Cat Fleas and Ticks: Symptoms & Treatment
The most common type of flea found on cats is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), but rabbit and hedgehog fleas can also show an interest in your cat! Flea bites are itchy for all cats, and can lead to some developing allergies (known as flea-allergic dermatitis). As if fleas weren’t pesky enough, they can also provide a thriving environment for certain types of tapeworm, and heavy infestations can cause anaemia in kittens.
However there’s no need to worry, as there are plenty of treatment options available to keep you cat flea free.
What are fleas?
Cats are excellent groomers, so it might be tough to imagine your preened pet catching parasites! The most obvious sign that your cat has fleas is persistent scratching, or sometimes over-grooming, which can result in bald patches on their coat. If your cat develops a flea allergy they may also have scabs and red, sore areas on their skin. Regularly grooming your cat won’t necessarily prevent parasites, but it will at let you have a chance to check their fur for any signs of unwanted visitors, so that you can quickly seek treatment.
Cat fleas are dark brown and 1-2mm long. You might spot them in your carpet or notice tiny black specks of flea waste in your cat’s fur during combing. A good way to test for fleas is to put these black specks onto some damp tissue paper – if it is from a flea, the specks will turn red because of the digested blood they contain.
Fleas thrive in warm, humid environments which means late summer is the peak season for fleas on cats, although central heating in winter means you’ll need to de-flea your cat throughout the year.
My cat has fleas. How can I treat or prevent them?
If you think your cat has fleas, speak to your vet for information on suitable feline flea treatments – and make sure you check with them before using any over-the-counter product. Never use a dog flea product on your cat as the active ingredient, permethrin, can be extremely toxic to your cat. If you have dogs as well as cats, don’t treat your dogs with any flea treatment products containing this chemical as cats can be exposed to it by contact. Read this list for information on flea products that are potentially fatal to cats.
If your cat has a bad reaction to a flea product you should tell the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. More information is available from International Cat Care.
When you’re deciding how to get rid of cat fleas, remember you’ll have to treat your house as well as your cat. You should use a combination of topical products to kill the adult fleas, plus a house treatment that will prevent eggs developing into adults. Make sure all soft furnishings and carpets are regularly thoroughly washed on a high heat, too.
Remember, it’s very important you speak to your vet before treating your cat, particularly if they’re pregnant or feeding new kittens. Some off-the-shelf products are less effective than prescribed products, and cats can even build up an immunity to these treatments. Your vet will be able to advise on the best flea treatment for your cat.
There are a wide variety of treatments available that can be applied directly to onto your cat’s skin and fur to target the fleas where they live on your pet.
Powders are a rather old-fashioned and messy way of treating fleas on your cat, as the powder needs to remain on your cat’s coat to be effective and can cause illness if it’s swallowed or inhaled.
Sprays are also used less frequently than they used to be, thanks mainly to the invention of the ‘spot-on’ treatments. The noise of the spray can also upset nervous cats. However, a pump action spray containing an ingredient called fipronil can be used on very young kittens, which aren’t allowed to use spot-on treatments.
Flea collars aren’t usually very effective as they have a limited range – that is, they only treat the area around the neck – and can also cause hair loss or irritation. However, there is a new generation of flea collars – available from your vet – which are much kinder to your cat’s skin and fur, and work by dispersing the active ingredient through the body rather than simply sitting on your cat’s neck. Remember, all cat collars must have a quick-release mechanism, otherwise your cat can get easily tangled.
These products are the simplest and most effective way of treating and preventing fleas. They usually consist of a small vial of liquid which should be applied to the back of your cat’s neck, killing fleas and sometimes the development of eggs. There are several brands available, so talk to your vet to find the best one for your cat.
As well as topical treatments, you can treat you cat from the inside with medicines.
Fleas can also be treated orally through tablets and liquids which are absorbed by the cat and then kill or sterilise fleas when they bite.
Cats can have an injection to prevent the development of flea eggs, but you’ll usually have to use a topical treatment at the same time.
Some of the treatments mentioned above are helpful in treating your house as well, as they prevent fleas from laying eggs, or prevent the eggs from developing. However, there are many household sprays available that can be used on carpets and furnishings.
Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, which will usually tell you to vacuum your carpets to bring fleas and eggs to the surface before thoroughly spraying your carpet, and then vacuuming again. Always spray the vacuum cleaner with flea spray and throw away any vacuum bags so that fleas can’t continue to develop inside.
Don’t use sprays near fish tanks and always make sure your pets are kept away from treated areas until they’ve been well-ventilated. Unfortunately, very severe infestations in a house may require pest control treatment.
Other treatments for cat fleas
Some flea treatment products contain natural ingredients such as oil of citronella and eucalyptus. These products usually haven’t undergone any stringent safety tests, so they may not be effective or could potentially affect your cat’s health. It’s always best to speak to your vet before using any product.
What are ticks?
Ticks are another kind of parasite. Ticks bite beneath 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, but once they attach themselves to your cat they can swell up to the size of a pea as they fill with blood.
How do I spot ticks on my cat?
Cat ticks are large enough to be visible, especially if they’ve already had a bite – then they can look like small warts, and on closer inspection you can see their legs, too. You’ll usually find them around your cat’s head and neck area. If you want to check for ticks, part your cat’s fur and run your fingers along their skin. Tick bites can also cause irritation and redness, which you may be able to see.
How do I treat ticks on my cat?
Never pull a tick out of your cat’s skin as you may end up leaving the mouthpart behind, which could cause an infection or inflammation. Instead, ask your vet to give you a specially-designed tick removal tool that will get rid of the mouthparts as well, and ask them to show you how to use it.
Once you’ve removed the tick, check its head and legs are intact and that there’s nothing left behind in your cat’s skin. If you think there might be, talk to your vet who will be able to advise you and put your mind at ease.
Some flea products also kill ticks, while others provide a bit of extra protection against them, although they’ll need more frequent application than usual. Always talk to your vet to find the best treatment for your cat.