Many pet owners think that seasonal and warm weather flea control is sufficient but contrary to popular belief fleas can and do thrive during the winter months; especially in modern homes where our lovely warm houses are the perfect breeding ground for fleas. These pesky blood-sucking parasites are definitely a year-round problem for our cats and they can really make your cat’s life miserable by causing symptoms ranging from minor irritation and scratching to hair loss and severe allergic reactions. (This is made even worse if they start biting the humans in the household as well!)
Fleas can be a huge problem for pet owners and once they are established in the home they can be quite difficult to get rid of, because of their complex life cycle. The adult fleas we see on our pets are only 5% of the problem – 95% of the flea lifecycle actually takes place in the carpets, floorboards and pet bedding in your home!
There are over 2000 species of fleas in the world, but thankfully only the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) and the dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis) are the main problems for our pets in the UK. We do however, tend to see more of the cat flea because despite the name, it is happy to infest dogs, ferrets and rabbits as well as cats.
The Flea Life Cycle
- The adult fleas live on and feed off the host animal.
- The female flea begins laying eggs within 36-48 hours of her first blood meal. She can lay around 20 eggs per day and up to 200 eggs in her lifetime of a few months. The flea eggs are not sticky so they drop off the host into the home environment, such as carpets, bedding, floorboards and soil.
- The flea larvae emerge from the eggs after 2-14 days (depending on the environmental conditions), and begin to feed off adult flea faeces and other organic debris found in the home. Flea larvae have 3 stages of growth and depending on the amount of food present and environmental conditions this stage lasts around 7-14 days (longer in some cases).
- The larvae spin a silk cocoon and pupate; whilst in the cocoon the flea is at is most resilient and is resistant to insecticides.
- The adult flea can emerge from its cocoon as early as 3-5 days or it can stay in the cocoon for up to a year, just waiting for the right conditions. Warm temperatures, vibrations and carbon dioxide emitted from passing pets and people will trigger them to hatch. Once hatched, they use their well developed back legs to get around and jump onto passing animals.
Problems Caused By Fleas
- Scratching and biting. Fleas are irritating and cause most animals to scratch as they run through their coats (I bet you are feeling itchy right now, just reading this!)
- Hair loss. Caused by scratching or over grooming
- Skin infections. Caused by scratching or self trauma (biting)
- Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). Some cats are hypersensitive to flea saliva and suffer an allergic reaction when bitten. It can take only one flea bite to cause problems for these animals.
- Anaemia. Fleas feed on blood and a heavy infestation can have a big impact on very young, elderly or ill animals
- Tapeworms. Flea larvae can become infected with tapeworm eggs. When cat’s groom themselves they can ingest infected fleas and become host to this parasite. If your cat has fleas you should also make sure he or she is treated for Tapeworms
- Fleas biting people. Although humans cannot be permanent hosts for cat and dog fleas, it will not stop them biting us if the opportunity presents itself.
How To Identify Fleas On Your Pet
- Adult fleas are only a 1.5-3mm in length and can be tricky to spot if there are only a couple causing problems for your cat. Gently part the hair of your pet’s coat to look for fleas.
- The best way to tell if your catt has fleas is by checking for flea dirt (which is actually flea faeces). Wipe a damp piece of cotton wool through your pet’s coat, going against the direction of the hair. This will hopefully pick up any flea dirt that is present. Because flea dirt consists mostly of blood, once it is transferred onto the moist cotton wool, it dissolves and turns a lighter shade of red.
- Alternatively use a flea or fine toothed comb to brush through your cat’s coat and then transfer the brushings onto a piece of damp kitchen paper.
If there are only a few adult fleas present you may not find any evidence of flea dirt in your cat’s coat.
Preventing Fleas Is Far Easier Than Dealing With An Established Infestation
The degree to which you need to control fleas will vary depending on your cat’s lifestyle and the home environment. You might think that a cat kept entirely indoors would be at no risk of catching fleas, but don’t forget that it only takes a visit from one untreated animal, or a flea or flea egg hitching a lift with you, to trigger an infestation in your home, so even housebound cats may require flea control. Cats that routinely go outdoors will likely come into contact with fleas from time to time, and will require a more regular treatment regime.
