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How to Protect Your Cat from Fleas

Fleas are the most common external parasite seen on cats. If your cat is scratching more than normal, has hair loss around his lower back/tail area, or has tiny black dots that look like pepper in his fur, he most likely has fleas. Read on to find out more about fleas, how to treat them, and most importantly how to prevent them.

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How to Tell if Your Cat Has Fleas

You don’t always see fleas on your cat because they actually live in the environment, not on the cat. Fleas hop onto cats only to feed, then hop off again. Scratching, hair loss, and red irritated skin can all be symptoms of a flea infestation on your cat. You might also see thickened or crusty skin, especially around the ears or at the base of the tail. One of the more obvious symptoms of fleas is black dirt that looks like pepper in your cat’s hair coat. This material, called “flea dirt”, is actually flea feces composed of digested blood.

A simple way to determine if the black dirt is flea poop is to wipe your cat’s fur with a damp paper towel, add a drop of water, and the flea dirt will turn red. This is the easiest way to determine if your cat has fleas as it can be challenging to find fleas in the fur unless he is heavily infested with fleas.

Additionally, there are commercially available fine-tooth combs that you can use to help separate the live fleas and flea dirt from your cat’s haircoat to get a more accurate assessment. Also, if family members in your home are experiencing insect bites, especially on the ankles, you should check your cat for fleas.

What are fleas exactly?

Fleas are tiny black-brown insects, 2-4 mm in length (about the size of a sesame seed). The flea life cycle consists of egg, larvae, pupae, and adult stages. Eggs are laid in your cat’s haircoat and then fall off in different areas around your home. Larvae hatch from the eggs and develop in the cat’s environment by feeding on adult flea feces (flea dirt) that falls off the haircoat of the cat.

Larvae eventually spin cocoons, often within carpet fibers, to become pupae. Pupae are resistant to freezing, drying, and insecticides. They can lie dormant for many months. New fleas develop from the pupae and can begin feeding on your cat within hours of hatching. Learn more about the flea life cycle by clicking here!

Other Diseases Your Cat Can Get from Fleas

In addition to causing itching and other skin problems, fleas can transmit diseases to both pets and people. One of the most common diseases that your cat can get from a flea infestation is flea allergy dermatitis, or FAD. This is an allergic reaction to the proteins in the flea saliva when the fleas bite your cat for a blood meal. It results in a cat who is very itchy with hair loss and skin irritation. FAD can also result in secondary skin infections.

Fleas are blood-sucking insects and, in large numbers, can cause life-threatening blood loss, also known as anemia. If your cat is sleeping more than normal or appears weak, check him carefully for fleas and contact your vet right away. You can also check to see if his gums are pink because pale gums can be an obvious symptom of anemia.

Cats groom themselves by licking and can ingest hair and adult fleas in the process. Adult fleas can carry and transmit tapeworms when ingested. Often, a cat will experience no signs or symptoms. However, tapeworm infections can cause upset stomach, vomiting, weight loss, decreased appetite, and diarrhea. In rare cases, tapeworms can be indirectly transmitted to humans.

While uncommon, there is a risk of transmission to humans of a highly contagious bacteria called Yersinia pestis, commonly known as the Bubonic plague. This disease can be carried by rodent fleas. Cats can carry infected fleas, which pose a direct and life-threatening risk to humans.

It’s unknown but suspected that fleas may transmit Hemotropic Mycoplasmosis, also known as Feline Infectious Anemia. Signs range from mild to life-threatening. Again, check your cats often for signs of fleas and if you notice your cat is sleeping more than normal, is less active, or appears weak, contact your vet right away.

How to Treat Fleas on Your Cat

All cats should be treated with a flea control product year-round. Just because your cat doesn’t go outside, does not mean that flea control isn’t needed. Other animals in the household, or even you, can bring the fleas inside the house, and once they hop off your dog or your pants, they can easily jump onto your indoor-only cat.

Flea treatments labeled for dogs should NEVER be used on a cat, as this can cause severe and sometimes fatal side effects. Discuss with your vet which flea control product is right for your cat.

How to Treat Fleas in Your Cat’s Environment

The treatment and management of fleas can be incredibly frustrating. The perfect flea control plan targets all of the stages in the flea life cycle because the majority of fleas are found off the pet and around the home. This means that treating the indoor environment is also important when fighting a flea infestation. Household or outdoor flea treatment sprays must NEVER be used on animals as they contain toxic ingredients that can cause severe and sometimes fatal side effects.

Before using household flea treatment sprays, all people and pets, including birds, reptiles, insects, and spiders should be removed from the home. Follow all instructions for household flea treatment sprays before using. After waiting the instructed amount of time after use, ventilate the home by opening windows and doors for at least an hour before allowing children or pets back inside.

Vacuum all floors, especially floorboards and under beds/furniture, and upholstered furniture every day for 14 days after your home has been treated. The vibrations from vacuuming attract larvae from within the carpet, and unhatched eggs hatch out and die from the chemical treatment. Remember to throw away or empty the vacuum cleaner bag outside or place the contents of the vacuum cleaner in a plastic bag, tie it up and dispose of it away from your home. Wash any cat beds or blankets in hot water (140°F/60°C) to kill flea eggs and larvae.

Read more:

How to Apply “Spot On” Medication to Your Dog or Cat

Common Intestinal Parasites in Cats

Summer Dangers for Cats

Have more questions about managing fleas in cats?

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FirstVet is the #1 online video veterinary service.

FirstVet offers video calls with experienced veterinarians for just $35. You can get a consultation within minutes by downloading the FirstVet app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Over 500,000 users trust FirstVet to care for their animals.

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