Fleas on Cats: Signs, Prevention, Treatment, and More
Fleas can cause uncomfortable, constant itching, along with other health problems in cats. And flea infestations often take a lot of time and money to treat.
Fortunately, a bit of flea prevention can go a long way. Here are some tips for preventing and treating fleas on cats.
How to Tell If Your Cat Has Fleas
Cats are fastidious groomers. Often, they ingest the “evidence.” So, a cat owner might see their cat scratching but have difficulty actually spotting fleas or flea dirt.
Here are a few ways to check if a kitty has fleas.
Look for fleas on your pet. The lack of a flea sighting doesn’t rule out these pests as a cause of your pet’s itchiness. However, sometimes you’ll get “lucky” and see fleas—which will give you a definitive answer on what to treat. Fleas can be seen with the naked eye, especially in cats with light skin or fur. Reading glasses or magnification may help. These small insects are 1-3 millimeters in length, brown to reddish-brown, and fairly flat from side to side. Have someone shine a light while you part your cat’s fur and examine the skin. You might see fleas scurrying away. The base of the tail (rump) and the neck are commonly affected. Also, check thinly furred areas like the belly and groin. But remember, fleas can be found anywhere on the skin.
Look for flea dirt. Flea dirt is another word for flea droppings or poop. It looks like finely ground black pepper. You might see flea dirt on your pet, in their bedding or cat tree, in the furniture, or anywhere your pet spends time. Not sure if what you’re seeing is flea dirt or regular dirt? Simply place some on a white paper towel and spray with water. Wet flea dirt will turn red or reddish-brown.
Comb your cat with a fine-tooth flea comb. This can help flush out tiny fleas and flea dirt, increasing the likelihood you’ll see them. Keep a bowl of soapy water at the ready, to place any fleas so they won’t jump back onto your pet (or onto you).
Look for symptoms of fleas. The presence of flea-related symptoms could mean your cat has fleas—whether you actually see the parasites or not!
YOU are being bitten. Thankfully, fleas don’t tend to live on human skin like they do on dogs and cats. But a hungry flea will bite a human’s legs, ankles, or other skin if they can’t access a pet.
Schedule a veterinary appointment. Your veterinarian is very familiar with flea bites. They’ll help you determine if your kitty might have fleas, rule out other skin conditions, treat any secondary skin wounds or infections, and get flea protection on board as quickly as possible.
SEE ALSO: How to Tell If Your Dog Has Fleas
Symptoms of Fleas in Cats
The following are common signs that a cat has fleas:
Licking, chewing, or excessive grooming.
Fur loss or bald spots.
Skin redness, rashes, scabs, wounds, or other lesions. A pattern of multiple small, pinpoint scabs (known as miliary dermatitis) is common.
Tapeworms (more on this below).
A cat feeling lethargic, feverish, inappetent, or otherwise unwell, especially if combined with the symptoms above. While less common, this can be due to anemia or infections from fleas. Sick cats should receive urgent care, or emergency care if they are very ill.
How Do Cats Get Fleas?
Fleas are a common external parasite of dogs and cats. They also affect wildlife like raccoons, opossums, and rodents. The most common type of flea seen on cats (and dogs) in the US is Ctenocephalides felis, also known as the cat flea.
Fleas feed on the blood of their host. Adults can jump 200 times their own body length trying to reach an animal to feed on!
The adults then lay eggs (potentially hundreds per female flea—or many thousands of eggs in a full-blown flea infestation), which fall off the pet and into the environment or home.
Flea eggs then hatch into larvae. Eventually, a larva creates a cocoon, inside of which they mature into an adult. This cocooned stage is known as a pupa. Pupae are hardy and can survive many months waiting for an animal host to pass nearby.
So, direct contact with a flea-infested animal isn’t necessary for a pet to pick up fleas. Instead, the flea’s rapid reproduction rate allows them to multiply quickly in both indoor and outdoor environments. A pet simply needs to pass through the area to acquire a flea (or many fleas!).
Are Fleas on Cats Dangerous?
As you can imagine, fleas can make cats very uncomfortable. However, there are additional dangers that can occur to a pet’s health—and in some cases, even human health.
Conditions That May Be Related to Fleas on Cats
The most common issues are skin problems. In addition to being very uncomfortable, flea saliva is the most common allergen in cats. This is known as flea allergy dermatitis, because it leads to skin reactions and lesions. Some pets bite or scratch themselves so much they develop skin infections or wounds requiring medical treatment.
Another common issue is a tapeworm infestation. Adult fleas often carry tapeworms. When cats lick or groom, they might inadvertently swallow a flea, allowing tapeworms into their intestines. Cat owners might notice tapeworm segments (sacks of eggs) in their pet’s feces, on their pet’s hind end, or on furniture, bedding, etc. Tapeworm segments look like sesame seeds or cucumber seeds—and they might move or squirm around.
