Reviewed by Dr Sam Kovac of Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic
Fleas are a common external parasite which feeds on the blood of their host. Their flattened body, hard exoskeleton and backward-facing hairs allow the flea to burrow through the fur to the skin where they feed on the host’s blood using specialised mouthparts. Young kittens are at risk because of their small size and blood volume, which puts them at risk of anemia (low red blood cell count). Most flea products are toxic to very young kittens and cannot be used until 6-8 weeks.
Signs of fleas on kittens
A flea infestation isn’t always evident, especially if the cat has a dark coat or the flea population is low. Cats with a heavy infestation or pale coats are easier to diagnose fleas.
- Scratching and biting the skin (very young kittens may not necessarily scratch).
- Presence of fleas in the cat’s coat.
- Salt and pepper debris in the coat and areas the cats sleep.
- Some cats develop flea allergy dermatitis, an itchy skin disease caused by an allergy histamine-like compounds, proteolytic enzymes, and anticoagulants which are released into the host when the flea feeds. Intense itching as well as small crusty lesions (papules) can develop along the back and neck areas. Age of onset does not typically occur in cats under one year; therefore, symptoms may develop in the mother, but not young kittens.
- Pale gums, weakness, lethargy and rapid heartbeat are common signs of anemia in kittens or adults with a heavy flea burden.
How to check for fleas:
- Run your fingers or a flea comb through the cat’s fur; you may spot small, fast-moving dark fleas.
- Stand your cat on a white piece of paper, move your hand in the opposite direction of the hair growth to dislodge flea droppings and eggs. Lightly spray the paper with a demister. Look for small red-brown specks which leave red stains, caused blood in flea feces.
If the mother has fleas, the kittens will have them also. Kittens are at risk of anemia, which can be deadly.
How to tackle 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:
- Kill adult fleas on the cat.
- Kill adult fleas, eggs, and larvae in the home.
- Killing adult fleas, eggs and larvae in outdoor areas.
If you live in a multi-cat household or have dogs, it is essential to treat all animals simultaneously.
Treat the kitten
Until kittens are old enough for flea treatments to be used, it will be necessary to manually remove fleas as well as treat the mother and decontaminate the home.
Flea comb method
- Fill a bowl with Dawn and warm water.
- Carefully remove fleas from the kitten’s coat and drop into the bowl of water to drown the flea.
Bathe the kitten
- Fill a sink with warm water and two teaspoons of Dawn (or another type of dishwashing detergent) and bathe the kitten. Start from the neck and work your way down to the tail. Create a ring of detergent around the neck, to prevent fleas from running up the body and onto the head. If they do make their way to the head, use tweezers or a flea comb to remove. Drop fleas in a bowl of hot, soapy water.
- Rinse thoroughly with warm after to remove all detergent residue.
- Kittens are unable to regulate their body temperature, and the kitten must stay warm to prevent hypothermia. Wrap in a towel to remove excess water and place the kitten in a warm room or dry with a hairdryer on a low setting, and two feet away from the body.
Do not use flea medications (including topical/spot-on products, flea collars, dips or shampoos) on young kittens unless you have been told to do so by your veterinarian. Most flea control products are not safe to use on kittens under 6-8 weeks old.
Keep a very close eye for fleas on kittens, as a heavy infestation can kill. If in any doubt whatsoever, seek veterinary attention immediately.
Treat the mother
The mother (queen), as well as all other pets, must be treated for fleas at the same time as the kittens to prevent re-infestation. Not all flea products are safe to use on pregnant or lactating females, so always check with your veterinarian. More information is available on cat flea treatments here.
Treat the environment
Wash all bedding in hot water and hang outside to dry in the sun.
Place a piece of cut-up flea collar into the vacuum cleaner barrel or bag and vacuum thoroughly. Pay attention to corners, cracks, skirting boards and around pet sleeping areas. Dispose of debris in the outside waste daily.
Fleas and tapeworm
Tapeworms are flat, segmented worms with hooks that anchor the worm to the wall of the small intestine, where it feeds on nutrients the cat ingests. Infection occurs when they ingest a flea infected with a larval tapeworm (cysticercoid).
Tapeworms pose several problems for cats, which includes:
- Intestinal discomfort and pain – Humans report nausea and cramping, which likely occurs in cats as well.
- Increase or decrease in appetite – Loss of appetite may occur due to the abovementioned intestinal discomfort. Some cats will have an increase in appetite, as it competes with the tapeworm(s) for nutrients.
- Malnutrition – Large parasite burdens can lead to malabsorption of nutrients resulting in the host (cat) not receiving enough nutrients.
- Poor coat condition – Malnutrition and malabsorption can lead to reduced quality of the coat and skin which can include thinning, coarseness and a dull appearance.
- Intestinal blockage – High numbers of tapeworms can block the intestines, particularly in kittens.
- Perineal or anal irritation and scooting – Tapeworm segment migration from the anus can cause intense itching. The cat may lick the area excessively, or drag its bottom along the ground.