Ugh, fleas. Just the mere mention of them is enough to send some cat owners into a frenzy. These small, flat-bodied insects are no bigger than a pinhead, but sometimes it feels as though they've conquered the world. They're found just about everywhere, are tough to kill and can leap many times their body length.
Fleas can live off the blood of just about any warm-blooded animal, but they prefer the higher body temperature of dogs and cats over humans. (If your cat has fleas, you've probably been the unfortunate recipient of a few bites yourself, though.) They reproduce quickly, and their eggs can survive in the environment for long periods of time -- long enough to hatch out and hop onto the next host that happens by.
A cat with fleas may scratch a lot, but not always. If your cat has fleas, you'll probably see small, black, comma-shaped droppings on his coat (known as "flea dirt") if you don't see actual fleas. Both may be noticeable when the cat is being brushed -- another good reason for regular grooming. To check a cat for flea dirt, stand him on a white or light-colored surface and ruffle his fur vigorously. If you see black specks, moisten a cotton ball and smear them. If you see dark brown smears -- dried blood -- you definitely have a flea infestation on your hands.
Fleas are mostly a nuisance, although some cats are allergic to their saliva and may get an itchy rash or skin infection. If your cat has fleas, he will inevitably swallow some while grooming -- and he may also pick up a tapeworm in the process. A cat that has a particularly bad case of fleas can also become anemic due to blood loss.
So, it's time to wage war. This enemy is not about to surrender; you have to wipe it out down to the last egg, because there's no such thing as peaceful coexistence in this case. Read on to find out what to do when your cat has fleas.
Treating Fleas on Cats
Although the fleas seemingly appear overnight, getting rid of them can be a long and difficult process. You have to kill them on your pet and in your home, as well as take preventive measures to ensure that they won't return. But where to start?
While there are plenty of them on the market, it's best to skip the over-the-counter sprays, powders and flea collars. They're just not strong enough, and they may also contain chemicals that are toxic to your pet as well as the humans in your house. Discuss treatment options with your vet. He or she can prescribe medication (usually administered by mouth, topically to the skin or by injection) to both kill adult fleas and destroy their ability to reproduce. These medications are usually given to the cat on a monthly basis. Some have the additional benefit of helping prevent heartworm, ear mites and intestinal parasite infestation. All pets in the house have to be on some type of flea control medication for it to work. This will be more expensive than using the over-the-counter products, but a prescription medication will work better and faster, it will last longer.
If you just treat your cat, any fleas not killed will abandon ship (remember their astounding jumping ability) for a new host or hide out until the treatment wears off. Evict fleas from your home by thoroughly vacuuming all floors and upholstery, and then immediately dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag. Wash all bedding and linens in hot water. Clean up the yard and prevent wildlife from re-infecting it by trimming brush and removing food sources, such as pet food bowls, garbage cans and bird feeders. You may also want to ask your vet about insecticide foggers that treat the entire house, or get pest control services if you have a particularly bad infestation. Even if you've been successful in killing every flea, there can still be eggs left behind. You'll probably have to repeat treatments again to catch these stragglers as they hatch out.
Cats that go outdoors are almost guaranteed to pick up fleas again. Fleas can also be transferred to indoor cats by the family dog, or through open windows and doors. Regular, preventive flea treatment in your home will help prevent a sneak attack. In areas that have cold winters, outdoor fleas die off (although untreated indoor infestations can last year-round). In warm and humid regions, however, flea season is a year-round event.
With diligence, your cat's flea infestation will soon be a thing of the past.
- ASPCA. "Cat Care: Fleas." ASPCA. 2011. (April 17, 2011)http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/fleas.aspx
- Companion Animal Parasite Control. "Fleas on Cats." CAPC. 2011. (April 17, 2011)http://www.petsandparasites.org/cat-owners/fleas.html
- Eldredge, Debra M., et al. "Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook." Howell Book House. Dec. 10, 2007.
- Griffin, Morgan R. "Natural Insect Control: Flea and Tick Treatments for Pets." WebMD. Sept. 25, 2009. (April 17, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/health-ehome-9/flea-tick-control-for-pets