Cat fleas and treatments – comprehensive page

Before I write about cat flea treatment, I would like to discuss cat fleas generally. Some time ago I wrote a succinct post on the life cycle of the cat flea – fascinating..:).

Fleas in a jar
Fleas in a jar.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

There are other posts from visitors (and me!) too. Here is a nice selection:

Update 16th October 2010: The Cat Flea: biology, ecology and control – this covers some very useful ground about how the flea resists cat flea treatments and life cycle.

There is no doubt about it; fleas are the single biggest minor health problem (but can be major) for cats on a day-to-day basis. We may not be aware of it but if we comb through a cat’s fur with a flea comb (a fine-toothed comb at 32 teeth per inch), we might well see a flea or two or more. Densely furred cats are particularly susceptible as fleas prefer this sort of fur and cats that venture outside are more likely to pick up fleas. But the fleas are carried inside so in the end both inside and outside are sources.

Yes, you probably know that people can bring in fleas to their home on their person and of course other animals living in the home might do it as well. So, a full-time indoor cat can get fleas.

The common cat flea (C.felis) is “the most common parasite on the cat’s skin”1. And all cats are affected by this horrible but strong parasite, except for cats living 5,000 feet above sea level. If you positively want to be in an environment where there are no cat fleas then you should move to a home that is 5000 feet above sea level! ?.

Fleas feed on the cat’s blood. This irritates the cat. I have been bitten by a cat flea and it leaves a small itchy spot, quite minor but if there are lots of fleas on a cat it can be cause serious health issues, cause the cat to become depressed, cause possible anemia and in rare cases, the humble cat flea, can kill the cat or kitten (most likely the latter). There is the secondary issue too, namely that some cats can be allergic to fleas (become hypersensitive to flea saliva). This causes intense itching and a skin reaction. The cat scratches exacerbating the problem. The Ragdoll skin scabs link above discusses this.

Signs or symptoms

The signs are pretty obvious. As mentioned, you can get a flea comb from the local vet or a human nit comb to check. The human nit comb (for combing out nits in hair) can be obtained from a local pharmacist but this is less effective than a proper flea comb. In fact, they are a poor substitute for the real thing as the teeth are a fraction too wide apart.

The combs are very fine. This makes them effective in picking up fleas but on double-coated cats there is resistance and they can pull. This will irritate a cat so combing should be gentle and slow. If a cat likes the experience, combing can be a pleasure for both cat and human and highly beneficial for the cat. But if combing is done too harshly the cat will resist making the process difficult and unpleasant for both cat and human. Flea combing can be a bonding experience as the cat immediately feels the benefit through the lack of irritation from the flea and the gentle scratching of the comb.

If there are fleas, the comb will pick up fleas and the salt and pepper bits that they produce. This granular substance is the flea’s feces and eggs. I find that the feces and eggs are more often at the base of the tail and in clumps around the shoulders of the cat. The fleas are more commonly around the chin, upper chest, shoulders, flanks near the shoulders and around the head area. They can sometimes be around the groin area too1, although I have never seen this myself.

When the flea is combed out, I immediately crush it with my thumb nail against the flea comb. This is my personal style of doing things. There are many alternatives. But speed is always required!

Appearance of flea

I have seen a gazillion cat fleas. Not that my previous cats were infested! And neither is my current cat: Gabs. Far from it. They go outside so are bound to pick them up particularly as foxes also go into the garden.

Cat fleas don't fly
Image: MERSEYPEST – Pest Control Liverpool

Cat fleas are amazingly strong and hugely athletic and they move fast. They are usually about 2 mm long, shiny, dark brown with long legs. They have a hard shell. This is their external skeleton. When crushed the shell “pops” – not nice. Sometimes they are smaller. My boy cat who has a single coat gets a few very small fleas. Maybe these are sub-adult, I am not sure. The flea has no wings but can jump huge distances vertically in relation to its size. This allows the flea to jump onto passing host animals. Fleas move rapidly through the cat’s fur and when combed out can escape by jumping and moving fast. Next, cat flea treatment…

RELATED: parasite pictures and cat parasites for pictures of cat fleas.

Cat Flea Treatment

I will divide this up into two sections (a) what I do and (b) what an experienced vet says. I have used the excellent resource: Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook by Drs Carlson and Giffin, a fine book (except they don’t denounce declawing – come on guys…). The short sections in quotes are from this book.

An important initial observation is that cat flea treatment must entail a coordinated attack on fleas, their larvae and pupa in the environment, particularly household carpet, as well as on the host, our cat. If we simply kill fleas on the cat the supply side (fleas emerging from the carpet) will re-stock the fleas on the cat.

Secondly, this is an ongoing process. Fleas can’t it seems be eliminated as the flea has a large reproductive capacity and wild animals carry fleas. Temperature and humidity levels have an effect on cat flea development.

There are several advantages to combing your cat with a flea comb
There are 8 advantages (or more) to combing your cat with a flea comb. Photo: MikeB

My cat flea treatment

Clearly the degree of cat flea treatment depends on a number of factors. If there is just one cat and if that cat is a full-time indoor cat, the treatment might consist of flea combing the cat and cleaning the carpets. I have two cats who are indoor/outdoor cats (update Jan 2022: I have one cat). They get fleas but not badly. I have the carpet cleaned professionally about once every six months (update: Jan 2022 – I have no carpets ?). I flea comb both cats from between once to three times daily. They both like it. Occasionally I use Frontline Spot-on Flea Treatment. But as this is quite toxic and as my old lady cat is…old, I only comb her. But she is more prone to fleas as she has a thick double coat (she has some Norwegian Forest cat in her).

