My Cat Has Fleas. Help!

Fleas are a common cat parasite, so cat owners need to know how to detect fleas and how to get rid of them for both their pet's comfort and health and their own.

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Along with scratching, hair loss, the presence of "flea dirt" and even weight loss, another sign of fleas is persistent licking. sjallenphotography/iStock/Thinkstock
Somyr Perry

What’s prehistoric looking, loves to bite cats, causes itching like crazy and totally creeps you out? It’s Ctenocephalides felis felis, otherwise known as the common cat flea!

The ASPCA notes that of all the potential external parasites your cat can contract, fleas are by far the most common — whether your kitty is an outdoor or indoor cat. But how can it be that an indoor-only cat could be just as susceptible to fleas as a cat that ventures out on a regular basis?

Vista, California-based veterinarian Vidhya Pandi of Tri-City Veterinary Clinic explained that fleas can be carried into your home on your clothing or shoes, even used furniture fabric, and find their way onto your cat.

“Fleas lay their eggs on the host animal,” Pandi says. “These eggs then fall off into the environment where they hatch, feed, cocoon and develop into adults. The adults then jump onto a passing animal and the cycle begins again. An adult female flea can lay up to 50 eggs per day. In the correct environment, these fleas will become adults in about two weeks. However, if a food supply is not detected nearby, flea eggs and cocoons may lie dormant for several years, waiting for the right meal to come along.”

Cat Flea Symptoms And Detection

If flea eggs can be so stealthy lying in wait for a host cat, how do people know if their cat is infected? Pandi says to watch a cat for excessive scratching or skin irritation. And because fleas can be difficult to spot under all your cat’s hair, she recommends using a flea comb to check for fleas.

“The best way to identify a flea problem is with a flea comb,” she says. “By running the comb through the hair close to the skin, you will find live fleas or small dark particles of ‘flea dirt,’ which is basically flea excrement.”

If you suspect that your cat might have fleas, place her on top of a white paper towel. Using either your hands or a flea comb to ruffle her fur, do your best to shake off some dander and other particles onto the towel. Then add a small drop of water and watch for any of the particles to turn a brownish-orange to red color — that indicates flea poop, which contains blood harvested by the flea from your cat.

Cat owners might also notice weight loss and hair loss, which can be signs of fleas in some cases.

“Weight loss may occur in cats with severe flea infestations — especially young cats,” Pandi says. “Fleas feed on blood, so a large flea population can extract enough blood from a small animal to cause anemia. However, unintended weight loss in cats is more commonly associated with other diseases.”

Cats that lose hair due to fleas don’t need to worry about their bald spots, because once the fleas are eradicated, the fur should grow back.

When you’re at home checking for fleas, the best areas to comb are the top of the rump and the neck area, which is what your veterinarian will do during an exam to diagnose a flea problem.

“If I don’t see live fleas running on the skin, I may also see skin disorders that are typical of flea irritation or flea allergy,” Pandi says.

Cat Flea Allergy

All cats will react to a fleabite, but some cats may react more severely than others and suffer from fleabite dermatitis. William Miller, Jr., a professor of dermatology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is quoted on Cornell’s website saying that cats with hypersensitivity to fleas will release a chemical compound called histamine.

“The itching that characteristically signals the presence of a flea bite allergy is caused by the eruption of small, pale, fluid-filled lumps on the skin, which form in response to the allergen’s presence,” he says.

Cat owners may even notice reddish, crusty bumps on their cat’s body, even if the cat doesn’t seem to be itching.

How To Get Rid Of Cat Fleas Or Prevent Cat Fleas

While a cat’s allergy to fleas can be treated, the only true cure is prevention, Pandi says. And prevention — or treatment — is important, because fleas will negatively affect a cat’s health.

“Think of flea treatment as you would a vaccination,” she says. “You don’t wait to get the flu, then run to the doctor for a vaccine. By then, it’s too late. You’re ill, and you’ll be ill for some time. Medications may help, but you still have the flu. Treating for fleas before you see them, using a monthly flea treatment for your pet, can prevent an infestation both on your pet and in your home. Once you have an infestation, it may take three to four months to eliminate fleas on your pet and in your home.”

Because prevention is worth a pound of cure, choosing the right flea preventive for your cat can be daunting, with so many options on the market. Only flea products made for cats should be used.

“There is no one choice that is right for every situation,” Pandi says. “Cats are sensitive to many pesticides, so one needs to use extreme care. Choosing the correct flea control is based on the individual pet’s and pet owner’s situation. In our practice, we find that oral flea treatments are the most effective.”

Giving a cat a pill can have its own set of challenges, however, so there are a few safe and effective topical medications on the market. She suggests discussing with your vet which flea products are safe and effective for use in cats, that desiccate the fleas and their larvae. Because of cats’ unique sensitivity to many pesticides, Pandi warns to always check with your veterinarian prior to using any flea product on your cat.

Home Remedies For Cat Fleas

The idea of using pesticides, which are the most common ingredient in traditional flea preventives, can be a real turn-off for many people who prefer holistic approaches. However, Pandi says that misinformation about flea control in cats is prevalent.

“Unfortunately, some products marketed as ‘holistic’ or ‘natural’ may be more toxic to your pet than a conventional product,” she says. “Also, I’ve not found any ‘alternative’ products to be effective. Things like garlic tablets and brewer’s yeast just don’t work.”

Be sure to keep in close contact with your vet’s office if you suspect fleas in your home or on your cat. Regular fur brushing, as well as administering an appropriate monthly flea preventive recommended by your veterinary practitioner, will keep your beloved cat happy, healthy and itch free.

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Article Categories:
Cats · Health and Care