of them have figured out what the little *snap* sound of opening one of the phials means, so they run like hell. Grab the kitty who needs application first, and set them firmly on the ground in front of you in a manner that prevents their escape BEFORE opening the phial or you'll be chasing the cat around the house. Note that this advice only applies to the 2nd and subsequent treatments, the first time they'll have no idea and won't care.

And don't worry. Get the correct dosage based on weight and it works like a charm, with no adverse effects to the cats. Marvelous stuff.
posted by barc0001 at 2:47 AM on January 9, 2008

This is happening to my indoor cat too, but we've only found the black flakes on the lower part of his back. This is a place where, due to his larger size, he can't reach to clean. Along with the black fleks we also find white fleks which look like dandruff or dried skin.

I will check with the water for the red marks. But could it also be residue cause by not cleaning an area properly? Also we haven't found the black fleks on our other three cats.
posted by ndaguiar at 2:21 AM on January 11, 2008

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