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Few things wreak havoc on summer fun like fleas. These tiny, nearly invisible creatures have been pestering cats and their owners since the beginning of time, or pretty close to it. One bite from these wingless blood suckers can cause itching for days, and where there is one flea, it’s a safe bet there are plenty more looming in your carpet, furniture, bedding, and on your four-legged friends.
Worse yet, some cats are sensitive to fleas and can have an allergic reaction known as flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), one of the most common skin diseases seen in small animal practices. One flea bite can make a cat’s life (and yours!) miserable – plunging him into a vicious cycle of biting, scratching, and licking.
Despite the yuck factor, fleas (and ticks) are no joking matter, as they also can spread diseases to cats and humans. The most common risk is tapeworm, which can be transmitted when a cat swallows a flea. Tapeworms can also infect humans, especially kids, who inadvertently ingest a flea. About one-eighth inch long, slightly smaller than a sesame seed, and generally brown or black in color, the cat flea, in serious infestations, also can cause anemia, especially in kittens.
Cat Flea Basics
More than 2,200 species of fleas exist worldwide. In North America, the Ctenocephalides felis, also known as the cat flea, is the most common flea and is the flea responsible for also infecting dogs.
Fleas feeding on your cat inject saliva that contains different antigens and histamine-like substances, resulting in irritation and itching sensations that can range from mild to downright nasty. Cats with flea allergies usually itch over their entire bodies, experience generalized hair loss, and develop red, inflamed skin and hot spots. Frequently restless and uncomfortable, cats usually spend the majority of their time scratching, digging, licking, and chewing their skin. It’s a vicious cycle and a miserable and agonizing situation for cats. Many cats will also get a secondary skin infection that look like small bumps called military dermatitis.
Female fleas can produce up to 40 or 50 eggs per day during peak egg production, averaging 27 eggs per day for 50 days. Some females continue to produce eggs for more than 100 days, with some laying up to 2,000 eggs in their lifespan of up to one year. If you live where the temperature freezes, count your blessings. The cat flea is susceptible to cold, and that means it can’t survive more than a few days when exposed to temperatures below 37º F (3º C).
Getting Rid of Fleas on Your Cat
Flea control and treatment recommendations vary with individual situations and can be multi-faceted – depending on the severity of infestation, number of cats and dogs in the environment, and the owners’ finances. Thankfully, highly effective flea control products – ranging from once-a-month topical treatments including Frontline, Advantage, and Revolution, to chewable tablets, such as Comfortis – are readily available with varying safety and efficacy. Always check with your veterinarian before using flea-control products.
You also will want to focus on your home and yard, as any effective flea control program includes treating your cats and their environment.
- NEVER treat a cat with a flea product labeled for dogs without the approval of your veterinarian.
- Treat any other household pets that can serve as hosts, such as other dogs, cats, and ferrets.
- Clean everything your cat has come in contact with. Wash his beds and blankets weekly. (Some say adding apple-cider vinegar to the rinse discourages new fleas.)
- Mop floors and vacuum all carpets, rugs, and furniture. Immediately dispose of vacuum bags because eggs can hatch in them.
- If necessary, remove dense vegetation near your home, yard, or kennel area – these spaces offer a damp micro-environment that is favorable to flea development.