Most pet owners are unaware their cat has fleas until they notice their cat scratching. Some cats can have very heavy infestations without being bothered, other cats are extremely sensitive to the saliva in a flea bite and just one flea can be enough to cause him to itch and scratch.
- Itching, biting and scratching, especially around the neck, ears and around the base of the tail.
- Some cats are sensitive to the saliva in the flea bite and may develop crusting, this is particularly common along the back.
- You may notice flea eggs and droppings in his bedding. Flea eggs are white, droppings are dark red, giving the appearance of salt and pepper.
To check for fleas, carefully go through your cat's fur, paying close attention to the base of the tail and around the neck. Cat fleas are brown in colour with a flat body, and approximately 2mm in length.
Effects of fleas on your cat:
Fleas are more than a nuisance, they can have a serious impact on your cat's health and comfort. Heavy infestations can lead to anemia, especially in young kittens.
A lot of cats develop an allergy to flea saliva, which is known as flea allergy dermatitis, an extremely uncomfortable condition characterised by itching, biting and scratching along with multiple papules. Left untreated, repeated biting and scratching can damage the skin and lead to a bacterial infection.
To combat fleas, it is important to understand their life cycle. There are 4 stages to the flea life cycle, known as metamorphosis.
The image below shows a break up of the population of fleas and their life cycle. As you can see, only 5% are actually adult fleas which would live on your cat, the remainder are found in the environment in the form of eggs (50%), larvae (35%) and pupae (10%). It is absolutely vital to treat both your pet and hour environment (home and garden) if you are to combat fleas.
1) 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.
2) 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.
3) 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.
4) 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 it's 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.
Can I catch fleas from my cat?
A heavy infestation may lead to fleas taking the occasional blood meal from humans, but they generally prefer to live on cats. Signs you may have been bitten by a flea include itching and scratching and a small, red, papule. Humans are most often bitten around the ankles and feet.
Getting rid of cat fleas:
This is a two pronged approach. Treating the cat and the environment (your home/outdoors), both of which have to be done at the same time.
There are several methods of flea control for cats. 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.
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 cat flea control, 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/spray.
Wash rugs, cat bedding etc., in the hottest possible cycle.
Frequent vaccuming 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.
Spray areas your pet tends to hang out, and if it has bedding in the garden, bring it in and wash it.
You will need flea bomb any outdoor buildings such as garages and sheds, 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.