Fleas are not always apparent on cats in fact cats are notorious for 'hiding' that they have fleas. And guess what? Even indoor only cats can get them! If you see fleas on your cat, they often catch you by surprise: tiny, quick creatures that scurry through your cat's fur, feasting on its blood, and causing itching. Sometimes it is a mild itch. Other times, it causes severe hair loss and itching. However, if you've spotted fleas, keep calm: cat flea control is not only possible, it's relatively easy.
How Can I Tell If My Cat Has Fleas?
The most common flea that feeds off cats, dogs, and humans is the Ctenocephalides felis. If you observe your cat scratching and aren't sure if fleas are the cause, you can certainly try to use a flea comb on your cat and observe if tiny black dots are present. These black specks are commonly called "flea dirt," but in reality, it is the excrement the flea leaves.
If you do not see them, it does not mean that they are not there as fleas can be present in small numbers where the flea or flea dirt are simply not visualized. Fleas are very good at hiding on cats. In other cases, the trained eye of a veterinarian may be needed to find these tiny black dots (especially if your cat is multicolor or darker) that emerge on the comb. If you find the black specks, smash some with a damp paper towel, and the flea dirt will turn a rust color or red. The red color is residue from your cat's blood and a warning that cat flea control is necessary.
Common Feline Diseases Carried by Fleas
As if the itching and stinging weren't enough, fleas also transmit other conditions which can have a more deleterious effect on your cat's health.
- Anemia: Unchecked infestations of fleas can actually cause anemia from blood loss; this can sometimes be fatal, particularly in kittens. Pale gums are a red flag for anemia in kittens, and a sign that immediate veterinarian attention is needed.
- Tapeworms: Fleas also carry a parasite called tapeworm which are commonly found in cats that have been exposed to fleas.
- Haemobartonellosis (Mycoplasma Haemofelis): Fleas can also be vectors for a blood born parasite called Mycoplasma Haemofelis in cats. This bacterium can cause anemia, fever and severe illness. Haemobartonellosis is diagnosed by laboratory tests and treated with antibiotics, and in some severe cases, blood transfusions.
Fleas have multiple stages they go through to become adults.
- Eggs: Fleas lay their eggs on the host animal, where the entire cycle may take place. Other eggs fall off into the environment, including onto your carpeting, your pet's bedding, or your own bed.
- Larvae: The larvae "hatchlings" feed on the feces left by the adult, and continue to develop for anywhere from a week to 6 to 7 months. They are often in the environment.
- Pupae: Like the butterfly, the larvae will spin a cocoon for itself, where it continues to evolve into the adult flea. It can delay emerging from this state for up to a year.
- Adult: The emerging adult feeds on its host, mates, and continues the life cycle. Is it any wonder why cat flea control is so important?
Treating Your Cat
Your first job will be to eliminate as many fleas from your cat by combing and bathing. Once the bulk of the tiny nuisances are gone, you can prevent further flea infestations with the use of a vet recommended topical flea control product. It is important to remember to NEVER use a dog flea product on a cat as this can cause severe illness in cats.
Many cats will not tolerate baths, so do not force this step as it is not the most important. Bathing your cat with a gentle shampoo or Dawn soap can kill the live fleas on it. It is NOT necessary to use a "flea" shampoo or a "flea dip" for this purpose. Just a mild cat or baby shampoo will do the job handsomely. Remember, flea baths and shampoos alone are not enough to get rid of a flea problem.
Topical Flea Prevention Product as Recommended by Your Vet
There are several topical cat flea control products that work by affecting the nerve receptors of the flea. They are usually applied to the cat's skin at the back of the neck and are collected in the skin, from which the product is slowly released. Most topicals are labeled for a once-monthly application. In order to truly get rid of a flea problem, you need to have your cat on flea prevention for three to four months minimum- but it is the opinion of most vet's that year round prevention is important and warranted especially if your cat has had fleas once before. The concern for disease, and other flea-related problems, warrants year round prevention as well.
It's very important to avoid using products labeled for dogs on cats. Dogs and cats have different physiologies and are very different in size. If possible, avoid flea dips, sprays, powders, or collars. If you choose to use such products, do your homework and be absolutely sure that the ingredients used are safe for cats.
An example of some flea topical products are below. Remember, always pick one recommended by your veterinarian and make sure your cat is within the right weight range and that it is NOT the dog version of these products. Follow the directions for your age/size of the cat.
- Advantage: This uses imidacloprid as the active ingredient, and is generally regarded as safe for cats and kittens over six weeks of age. It does not kill ticks.
- Frontline: Said to kill both fleas and ticks, Frontline uses a synthetic ingredient called fipronil, which may cause temporary sensitivity in the area of application.
- Revolution: Its main ingredient is selamectin, which is said to kill not only fleas and some ticks, but also ear mites, as well as offering protection against heartworm. Revolution stays in the bloodstream, and should not be used on kittens under six weeks of age.
Assuring All Dogs and Cats in the House Are on Flea Prevention
If you have multiple dogs or cats in your home, it is important that they are all on prevention. If you have noted fleas on one cat or dog in your home, it is likely that all of the cats and dogs in your home have fleas. In order to truly get rid of fleas, each cat and dog needs to be on a reliable vet recommended flea prevention consistently and for consecutive months. Assuming that just one of your pets has it, and the other do not because you do not see them will lead to the non-treated cats and dogs continuously getting bit by fleas. Due to lifecycle and longevity of fleas, you will never be able to get rid of your flea problem in your home if you leave one of your cats and dogs unprotected or decide to just treat them for one or two months.
Removing Fleas and Their Eggs From Your Home
Next, you'll remove fleas and their eggs from your home. This should be an ongoing program while the adult flea treatment is killing the live fleas.
- Wash all bedding thoroughly. While the bedding is free of coverings, vacuum the mattress, particularly in the crevices, where eggs might hide.
- Vacuum carpeting daily and dispose of used vacuum bags.
- Steam-clean carpeting will kill any remaining eggs the vacuum might have missed.
- Most of the time, you do not need to do a flea or insect treatment in the home. Though if you do, we recommend hiring a professional and asking them to use cat friendly products. Flea treatments for the home are truly secondary to cleaning very well and keeping your pet's on reliable flea prevention consistently throughout the year.
If you follow this cat flea control program scrupulously, fleas will soon be a distant memory in your household, and your kitties will be eternally grateful to you for freeing them from unwanted fleas and the problems they bring.
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Nontoxic Ways to Protect Your Pet. Natural Resources Defense Council
Fleas: A Source Of Torment For Your Cat. Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine