Cat with flea bites laying down

How to manage fleas in cats

Cats that go outside should be routinely treated for fleas. The aim of regular flea treatments is to prevent bites and to stop your house getting infected.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

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Fleas are dark brown-black insects, about 2-4 mm in length and are just visible to the naked eye. They cannot fly but they can jump a long way and will start feeding on an animal host within minutes of landing on them. There are several different species of fleas but they are not host specific, therefore, they will feed on your cat, dog, rabbit (or even your ankles!). They live in the environment and can also live both outside in grasses or in our homes, sheds etc. Cat’s pick them up whilst they are out on their daily expeditions or from the garden, a shed or their hiding places in between buildings or hedges.

If your cat is an indoor cat they can still catch fleas that are brought in on other pets. Fleas can even hitch a ride with us; they can travel on our clothing, in our vehicles and on pet’s bedding.

Symptoms of fleas

  • Excessive scratching
  • Areas of hair loss or sore patches
  • Spots
  • Redness and irritation of the skin
  • Thickened or crusty skin, for example, around the ears
  • Dark specks in the fur, or visible fleas
  • Insect bites on people in your household, especially around the ankles

Cats often spend a lot of time grooming and they will ingest (eat) any fleas that they discover, which can make it difficult for you to see fleas on them. An itchy cat or a change in their behaviour might be the only clue. You may see telltale black specks (flea faeces) in their coat. Brushing your cat with a very fine comb over a sheet of white paper, or wiping them with a damp piece of kitchen roll, may reveal these black specks more easily. If you add a drop of water to the black debris then it will slowly dissolve leaving red-brown marks, which indicates digested blood in the flea faeces. This is the best tip to see if your cat has fleas and is more reliable than looking for fleas in their coat. However, you will still see fleas if your cat has a high burden.

How to treat your cat

There are a lot of flea treatments on the market. The main thing to remember is that not all flea treatments or spot-ons are the same. Those sold in pet shops and supermarkets may contain different active ingredients and are significantly less effective that those prescribed by vets. Please ask one of our vets at FirstVet or your own vet for further advice about which product is best for your cat.

Worming your cat is also important as the cat flea can carry the larval stage of the tapeworm Dipylidium caninum. Cats become infected by ingesting fleas during grooming.

Other pets that live in your house (or your garden if your cat has contact with them or their bedding) will require flea treatment. You must use a treatment that has been developed specifically for that animal, you must not a dog product on a cat or rabbit. For example, you must not use a dog product on a cat or rabbit, as this can cause severe, and sometimes fatal, toxic side effects.

Scarily only 5% of a flea infestation is made up of adult fleas on your pets. The other 95% is in your home as eggs, larvae and pupae. This means that to control flea infestations, you need to treat both your cat (plus other pets) and your household. Fleas like to lay their eggs in cracks, crevices, and soft furnishings and can survive for up to a year so treating your house is very important.

How to treat your house

We recommend treating your house when you first treat your cat. You should only need to do it once a year unless they have a high flea burden. The sprays must not be used on animals. They must only be used in the house and you must read the instructions prior to use. There are many brands on the market, for example, Indorex Defence Household Flea Spray or R.I.P Fleas Extra.

Before using the spray you should remove your pets from the area to be treated including pet birds, reptiles, insects and spiders. Where possible, remove aquariums, vivariums and all water storage tanks. Once you have sprayed, leave the room and wait for half an hour before returning to ventilate the area by opening windows and doors for at least an hour before allowing pets or children back into the room. If you have sprayed your cat’s bed then make sure it is dry before they use it again (at least one hour, ideally longer). Bedding can also be washed on a hot wash (60°C) to kill flea eggs and larvae.

It is vital to vacuum all floors and upholstered furniture for 14 consecutive days after using the treatment. The vibrations from the vacuum will attract larvae from within the carpet and ensure that any unhatched pupae hatch out and are killed by the chemical you have used. Always empty the contents of the vacuum outside.

Fleas can be hard to get rid of completely as they hatch out in waves - it can take 3 months of rigorous flea treatment to control an infestation.

Reasons that it can take longer to get on top of a flea problem

  • Not using the correct treatment on your cat or in your house: make an appointment with one of our vets to discuss your current treatment
  • Failing to treat all the animals in the household
  • Not treating your car or other areas that your cat spends time in. For example, the garden shed or their favourite hiding place.

More advice on fleas can be found at International Cat Care or the RSPCA.

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