Remember that only 5% of the flea problem will actually be on your cat, the rest takes place in your home!
1. Use a prescription flea product regularly on your pet
- Most flea treatments are given every 4-6 weeks, depending on the type but some injections for cats and Prescription flea collars can last for 6 – 8 months.
- Speak to a veterinary nurse who can advise you on which type of product will work best for your cat.
- Your cat should be weighed regularly to ensure the correct dose of treatment is being given each time.
- Always make sure the flea product is suitable for your cat, double check that it is designed to be given to cats and that it contains the right dose for the weight of your cat.
- NEVER use a flea product containing Permethrin on a cat
- NEVER use a dog flea product on a cat, even at a smaller dose
2. Use a veterinary recommended household flea spray
- It is a good idea to treat your home once a year if you have pets that go outside regularly.
- This will prevent the flea eggs from developing in the home environment.
- Don’t forget to spray the car if you have one.
- Household flea spray can be highly toxic to birds and fish, so make sure bird cages Some of these sprays will provide protection for up to a year.are removed and fish tanks are covered before you spray the room they are kept in.
- Never use it on your animals!
Decide which type of flea product suits your cat best
The type of flea product you use will largely depend on you, your cat and your home circumstances. Flea products are effective in different ways. Some products will kill fleas as they jump onto your pet, some only after the fleas feed on your pet and others don’t actually kill the adult flea but act like contraceptives to prevent flea eggs from developing.
There are many different types of flea products available for your cat and they all have their pros and cons, some include
- Spot-on liquids: Prescription Spot-ons are effective, some also kill roundworms, they are relatively simple to apply and are usually given every 4-6 weeks. Some cat’s really don’t enjoy having a cold liquid put on their skin and a few may become irritated and distressed by the application. It is important to apply the treatment on the neck at the base of the skull to prevent them licking it off.
- Sprays: Prescription flea sprays can be effective, but in order to be applied correctly not only do you have to spray your cat, you also need to rub the liquid through the coat to ensure he or she has a good covering (Good luck). On the plus side prescription sprays last up to 8 weeks, can also kill ticks and can be used in kittens from 2 days old.
- Injections: These flea treatments for 6 months, they are effective but you will need to take your cat into the veterinary practice for the injection to be given.
- Collars: Prescription flea collars can be very effective (unlike over-the-counter products) and will also protect against ticks, however many cat owners prefer not to put collars on their cats with good reason.
- Tablets: Some prescription tablets do work well, however I do not think that I am the only cat owner that has a mad struggle to get my cat to swallow a tablet!
Why I Recommend Using A Prescription Flea Treatment Rather Than A Non-Prescription Or Over-The-Counter Flea Treatment
- Your Vet or Vet Nurse can weigh and assess your pet and recommend a safe and effective product based on his or her individual requirements.
- Some flea treatments are HIGHLY TOXIC to cats. I see so many cases of avoidable poisonings every year because well-meaning owners have mis-read a label, been sold the wrong product, or given an incorrect dosage.
- The prescription products recommended by your veterinary practice have been thoroughly tested and we know them to be not only effective but safe too.
- Some over the counter products and ‘natural’ remedies contain ingredients that may not be as effective in the face of a flea infestation and in many cases, there has been no controlled research studies to prove that these products actually do what they claim to do.
It is worth remembering that you do not need to buy the prescription treatment from your veterinary practice if you don’t want to, you can ask your vet for a flea treatment prescription and buy the product online or from a pharmacy.
If you would prefer to use a non-prescription or ‘natural’ flea treatment for your pet, you can still check with a veterinary nurse regarding dosage and safety if you would like too.
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NEVER use a dog flea product containing Permethrin on a cat.
Dog flea products are highly toxic to cats and can cause neurological damage, seizures and even death
I am a qualified and registered Veterinary Nurse with over 20 years experience working with small animals.
i currently work for Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre in Reading, which is a large, single center, small animal veterinary practice.
The recently rebuilt premises now includes a separate but integrated cat clinic, outstanding in-patient wards and operating theatres, spacious comfortable waiting areas, 9 consulting rooms for both veterinary surgeon and veterinary nurse consultations, diagnostics room with x-ray, ultrasound and endoscopy equipment and a well equipped laboratory.