My level of flea control is quite low or passive as I don’t have a bad flea problem.

Many years ago, I tried a cat flea treatment spray – simply spraying the cat’s fur. This positively did not work. My cat licked the wet fur and she started to foam at the mouth. I immediately took her to the vet and she was OK. But it was a scare.

A non-toxic substance that kills fleas by cutting their exoskeleton is food grade diatomaceous earth. This is safe as it is not chemically based. But it is like sand to look at and unsuitable, I would have thought, in the home. It can be placed in the fur of a cat. Although it can be eaten! By livestock as it kills parasites internally.

The Experts

All animals in the house need to be treated (if there are more than one). This stops re-infestation. Of course, steps will need to be taken to prevent the original state of affairs reoccurring.

As mentioned earlier, cat flea treatments that are chemical substances should be used with caution and good sense – e.g., read the instructions. For example, “preparations for dogs and livestock can be toxic to cats“. Further, many flea treatments should not be used on kittens and pregnant cats. Please check with your vet and read those instructions.

There are cat flea treatment sprays. I don’t like them. But the experts say that they are most effective when used between shampoos to “kill late-hatching fleas that have eluded the living quarters”. The insecticides in sprays are the same as in shampoos. They say use the water-based ones. The alcohol-based ones are “flammable and irritate the skin” – sounds bad.

Sprays and foams are not suitable for kittens under two months of age.

If you do opt for a spray, the vets say that you should begin at the head and work back towards the tail. This avoids the fleas migrating towards the head!

Cat flea treatment insecticide powders and dusts retain “residual killing activity” (they kill for a longer period after application) but they need to be worked into the fur down to the skin, which sounds difficult. The coat is dried out. Applications are made 2-3 times a week. Powders are “best used with shampoos, sprays or dips”.

Flea shampoos are probably the most common cat flea treatment after Frontline spot cat flea treatment. However, they only work while actually shampooing. There is no residual killing activity. Shampoos are best for “mild to moderate flea infestation”.

Lastly, we have insecticide dips. These sound horrible but are the most effective cat flea treatment. The experts say that they are “extremely effective”. They kill the fleas for the longest period after application. They say “organic dips” that contain d-limonene are the safest. I would exercise extreme caution. Insecticide cat flea treatments should be repeated “every 7 to 10 days but please read the instructions!

Insecticides are Poisons

Some insecticides contain organophosphates. These are dangerous to humans never mind a young cat! Personally, I wouldn’t use them.

I would recommend the safest, which are natural insecticides. These contain botanical compounds. D-limonene is effective against fleas “at all stages”. Safety comes first and remember flea combing and house cleanliness is the safest and easiest.

Avoid using an insecticide as a cat flea treatment when also using the same chemicals for de-worming as it will cause a chemical overload.

If the cat’s coat is matted it should be washed in a “gentle commercial cat shampoo first”. The dip should be applied when the cat is still wet and as per the instructions. The head and head area must be treated as this is where fleas congregate. The eyes and ears must be protected. The experts say, “apply ointment or mineral oil in the eyes and plug the ears with cotton”. In relation to the eyes, I am not sure what that means to be honest. A flea comb should be used immediately after the dip.

Here is a suggested cat flea treatment program from Drs Carlson and Giffin and associates. I think it is over the top, to be honest, but if there is a bad infestation it is probably highly effective:

  1. Shampoo the cat with an insecticide made for cats. An insecticide dip is advised if there is a severe infestation of fleas.
  2. If the cat has a dry skin or a flea allergy an insecticide cream rinse containing 0.5 percent permethrin (a common synthetic chemical) is advised.
  3. Repeat shampoo every 2- 3 weeks until the fleas are eliminated.
  4. Between shampooing the experts say to “use a pump spray product such as Ovitrol Plus Flea Spray” or for example: Escort Flea & Tick Pet Spray. There are others.
  5. Using a flea comb is good for kittens and shorthair cats. I agree this. The face and areas around the face should be the focus of attention and the base of the tail (in my experience).
  6. Flea collars might be popular but they are not an instant cure. The experts say that a flea collar should “not be used as the sole source of control”. Collars can hurt cats so it should be a breakaway collar. These prevent the cat being strangled if the collar becomes caught up.

With “heavy infestations” the premises needs to be treated too. I have reservations about whether this would take place as a person or persons who allow a heavy infestation to take place are unlikely to do what is necessary to eliminate the infestation – considerable work is required.

The vets recommend that an outside contractor might be appropriate as recommended by your vet. The house must be cleaned thoroughly and the application of insecticides applied simultaneously.

The idea behind disinfecting the premises is to get rid of:

  • insects
  • eggs
  • larvae and
  • “other intermediate stages”

The process includes:

  • at the hottest setting, washing weekly blankets and bedding.
  • vacuum carpets (perhaps having them cleaned professionally or steam cleaned – insecticides can be added to the steam cleaner). Vacuum bags should be discarded after use as they harbor developing fleas.
  • applying insecticide in corners, cracks.
  • spraying furniture.
  • floors mopped.
  • consider a professional exterminator.
  • after a thorough cleaning, the house and yard (garden in the UK) should be treated with at least three insecticide applications at 2 or 3 weekly intervals.
  • the house should be re-treated as appropriate.

Cat Flea Treatment — Note:

1. Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook by Drs Carlson and Giffin. This is the best book on cat health on the market by the way.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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