Fleas are the most common parasites found on cats and dogs. Because cats are so meticulous when it comes to grooming, you may never actually see a flea but you may see the debris left behind or you might see the skin problems that result if your cat has flea bite hypersensitivity. Cats with hypersensitivity have an allergic reaction to the antigens in flea saliva. The result is usually red, irritated skin, scabs and even patches of baldness. If a cat has flea bite hypersensitivity it only takes one flea bite to cause a reaction. Severe flea infestation can also cause anemia.
Checking for Fleas
Adult fleas spend most of their lives on the host animals. The eggs, larvae and pupae can be found anywhere though – on your carpet, in the pet’s bedding, in the grass, etc. Seeing a flea on your pet is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s never just about one flea.
Since you may never see an actual flea on your cat the best way to check is to use a flea comb. The flea comb will capture all the flea debris (excrement consisting of dried blood). You can also place your cat on a white towel or large sheet of white paper and brush his fur. You may then notice little black specks against the white. The flea debris will look like black pepper specks. If you dampen these specks you’ll see a red color which is your cat’s dried blood.
Symptoms of Flea Bite Hypersensitivity
Even if your cat doesn’t have this, it’s extremely uncomfortable for him to have fleas. Having to endure constant itching and the need to scratch will not be pleasant. Additionally, fleas are the intermediate hosts for tapeworms so if your cat swallows any fleas (which cats easily do during grooming), there’s an increased risk of tapeworm infection.
Flea bite hypersensitivity can occur anywhere on the cat’s body but is most often seen along the hind end. In severe cases the cat will need antibiotics to treat infection. Oral or injectable cortisone is also often used to relieve the intense itching reaction so the sores on the skin have a chance to heal.
Cat parents often notice the signs of flea bite hypersensitivity as the cat engages in constant biting and scratching at the affected area of the body. You can also usually feel the scabs and sores when you pet your cat. In many cases hair loss is very noticeable.
Keep in mind that even indoor cats are at risk of flea infestation. If you have a dog who goes outdoors there’s a good chance he will bring fleas back into the home. It’s important to treat all pets in the home. Don’t just treat the dog who goes outdoors because he can still bring fleas inside and they’ll go for the unprotected host (your indoor cat). Fleas can also be brought in by people. Cats who sit near open windows at ground floor level are also at risk of flea infestation.
There are several topical flea control products available from your veterinarian. Don’t buy topical flea control products over-the-counter. Use products that your veterinarian recommends specifically for your cat based on age and health condition. Remember, anything you put on your cat will eventually go in your cat during his normal grooming so the product must be safe. Products vary in how they work so your veterinarian’s advice is needed in order to match the most appropriate product to your cat.
There are oral treatments and topical treatments. Topical products are applied on the back of the neck, just behind the head. This prevents kitty from being able to lick it off. The product will look oily when initially applied to the area but will spread through the hair follicles during the day to cover the entire body.
Topical and oral products typically last about a month. Effective flea control and prevention depend on consistent, ongoing treatment. It’s important to mark your calendar so you’ll know to apply the product on the same day each month or as instructed by the particular product manufacturer.
Never use a flea product labeled for dogs. The product you use must state that it’s safe for use in cats. If you have a kitten, make sure the product clearly states that it’s safe for kittens. Again, seek your veterinarian’s guidance before using any product on your pets.
Flea shampoos only work temporarily but your veterinarian may recommend it if the flea infestation is particularly heavy. It may be recommended to bathe the cat before application of other products. If you’ve never bathed your cat you may prefer to have this done at your veterinarian’s office.
The Indoor Environment
Engage in routine vacuuming in order to get rid of the flea eggs and pupae hidden in the carpet fibers. Vacuum under furniture, remove sofa cushions and vacuum them as well. If you have an indoor cat tree be sure to vacuum the perches regularly. Flea eggs can be anywhere. Remove the vacuum bag each time, enclose it in a plastic bag, tightly seal it and then toss it in the outdoor trash. Don’t just leave the bag in the vacuum cleaner because the eggs will hatch and it’ll be flea city in your home. Don’t toss a flea collar in the bag because of the risk of fume toxicity. Simply get rid of the bag.
Wash all pet bedding. If your pets sleep in bed with you then remove all bedding, including the comforter and wash that as well. If you have a comforter that must be dry-cleaned, then take it outdoors, shake it out thoroughly and then vacuum it.
If an indoor fogger or surface sprays are needed your veterinarian will advise you on which products are safe for cat households. Even with safe products though, all pets will need to be removed from the home during treatment.
If the flea infestation is very heavy you may need to steam clean your carpets in order to kill the flea eggs.
If your pets are protected by flea control products but you find that you’re getting bitten by fleas yourself then it may mean that the infestation is extremely heavy. The fleas may be searching for an acceptable meal since they can no longer feaster on Fluffy or Fido. In this case you may need to contact a professional to treat the indoor environment with a product safe for pets.
Flea control for the outdoor environment is next to impossible. That’s why it’s crucial to have your cat on either the topical or oral flea control products. If the infestation is very bad, talk to a professional about using an environmental outdoor flea control product that is safe for pets.
Animals who roam through your yard can also carry fleas. Don’t be a food source for roaming animals so they won’t take up residence in your yard.
Need More Information?
Consult with your veterinarian regarding the wide variety of flea control products that are safe for cats.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.