Fleas and Your Cat
cat scratching head

Fleas And Your Cat

Fleas are tiny parasites that love to feed on your pet’s blood. The bites cause irritation and this can effect you and your family as well.

The bite usually causes your pet to scratch, and it can lead to irritation and allergies. If fleas become established on your cat, it can lead to more serious health problems and you could end up with an infestation in your house.

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More about fleas and your cat

Fleas are small, wingless insects that, despite their inability to fly, can travel huge distances by jumping. To survive fleas must feast on warm blood, and they aren’t fussy – most household pets can be bitten by fleas, and sadly humans are also at risk too.

Did you know there are over 2000 species of flea? There are only two that commonly cause problems here in the UK though; cat fleas and dog fleas. Most of the flea infestation we see are cat fleas, but as both species can bite any warm-blooded family members and aren’t actually species specific, in reality it doesn’t matter which species of flea is in your home.

Signs of a flea infestation include:

  • Your cat licking or biting at their skin. If you have more than one cat, or any other furry pets in the home, you may see them also itching. You may even be itching yourself, and see red bumps on your skin where fleas have bitten.
  • Flea dirt. Flea eggs are white and hard to spot, but flea dirt (a mixture of flea poo and dried blood) can often be seen on the skin of pets who have fleas. This looks like little reddish brown specks, and can be mistaken for grains of soil. A good test to see if specks on your cat’s coat are actual dirt or flea diet is the wet paper test. Get some damp paper towel or cotton wool and gently wipe up some of the specks. If the area around the speck turns reddish-brown, it’s flea dirt.
  • Live fleas. You may be able to see live fleas in your cat’s coat if you part the fur or stroke them backwards. Fleas are very fast though, and can be difficult to spot! Around the base of the tail and around the neck are good places to look.
  • Miliary dermatitis. This is a very specific type of skin reaction, which is often see in cats who are allergic to flea saliva. Affected cats have small scabs on various parts of their body, but most commonly all along their back, around their neck which feel like little bumps under your fingers when you stroke them. You may see hair loss, especially along the spine and around the base of the tail.
  • Anaemia. In young kittens, a flea infestation can cause so much blood loss that the kitten becomes anaemic. This can look like weakness, and pale gums.
  • Tapeworms. If your cat has a tapeworm, it may have come from a flea. Tapeworms can survive inside fleas, and get transmitted into your cat if they accidentally consume the flea when licking their coat. It is thought that cats can ingest 50% of the fleas that live on them, via grooming!

The best way to keep fleas at bay is to treat your cat regularly with a good quality flea treatment.

There are a number of different options, but not all of them may be suitable for your cat, so you should check with a Companion Care vet as we will be able to give you the most appropriate advice for your pet. You should never use a dog flea treatment on your cat, as they can contain permethrin which is extremely toxic to cats and can result in death. Always make sure you are applying an appropriate cat product.

Although the summer is the most common time to see fleas, vets also see peaks in flea populations in winter, when central heating tends to warm up houses. This means that flea protection should be given year-round, not just seasonally.

Flea protection comes in many forms, including pills, spot-ons and collars. Weaker preparations and drugs are available in pet shops, but the most effective prescription flea protection can only be sourced via a vet. Many of the flea preparations your vet can offer will also cover your cat for a range of other parasites as well, giving you peace of mind.

You should never use a dog flea treatment on your cat, as they can contain permethrin which is extremely toxic to cats and can result in death. Always make sure you are applying an appropriate cat product. Discussing flea protection with your local vet will help you make the right choice for you and your pet.

Due to the flea lifecycle, and the ability of pupae to lay dormant, ongoing treatment for your pets is really important.

Despite your best efforts it is impossible to definitely kill or remove all flea pupae. This means that there may be dormant pupae in the house. Although we are not sure exactly how long these pupae can lay dormant for, it may be as many as 21 months. At any point a dormant pupa could hatch, and will look to your pet as a food source.

If you have continued with comprehensive flea protection for your cats and dogs, this newly hatched adult flea will die before laying any more eggs. Slowly, all dormant pupa will hatch, die or be removed, and your treated pets will prevent another infestation from developing.

Your treated pets will also kill any new fleas that have been brought into the house, making sure that a new population cannot establish itself.

