Fleas are not always apparent on cats because these tiny, quick parasites can easily scurry out of sight into cats' dense fur. They bite cats' skin to feed on their blood, causing intense itching and swollen bumps. Heavy flea infestations—or severe allergic reactions in some cats—can lead to hair loss and open wounds. Worse yet, cat fleas can transmit diseases that are dangerous to cats and humans.
What Are Fleas?
Fleas are tiny parasitic insects that crawl and jump. They eat the blood of mammalian and avian (bird) hosts. There are about 2,500 species of fleas, one of which is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis.
Symptoms of Fleas in Cats
If you observe your cat scratching and aren't sure if fleas are the cause, you can use your fingers or a flea comb to look for scurrying fleas or tiny black specks in the cat's fur. The black specks are commonly called "flea dirt," which is flea excrement.
If you do not see fleas or flea excrement, it does not necessarily mean that your cat is flea-free. Fleas can be present in small enough numbers that they're hard to find but still cause your cat to itch. If a cat scratches incessantly, it may dig out patches of hair and skin.
In addition to the fleas themselves, a cat may suffer anemia from blood loss or contract a flea-borne illness that is even more serious, including hemotrophic mycoplasmosis (haemobartonellosis), toxoplasmosis, and murine typhus.
Causes of Fleas
Outdoor cats encounter fleas in the natural environment, and because they are natural hosts for these parasites, they collect them without even knowing it. Indoor cats can attract fleas from dogs that go outdoors (cat fleas happily infest dogs, too). Certain factors may increase the odds of a cat attracting fleas, including:
- Moist, wooded surroundings
- Long grass
- Indoor flea infestation (carpets, bedding)
- Neighboring flea problems (especially in apartment complexes)
Diagnosing Fleas in Cats
Fleas are easy to diagnose on sight. If a cat has a very low number of fleas, a persistent owner or veterinarian will still be able to track down traces of their existence (like flea "dirt") somewhere on the cat's body. Pay close attention to the base of the tail, where fleas tend to deposit excrement because cats have trouble reaching that area with their teeth or claws.
First, try to eliminate as many fleas as you can from your cat by combing and bathing (if your cat will tolerate bathing). Bathing is not a critical step, so don't force it if your cat refuses.
Once the bulk of the bugs is gone, consult your veterinarian to determine the best and safest flea control product for your cat. Oral and topical treatments are available. Never use a dog flea product on a cat as it may cause severe illness in cats.
As part of the flea treatment process, you must remove fleas and their eggs from your home. To do this effectively, you will need to:
- Wash all bedding thoroughly. While the bedding is free of coverings, vacuum the mattress, particularly in crevices where eggs can settle.
- Vacuum carpeting daily and dispose of used vacuum bags.
- Steam-clean carpeting to kill any remaining eggs.
- Most of the time, you do not need to do a chemical flea treatment in the home, but your vet can recommend the best products if you wish to use them.
Prognosis for Cats with Fleas
A heavy flea infestation can be a challenge to manage because complete eradication requires a multifaceted approach that includes treatment of all household pets and treatment of the home environment. Once the problem is in check, though, cats will generally recover well as their itchiness subsides, wounds heal, and hair regrows.
If a cat has suffered a longstanding or particularly severe case of fleas, then it may be anemic or carry a flea-borne disease that also requires treatment to achieve full recovery.
How to Prevent Fleas
Most flea preventatives are labeled for a once-monthly use. To truly get rid of a flea problem, you need to have your cat on flea prevention for three to four months, minimum. Most vets recommend year-round prevention if your cat has had fleas once before. The concern for diseases may warrant year-round prevention as well.
If you have multiple dogs or cats in your home, they must be all on prevention. Due to the life cycle 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 an insufficient time.
Are Fleas Contagious to Other Animals?
Fleas will happily leap from one animal to another, infesting all of the warm-blooded creatures in a household. While they aren't able to reside on humans as easily as furry pets, they will bite people and cause itching. Many flea-borne diseases can be transmitted from fleas to cats. dogs, humans, and other pets (like ferrets or birds) in a household as well.
Nontoxic Ways to Protect Your Pet. Natural Resources Defense Council.
Fleas: A Source Of Torment For Your Cat. Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine.