Cats and fleas are something all pet owners would rather do without. This article explains what fleas are, which species of flea affects cats, how to tell if your cat has fleas, how to treat your cat for fleas and how to prevent future flea infestations in cats and your home.
Where are cat fleas found?
Fleas are found throughout the world, although they are far more prevalent in warmer and humid climates.
Life cycle of the flea
Before you begin your flea eradication programme, it is important to learn about the life cycle of fleas. With this understanding, you will be equipped with the knowledge on how to combat them.
There are 4 stages of the flea life cycle, known as metamorphosis.
1) Egg: At .5mm in length, flea eggs are barely visible to the human eye, the female flea lays approximately one egg per hour. The flea egg is whitish, smooth and dry and easily falls off the coat into the environment. Flea eggs hatch in around 1 - 10 days, depending on conditions. Flea eggs and flea droppings are often found together. When the cat scratches the eggs along with the droppings fall off the cat. The droppings provide food to the larvae when they hatch. The eggs and droppings together have the appearance of salt and pepper.
Environmental conditions such as humidity, light, and temperature determine how quickly and how many flea larvae hatch from flea eggs. The lower the temperature, the fewer larvae will hatch. Optimal conditions for flea larvae to hatch are 70% and higher and temperatures of 21 - 32 degrees C (70 - 89 degrees F).
Flea eggs fall off the cat when it jumps, scratches, moves, and sleeps. Eggs are found all over the home, but in their highest concentrations in your cat's preferred spots such as bedding.
2) Larvae: The larvae are vermiform (maggot like) like in appearance and up to 6mm long, flea larvae avoid light by residing deep in carpet fibres, under furniture and rugs and in crevices. At this stage, they have no legs or eyes but have chewing mouth parts. Flea larvae feed on adult flea excrement, food debris, and dead skin.
3) Pupae: This is the transition stage between larvae and adult flea. After approximately 7-18 days the flea larvae pupate. It takes approximately 7 - 10 days for the larvae to develop into a flea, although it may be some time before the flea emerges from its protective cocoon. They are at their most resilient as pupae, and resistant to insecticides.
The flea larvae spins a sticky, protective silken (produced by the saliva of the larvae) outer cocoon, covered with particles of debris such as dust, hair, lint etc. The pupae are found in carpet fibres, crevices etc., and are virtually undetectable.
4) Adult flea: The adult flea emerges when it is stimulated by environmental factors such as vibrations, warmth or breath of the host. The flea can come out of it's cocoon within seconds of stimulation. The lifespan of an adult flea is around 2 - 3 months. The adult flea is around 1.5 - 4mm long, and dark brown or black in appearance. Adults suck blood from their host. Adult fleas begin laying eggs within 36 - 48 hours of their first blood meal. A female flea consumes up to 15 times her body weight in blood per day.
How do cats become infected with fleas?
Cats become infected with fleas via the environment or other pets who have a flea infestation.
How do you know if your pet has fleas?
Scratching and biting at the fur is a good indicator your cat has fleas, although cats scratch and bite for reasons other than fleas. Upon close inspection of the fur and skin, you can usually see fleas on your cat, they are small dark brown insects. It is easier to see fleas if you have a light coloured cat. You may also notice flea droppings on your cat's bedding. If you are unsure, stand your cat on a white piece of paper, rough up its fur a little and then lightly spray the paper with a demister. If you have very small brown specks which leave red stains on the paper then that is a sure sign your cat has fleas.
Are fleas dangerous to cats?
If the infestation is heavy and or prolonged they can in some cases cause death due to flea bite anaemia. Kittens are more vulnerable than healthy, adult cats. Fleas can also infect your cat with tapeworm. Flea bite hypersensitivity (flea allergy dermatitis) can also be a problem in some cats. This will be covered in another article soon.
Successfully tackling a flea outbreak
Below is a percentage of the flea population in the environment:
5% of adult fleas live on your cat.
10% are pupae
35% are larvae
50% are eggs
Killing fleas on your cat will not solve the problem as most of the flea life cycle is spent off the animal. You need to focus your attention in three areas:
1) Kill adult fleas on the cat.
2) Kill adult fleas, eggs, and larvae in the home.
3) Killing adult fleas, eggs and larvae in outdoor areas.
If you live in a multi-cat household or have dogs, it is important to treat all animals simultaneously.
Treat your cat
There are several methods of flea control for cats: These products vary in price and effectiveness.
Flea collar, shampoo, flea combs, spray, tablets, powders, insect growth regulators and topical treatments.
Flea collars: There are many different types of flea collar on the market. Some are insecticide only and work by killing adult fleas on the cat. Other flea collars contain IGR's to kill the eggs and larvae.
Flea collars often only kill fleas on the cat's head and neck, but fleas further down the body survive.
Shampoo/Dips: Flea shampoos contain insecticides which kill adult fleas.
Flea Combs: Flea combs aren't overly effective, only removing 10 - 50% of fleas on your cat. If you wish to use this method place a small bowl of water with some detergent in it close by and drop the fleas into the bowl. This will drown the fleas. Placing a small amount of petroleum jelly onto the teeth of the comb will help the fleas stick to it.
Flea Powders: Flea powders will kill adult fleas on the cat. Powders may cause the cat's coat to dry out and also may be irritating to the cat's oral and respiratory mucosa.
Oral suspensions: Program® is given to cats via an oral suspension once a month. The product is added to the cat's food and is absorbed into the bloodstream. When a flea bites a cat treated with Program it ingests the active ingredient (lufenuron), which is passed to her eggs and prevents them from hatching. As this product only prevents eggs from hatching, an appropriate adulticide will also be needed to kill adult fleas. Seek advice from your veterinarian before using more than one product on your cat. It is also extremely important to speak to your veterinarian if you are considering treating a pregnant or nursing cat. They will be able to recommend the safest treatment for your cat.
Spot on treatments: Topical adulticide. There are several effective products on the market which are administered via liquid form to the cat's shoulders. These are available through your veterinarian or online pet product store. These products are very effective for killing adult fleas on your cat. The active ingredient varies from product to product. Application is generally once a month.
When applying a flea product to a cat it is important to follow the instructions on the packet to the letter. Cats are extremely sensitive to chemicals and if you are using one than one product your cat may be exposed to too many toxins, resulting in sickness or death.
Some of the most effective and popular topical flea control products used on cats (and dogs) include Advantage, Revolution, and Frontline.
Revolution also kills worms (except tapeworm), so makes life a bit easier for pet owners, according to the Bayer site,Advantage also kills flea larvae in the pet's environment too.
Cat Flea Sprays: There are some effective cat flea sprays on the market. Frontline make such a spray. Wear rubber gloves while applying the spray to your cat while ruffling the coat. Avoid contact with the eyes and mouth
Warning: Don't ever use flea products designed for other pets on your cat and ALWAYS follow the dosage chart on the back of the packet.
Treat the environment
To treat the house and environment you can either hire the services of a professional pest controller or buy a product from your local supermarket. Most DIY products come in the form of an aerosol "bomb". Prior to letting the bomb off you and your pets should temporarily vacate the premises. Be aware that flea bombs are toxic to other animals, so all pets (including fish) need to be removed prior to bombing.
IGR's: (insect growth regulators) disrupt the cycle of the flea. They prevent eggs from hatching, kill larvae and prevent adult fleas from reproducing. These most often come in as a bomb or spray.
A pest controller should be able to spray your house and garden for fleas. It is important to specify that you have cat(s) living in the house, so they can use a suitable spray which is safe for pets.
Washing your cat's bedding is important. Wash it in the hottest possible cycle.
Frequent vacuuming will also remove fleas and their eggs. One useful tip is to put a flea collar in your vacuum cleaner bag. When vacuuming, pay extra attention to corners, skirting boards, under furniture and any other nooks and crannies. Also vacuum furniture, curtains etc. This is where the larvae love to hang out, eating dust and debris, so it is vital that you thoroughly vacuum. Once you have vacuumed, clean out the bag and dispose of carefully. Ensure that every time you vacuum, you empty it out to prevent any fleas escaping.
Fleas can infest your garden and outdoor buildings too, so while you are treating your cat and house, also pay attention to your garden.
Spray areas your pet tends to hang out, and if it has bedding in the garden, bring it in and wash it.
You may wish to flea bomb any outdoor buildings you have, especially if your cat hangs out there.
Long term flea control
Regular application of a good quality flea control on your cat is the best method of flea control. Ensure your cat's bedding is regularly washed.
Can fleas infect humans?
As stated previously, there are different species of fleas, including human fleas. Generally, cat fleas tend to prefer to live on cats, but they will bite humans.
Can fleas infect other pets?
Yes, they can. This is why it is important to treat all pets for fleas at the same time.