Fleas are extremely common, and are also one of the main skin problems in cats. The most commonly found flea is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), but rabbit and hedgehog fleas can also occasionally be found on cats. Flea bites can cause allergic reactions in some cats (flea-allergic dermatitis), and fleas also act as intermediate hosts for certain tapeworms meaning that if you find fleas on your cat you must also treat it for tapeworms. A heavy flea infestation can cause anaemia in kittens, which is potentially life-threatening. And remember, fleas bite humans too although thankfully cat fleas will not live on humans!
What are Fleas? What are Ticks?
Fleas are the most common external parasites of both cats and dogs. Adult fleas can live for several months and will spend most of that time living on your cat to feed and also laying eggs. Females lay up to 50 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 with a silk like cocoon where they remain dormant for 2- 4 weeks or sometimes even longer. When they sense warmth and vibration, the adult fleas emerge and jump onto a passing host to start the life cycle again. Fleas can also potentially transmit diseases, including certain blood parasites.
Ticks are parasites that bury their mouthparts into a cat's skin and suck their blood. Unfed ticks are tiny, have eight legs, and can be black, brown, red or tan in colour. After feeding they swell in size, becoming like a large brown pea. They are arachnids, and have a much longer life cycle than fleas. Fortunately, they spend much of their time away from their hosts, but are still carriers of serious diseases, and can lay thousands of eggs at a time.
How do I Spot Fleas and Ticks?
The most obvious sign of fleas is persistent scratching. Some cats will not scratch but rather over-groom themselves, which leaves bald patches. Fleas are dark brown and 1mm or 2mm long. They are fast moving and difficult to spot, but you may find them on your cat or you may notice tiny black specks of flea dirt 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 flea 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.
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 of cats. An easy way to help spot ticks is to part the hair of your cat and run your fingers along its skin, feeling for any pea- sized lumps or bumps. Ticks are picked up in the wild, so if your cat enjoys going outside it’s worth checking your cat’s coat when it returns.
Treatments for fleas and ticks come in several forms, including powders, sprays, spot ons, or even injections. Always consult your vet about flea treatments and preferably use a veterinary licensed product that shows it has been tested for safety and effectiveness.
To tackle fleas, you need to treat your home as well as your cat. Use a combination of products which kill adult fleas (adulticide) and which prevent the eggs developing into adults (insect development inhibitor or growth regulator).
With ticks, don’t rush to pull the 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. When you have removed the tick, check its head and legs are present and there is nothing left at the level of the skin.
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.
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.
A good diet such as PRO PLAN Cat contains nutrients which support skin and coat health such as omega- 3 fatty acids and protein. For more details see...