Fleas are extremely common among cats, especially those that venture into the great outdoors. This makes tackling fleas one of the top issues that every cat parent needs to be prepared to handle.
These minute pests can become a big problem if not treated, from causing skin irritation to spreading around the home. By understanding how to check your cat for fleas and what kind of flea treatments are available, you’ll be ready to strike if there’s an outbreak.
What are fleas?
Fleas are small parasitic insects that attach to an animal’s skin and coat to feed off their blood. They’re the most common external parasite affecting cats and dogs in Australia but are also commonly found among other animals like possums, rats and rabbits.
There are lots of different species of fleas, but in Australia, it’s dog and cat fleas that cause the most problems. Despite their names, they aren’t exclusive to cats or dogs and will happily feed on other animals. They’ll even bite humans on occasion, however, they won’t live on us, as our relatively hairless bodies don’t provide enough heat to survive.
How can cats get fleas?
Fleas can transfer from animal to animal by jumping. In fact, they can jump up to 150 times their own height (17cm). This makes it very easy for your cat to catch fleas from another pet, or from animals they encounter when they’re out exploring. Even if they’re an indoor cat, they may pick up fleas that have attached to somebody who has been in contact with an animal with fleas or picked them up outdoors.
Fleas multiply rapidly, laying up to 40-50 eggs every day. These can hatch on your pet, or fall off their fur and onto grass, carpet, and furniture such as your cat’s bedding. Due to the warmer weather, spring and summer are prime flea seasons, but their eggs can lay dormant for up to six months before hatching. This can make an outbreak extremely tricky to get rid of, so good hygiene at home is essential, in addition to treating any fleas already on your cat.
How to check for fleas?
One of the key indications your cat has fleas is persistent scratching, especially around their head, neck, tail and belly. This is because flea saliva can make their skin very itchy, and cats with a flea allergy will also experience severe irritation.
Other signs to look for include:
- Licking and biting themselves
- Bald patches caused by scratching
- Scabs, sore areas, or small bumps on their skin
- Shaking and agitation
Cats don’t always show obvious symptoms when they have fleas, so it’s important to check for them regularly. You can check your cat for fleas by visually looking for them on their skin and coat. Fleas are brown or black and about the size of a grain of rice, and will also leave behind flea dirt, which looks like little black dots in your cat’s coat.
If you suspect your cat has fleas, use a flea comb to brush through their fur and examine their skin as you work your way through. Have a bowl of hot soapy water on hand, so you can put any fleas that come off in the comb straight into the water. Placing a white sheet or towel underneath them will also make it easier to spot any fleas that fall off your cat.
Cat flea treatments
If your cat does have fleas, respond quickly to avoid them spreading or causing further issues. It can take a few days for your cat to stop scratching after treatment, as any irritation can take a while to clear up.
There are a few different types of cat flea treatments, which work as both preventatives and active treatments. You’ll also want to continue using the flea comb to remove as many fleas as possible from your cat’s coat. Never use flea treatments intended for dogs on your cat, however, as they may contain chemicals that are toxic for cats.
“Spot-on” flea treatments for cats are popular and effective. These convenient drops are applied to the skin on the back of your cat’s neck, and work by absorbing active ingredients into the body that will kill any fleas living on them. Many spot-on flea treatments also prevent flea eggs from hatching and prevent further maturation of any hatched fleas that the cat comes into contact with. This means they can target fleas at every stage of their lifecycle. Applying these monthly can help to protect your cat from fleas, as well as combat any existing fleas.
Flea shampoos are also available, which can be a great first response to a flea infestation, as they kill adult fleas upon contact and soothe itchy skin. However, most cats don’t enjoy baths and you will still need to consider flea eggs and larvae that may be in your cat’s environment.
When to see a vet
Fleas generally aren’t a medical emergency and can be treated at home. But if you’re having trouble getting rid of your cat’s fleas, or their skin is looking particularly inflamed or sore, contact your vet for advice. Some animals are more sensitive to flea bites than others and it’s possible your cat could have Flea Allergy Dermatitis. Your vet will be able to prescribe something to soothe their skin if needed and offer advice for preventing future flea outbreaks.
Due to the blood loss, flea bites can also lead to anaemia (particularly among kittens), causing symptoms like lethargy and pale gums. If you notice any of these, get your cat seen by a vet.
To avoid reinfection, continue regular flea combing and treatments until you are confident that the fleas are gone. It’s important to also give your home a thorough clean, with extra focus on areas your cat likes to spend the most time.
Like many things, prevention is always better than cure. You can protect your cat from fleas by administering regular flea treatments and by keeping your home as hygienic as possible. Vacuum carpets and clean their bedding at least once a week to avoid harbouring fleas and their eggs. Flea sprays can also be used on soft furnishings and cat bedding to repel them.
As a cat parent, it’s likely that you’ll face fleas at one stage or another. But with the right flea treatment and prevention techniques, you’ll soon have it under control. Check your cat’s coat and skin regularly and keep your home clean to stay flea free.
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