Your vet will help advise you on when to start flea protection, but for most kittens the first treatment can occur once they are six to eight weeks old. The exact age will depend on the type of flea treatment chosen and the weight of your cat.

If you have an adult cat, you can start any time – just ask your local Companion Care practice.

The main sign of flea allergic dermatitis is usually the development of military dermatitis along the spine, around the neck and across the tail base of your cat. Miliary dermatitis is characterised by the development of lots of small, dry scabs, which feel like little bumps under your fingers when you stroke your cat. You may see hair loss in these areas too.

Flea allergic dermatitis can be very uncomfortable and distressing for a cat, although they may not outwardly demonstrate this as cats tend to hide any signs of being unwell. Comprehensive flea prevention with prescription products, and vet visits for flare ups, are the best way to control this nasty allergy.

Sadly, even indoor cats are not safe from fleas. Fleas and their larvae can be transported on people from pet-to-pet, and any fleas that hatch near the home can try and find a way in – they are attracted to warmth and will head towards the house if they are in the garden or surroundings. Although they are small, a flea can cover 30cm in a single leap, and they are willing to travel for the promise of a blood meal!

If your cat already has fleas, don’t panic! Although an infestation can take time to eradicate, your vet will help provide you with everything you need to get on top of fleas in your home.

The main points to remember are that you need to:

  • Treat all cats and dogs in the home with flea treatment. Check other furry family members carefully to check they are not also infested, and treat if required.
  • Treat ALL through your home
  • Treat pets with flea treatment regularly going forward.

The initial population of fleas can be reduced by:

  • Flea treatment for all pets
  • Flea-killing house spray (make sure to read to safety label)
  • Carpet cleaning
  • Regular hoovering and sweeping, including in the darkest and hardest to reach areas – Don’t forget to throw away the dust bag from your vacuum cleaner after every use, else the flea larvae may escape back out!
  • Hot washing fabrics at over 60 degrees, as this will destroy any fleas

By doing all the above you can dramatically reduce the number of fleas in your home. The flea treatment for your pets will turn them into walking ‘flea killers’ and means that adult fleas will die without producing any more eggs. By treating the house, you will kill or remove many of the eggs and pupae that can be found in the home.

Our main UK fleas are not very fussy, and are more than happy to snack on an unsuspecting human! Making us itchy and sore, flea bites are often an unpleasant herald of the presence of fleas in the home.

Flea bites can also cause more than itchy skin. Bartonella (also called cat scratch disease) can be transmitted by flea faeces; either by being accidentally ingested, or by getting into small breaks in the skin. Causing a low grade fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, bartonella infection can often be mistaken for the flu, and in many cases resolves on its own. Sadly, however, in some people bartonella infection can develop and cause chronic fatigue and headaches, and may become very debilitating.

Fleas reproduce really quickly, and live most of their life off their animal hosts. They actually reproduce much like butterflies, with larvae instead of caterpillars. As so much of the lifecycle happens off your pet controlling an infestation of fleas can be a difficult job.

  1. An adult flea lays eggs. She must have fed to lay (an adult flea that cannot find food will die before laying). She can lay up to 500 eggs in her lifetime!
  2. The eggs are small and white, and while they are often laid on the host, they aren’t attached in any way. This means as your pet moves around your home the eggs will slide off, and get buried into carpet fibres, cracks in the floor, soft furnishings and pet bedding. It is estimated that if you have fleas in your home, half of the population will currently be in egg form.
  3. Eggs will hatch into flea larvae within twelve days. These larvae are like the caterpillar stage of butterflies – completely different to the adults. Larvae do not food on blood, and instead feed on organic debris in the home. They don’t like the light, so tend to burrow deeper into wherever they are. This means you rarely see them, although they actually make up about 35% of the flea population in your home.
  4. After approximately 1-3 weeks, larvae will spin themselves a cocoon and start to change into adult fleas. The developing larvae in side are now called pupae. Approximately 10% of the flea population in your home at any time will be pupae.
  5. It is the pupae that make fleas so difficult to eradicate. In favourable conditions, pupae will hatch into adult fleas within days to weeks, but in unfavourable conditions pupae can remain dormant in their cocoons for months! They ae also sticky, so are hard to remove with light vacuuming or sweeping.
  6. When conditions are right an adult flea will emerge. They must locate a new host quickly, and feed, in order to start the life cycle again and lay their eggs.