With severe flea infestations, anemia (low red blood cell count) can occur due to fleas feeding on blood. This presents the biggest risk to young kittens. But even adults can suffer from anemia—which can be fatal in severe cases—if enough fleas are present.
Fleas are also known to carry infectious diseases. Some flea species carry the pathogens that cause plague or a disease called cat scratch fever. While uncommon, these diseases can affect people. So, it’s yet another reason to keep fleas under control.
How to Get Rid of Fleas on Cats
Unfortunately, treating fleas isn’t a simple or overnight fix. Fleas reproduce rapidly, meaning an infestation of the home and/or yard quickly follows the appearance of fleas on a cat. In order to truly get rid of fleas, a pet owner must treat both their pet and the environment.
Treating Your Cat for Fleas
Fortunately, there are many excellent, safe products available to treat and prevent fleas on cats. Some (adulticides) work by killing adult fleas. Others (insect growth regulators or IGRs) work by preventing juvenile fleas from maturing—thus preventing an infestation. Some products offer more than one of these mechanisms of action in combination.
Home remedies like essential oils aren’t typically effective—and some can cause harm to your cat. Additionally, some flea products (especially those labeled for dogs) can be toxic to cats! So it’s best to check with your vet for advice.
Common flea treatment and prevention products for cats include:
Shampoos, sprays, and powders. These are rarely recommended for cats anymore. Most only work for a short time after your pet is in contact with the medication. So they aren’t very effective for long-term control. Plus, spreading products over large areas of skin increases the likelihood that a cat will accidentally ingest them, which can be very dangerous.
Oral products. Flea treatment pills are available from a veterinarian’s office. They vary in terms of how they work and how long they last. Your vet can help you determine the most effective treatment for fleas in your area.
Spot-on or topical products. These products are very popular because they are easy to use and can be very effective. Most commonly, they involves placing a small amount of liquid on the back of your cat’s neck, where your cat can’t lick it away. Some create a sort of coating of anti-flea medication on your cat’s skin. Others (such as those that also contain heartworm or intestinal worm prevention) get absorbed into the body to provide protection.
In addition to treating and preventing fleas, if indicated, veterinarians will also prescribe medication to help your cat feel more comfortable and treat infections, wounds, tapeworms, or other flea-related health issues.
Getting Rid of Fleas in the Home
For every adult flea you see, there might be at least 100 eggs or juvenile fleas present. So if you don’t treat the environment, a flea infestation can come right back in days, weeks, or months.
Here are some steps that help.
Vacuum often. Throw away the vacuum bag, or clean it well if it’s the reusable type. Consider steam cleaning or shampooing the carpet, too. The vibrations and warmth can even stimulate pupae to emerge, so they can’t lie in wait for so long.
Wash all bedding, linens, and furniture, especially wherever your cat spends a lot of time. Use hot water in the washing machine. Cat trees should be thoroughly cleaned or replaced.
Treat all pets in the home, since fleas can easily spread from one cat to another—as well as to dogs and even to other pets like ferrets.
Keep the yard mowed and trim overgrown plants. Board up crawl spaces or areas under patios. This discourages flea-carrying wildlife from hanging out. And open, sunny areas are less conducive to flea reproduction (fleas prefer dark, moist areas). This is a good strategy even for indoor cats, since fleas can occasionally be brought into the home on a well-meaning pet parent’s shoes or clothing, or even through doorways or other openings into the home. Fleas are highly motivated to find an animal host!
Seek professional pest control treatment of both your house and yard. Find a company who is familiar with pet safety (ask if your vet’s office has a recommendation) and explain you are seeking flea treatment specifically.
Unfortunately, due to the life cycle of fleas—including the large number of offspring and the hardiness of pupae in the environment—full flea eradication takes time, possibly up to three months. Keep your kitty on good flea protection the whole time.
Are Flea Treatments Safe for My Cat and Family?
Yes, products recommended by your veterinarian are considered safe when used appropriately. Follow all instructions and ask your vet team for a demonstration if you want to be sure you are using the medication correctly. When in doubt, for your own family (especially individuals with sensitive skin, who are pregnant, or who have other concerns), check with your own physician to see if they have additional recommendations.
However, many over-the-counter products aren’t nearly as safe. Some might contain harsh chemicals that irritate the skin or that are toxic if ingested.
Never use products that are labeled for dogs! Many are poisonous, even fatal, to cats if ingested.
If you have both dogs and cats in the home, ask your veterinarian about dog products that are also safe for cats in the home. It’s a good idea to keep pets separated until any topical products are completely dry.
Finally, let your veterinarian know about any products you are already using, so they can verify if any new medications are safe to combine.
Prevention is much easier, less stressful, and often less expensive than treating a flea infestation!
So, check with your veterinarian to see what they recommend and which products they’ve found to be most effective in your city or location. Year-round protection is most effective, even in climates with cold winters.