It's not just cats who suffer from fleas. For every single flea living on your cat, there could be 99 more developing in your carpeted, centrally-heated home, however clean it is! Outdoor cats may also come in with other unwelcome passengers such as ticks.
Fleas are extremely common, and are also the most common reason for a cat to develop a skin problem. The most common flea to be found on cats is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), but rabbit and hedgehog fleas can also cause an infestation. Flea bites are itchy for all cats and can lead some to develop allergies (flea-allergic dermatitis), whilst the parasites also act as intermediate hosts for certain tapeworms. Also, a heavy infestation can cause anaemia in kittens, which is potentially life-threatening. Remember, fleas bite humans too!
What are fleas?
Fleas are the most common external parasites of both cats and dogs. Adult fleas can live for 7-14 days and will divide their time between living on your cat to feed and returning to the carpet to lay eggs. Females lay a large amount of eggs every day, which fall to the ground and hatch into tiny larvae that burrow into carpets, upholstery and often the cat’s bed. They then develop into pupae, remaining dormant for many months. When they sense warmth and vibration, the adult fleas emerge and jump onto a passing host - your cat - to start the life cycle again. Fleas can also potentially transmit diseases, including certain blood parasites.
How do I spot fleas?
Often owners think their cat cannot have fleas as they haven’t seen them. This is because cats are so good at grooming and removing fleas and flea dirt that there may be no evidence of fleas, apart from the itching and scabbed areas. The most obvious sign is persistent scratching. However some cats will not scratch but rather over-groom themselves, sometimes leaving bald patches. Cats with flea allergies are itchy, over-groom and may have scabs and red, sore areas. Fleas are dark brown and 1mm or 2mm long. You may find them or see them in the carpet, or you may notice tiny black specks of flea dirt (flea faeces) in your cat's coat during combing. To test if they are flea dirt, put the black spots onto damp tissue paper and, if they are feal dirt, they will turn red from the digested blood they contain. High humidity and temperatures make late summer the peak season for fleas, but central heating in winter means you need to de-flea throughout the year.
Always consult your vet about flea treatments and preferably use a veterinary licensed product as this shows it has been tested for safety and effectiveness.
NEVER USE A DOG FLEA PRODUCT ON YOUR CAT AS THESE CAN BE EXTREMELY TOXIC AND RESULT IN DEATH. The active ingredient, permethrin, causes severe neurological signs in cats. Also remember not to treat dogs living with cats with products containing this chemical as they may be exposed by close contact. If treating a dog with such a product then separate the dogs and cats for several days. See http://www.vmd.defra.gov.uk/fsf/adverse_safety.aspx for a list of flea products that are potentially fatal to cats.If your cat is affected then the reaction should be reported to the veterinary medicines directorate. See www.fabcats.org for more information.
To tackle fleas, you need to treat your cat as well as your house. Therefore use a combination of topical products to kill adult fleas (adulticide) and a treatment for the house that prevents the eggs developing into adults (insect development inhibitor or growth regulator).
Powders are a rather old-fashioned and messy way of treating fleas. The powder needs to remain on the coat to be effective and can be swallowed or inhaled causing illness.
Sprays are also used less frequently since the development of ‘Spot-on’ treatments. The noise of a spray can also upset a nervous cat. However, a pump action spray containing fipronil can be useful for very young kittens for whom the spot-on treatments are not licensed.
Flea collars are generally not very effective as they have a limited range of effect (around the collar). Also remember that all collars in cats MUST have a quick release system or the cat can get their leg caught in the collar or the collar caught on something in the environment. These collars can also cause hair loss or irritation around the neck.
These products are now the simplest and most effective way of treating and preventing flea infestations. They are usually small vials contain a small amount of liquid applied to the back of the neck. They may kill fleas and some also prevent the development of eggs and there are a number of different brands available. The duration of action varies between products. Consult your vet for more information.
Tablets and liquids are available that are absorbed by the cat and either kill fleas when they bite or sterilise them so they cannot reproduce.
An injection is available to prevent the development of flea eggs but a topical treatment may need to be used at the same time.
As well as treating your cat you may need to treat the house too. As mentioned above, some of the topical or oral treatments also provide some help in preventing household infestation by preventing fleas laying eggs or preventing the eggs developing. Household sprays are also available for carpets and furnishings. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions which usually include advice on how to use your vacuum-cleaner to bring the eggs and immature fleas in your carpets and upholstery to the surface, then kill the fleas with the spray so they stop hooking onto the carpet, and then re-vacuum. When you're finished, spray the vacuum cleaner with flea spray and throw away any vacuum bags. If you don't spray the vacuum cleaner, you run the risk of redistributing the same flea eggs back onto the carpet through the exhaust of the vacuum next time you use it. Read the instructions carefully and DO NOT USE SPRAYS NEAR A FISH TANK. Always remove animals from the treated areas until these have been ventilated.
Severe infestations in the house may require pest control treatment. Always ensure all animals are removed from the treated areas.
Flea repellent products often contain ‘natural’ ingredients such as oil of citronella and eucalyptus. Such products may have not undergone the safety testing of veterinary licensed products and so could be either ineffective or potentially toxic to cats. It is always preferable to use a veterinary licensed product.
Consult your vet to discuss the best flea-control products for your cat. Flea control is vital all year round to ensure your cat’s health as well as prevent the family being bitten.
What are ticks?
Ticks are parasites that bury their mouthparts under a cat's skin and suck blood back into their bodies. Unfed ticks are tiny, have eight legs, and can be black, brown, red or tan in colour. Once they attach themselves to your cat, they can swell up to the size of a pea. There are several types of tick that affect cats and dogs in the UK including the sheep tick (Ixodes ricinus), hedgehog tick (Ixodes hexagonus) and dog tick (Ixodes canisuga). Humans can also be bitten by ticks. Some ticks can also transmit diseases, although this is less of a problem in the UK.
How do I spot ticks?
Ticks are just large enough to be visible, particularly when engorged with blood when they look like small warts. You'll usually find them around the head and neck areas. Just part your cat's fur and run your fingers along the skin. On close inspection you can see their legs at the level of the skin. They may cause some irritation at the site of the bite.
How do I treat ticks?
Don’t rush to pull a tick out as you may leave the mouthparts behind, causing a sore area of infection or inflammation. Instead ask your vet or vet nurse to provide you with a specially designed tick removal tool that removes the mouthparts as well, and ask them to show you how to use it. When you have removed the tick, check it’s head and legs are present and there is nothing left at the level of the skin. If you are worried something was left behind, consult your vet or vet nurse.
Some flea products also kill ticks and some provide some protection against them, although they may require more frequent application than needed for protection against fleas.
Along with effective flea control, removal of ticks is vital to keep your pet healthy. Discuss the best protocol to prevent infestation with your vet.