Signs & Symptoms of Fleas in Cats

Cats are not known for keeping their displeasure to themselves – irritate a feline, and they’re sure to let you know about it! When the problem is less direct than a little teasing, however, it can be a challenge to diagnose your cat’s discomfort – fleas, for example, might not always be obvious or easy to spot. While dogs are usually easygoing enough to expose their stomachs and allow you to search for evidence of fleas, cats are far less likely to permit a search, least of all on their vulnerable stomach.

You may be dealing with some unwanted parasitic passengers on your pet, if your cat has been:

  • Chewing or biting at his legs or body in a fast, frantic manner
  • Scratching excessively, especially at his neck
  • Losing fur around his back or the base of his tail
  • Vocalizing excessively, even if he isn’t in obvious pain or hungry

Because weakness in the wild can mean harm or even death, your cat is hard-wired to conceal any pain or discomfort – flea infestations included. They may not scratch or meow to excess in front of you, which is why it’s important to do some sleuthing of your own to determine if your cat actually has fleas, or might just be dealing with dry skin. You’ll need to be patient, watchful, and ready to act if fleas decide to make your home their home.

Risk Factors for Fleas in Cats

While fleas are common, there are certain triggers that can make them a near-inevitability, no matter how carefully you keep your home clean. Risk factors for fleas on cats include:

  • There are other pets in the household with fleas: These creepy crawly bloodsuckers aren’t choosy about what kind of animal they’re making miserable – and that includes you! If you’ve noticed flea bites on your dog, other cats, or even your own ankles, your cat is almost guaranteed to pick up some freeloading fleas just by being present in the home.
  • Your cat is indoor/outdoor: Keeping your cat indoors is the safest choice for him or her, but that’s not always feasible for pet parents. If, however, your cat goes outside, their chance of getting fleas goes up exponentially. Fleas thrive in humid, warm conditions, so if you plan on putting your cat on “house arrest,” the summer is a great time to start.
  • Your cat has recently had fleas, but no ongoing treatment: The flea life cycle includes durable, long-lived eggs that can hatch well after a flea infestation seems to be “under control.” Without topical treatment every month, your cat will get re-infected and continue to unknowingly support the flea life cycle.
  • Your lawn or other property greenery is overgrown and dense: Fleas need places to hide that animals are likely to pass through, and tall grasses make the perfect haven. If your lawn is a little wild-looking, take the time to mow it to discourage fleas from gathering.
  • Your home is carpeted: Just as fleas love dense places to hide outdoors, carpeting makes the perfect cover for them indoors as well. Thorough, frequent vacuuming will help considerably, especially if care is taken to empty the canister outside, well away from the home.
  • Your climate is on the warmer side: Fleas thrive (and breed like crazy) in the heat, which is why a lot of pet owners have trouble when temperatures rise.

Recognizing Fleas in Cats: 5 Tell-Tale Signs

So you see a few familiar risk factors and your cat seems to be scratching a lot lately – is it really fleas? Before you spring for expensive medicines and cleaning supplies, you can and should do a little digging. Here are five tell-tale signs that typically indicate the presence of fleas on your feline fur-baby:

  • Search for “flea dirt”: Fleas ingest blood as they bite your cat, later excreting it into a long, thin strand. This strand will often curl at the bottom, making a distinctive shape that’s easy to spot against a lighter background. When in doubt, a barely-damp paper towel can be dabbed at any black powdery debris near where your cat sits and sleeps. Red or rust-colored splotches on the wet paper towel indicate the presence of fleas.  
  • Determine if your cat has rough skin patches: Whether the adverse reaction is from the fleas themselves or repeatedly scratching the affected area, the effect is the same: rough, scaly-feeling patches under the fur. Some cats, just as some humans with poison ivy, are more allergic to flea saliva and can have extremely irritated skin in reaction to a bite.
  • Look for tapeworm segments: Admittedly, this one is a bit nauseating, but where tapeworms are present, so are fleas, which carry their eggs and rely on cats’ grooming behaviors to be ingested. Little white segments roughly the size of a grain of rice around your cat’s tail, in their stool, or around where they sit, can help determine whether your cat should receive treatment  for worms and fleas.
  • Try to find flea bites on their skin: Cats can suffer from a variety of ailments, particularly if they’re indoor/outdoor and exposed to various insects and plants. Flea bites, however, are very distinctive – they will look like small red pin pricks and there will usually be several clustered on the same area of skin. Start by examining the back of the neck on your cat, and if he or she seems at ease, you can try to look under their chin, in their ears, or on their stomach as well.
  • Look for actual fleas: If you have sharp eyes, you might spot one of the persistent parasites in action. Look around the nose and eyes, where the fur is typically thinner and sparser – the dark black body of the flea moving will be easier to see. Fleas also like to hide just under the chin, and sometimes even in your poor cat’s ears.

Flea Removal in Cats: Best Practices For Pet Parents

Unlike their canine counterparts, cats aren’t likely to cooperate with a bath, which is generally the best way to sweep off surface fleas. Additionally, because your cat habitually licks himself clean, using any kind of harsh chemical insecticide isn’t feasible – your cat may lick it off his fur or pads and become very sick. Instead:

  • Use a flea comb: They are inexpensive and available at any pet supply store. Use the tool to comb through all of his fur.
  • Have a “flea trap” ready as you comb: Make one from a dish or cup of water with a few drops of dish soap in it to drown any fleas you turn up.
  • Remove and launder any bedding or cat bed: Use the hottest water your washing machine can produce.
  • Keep indoor/outdoor cats inside during treatment: Do this whenever possible, to prevent re-infestation.
  • Salt the carpets: If you’re able to isolate your cat for an evening, close him in a room and sprinkle any carpeted areas liberally with table salt. Vacuum up the salt in the morning before letting your cat back into the room, just to be careful he doesn’t eat or lick at any of the salt. The salt disrupts the flea life cycle by dehydrating any flea larvae or eggs in the carpet, helping you fight back for longer.
  • Take off any collar or clothing on your cat: Fleas will use anything on your pet to hide, and that doesn’t just mean fur. Hiding under a longtime collar is a favorite trick for fleas.
  • Talk to your vet: This is the most important step of all because while home remedies can make a dent in the issue, they very rarely completely solve it. Ask your vet which topical flea treatment is right for your cat, and ask if anything more is needed to keep him flea-free.

Why is Flea Prevention for Cats Important?

Consider the size of your average dog versus your average cat – cats are typically much smaller, and that means they carry less blood in their circulatory system. When fleas feed, they not only consume up to fifteen times their body weight in a day, the females can lay up to 27 eggs as well.

The end result of flea swarms is a grim one – cat anemia could strike, particularly if your cat is older and fragile, or a very young kitten still growing into its body. Additionally, the presence of fleas means the presence of tapeworms, a more direct threat that could make your feline friend sick or worse.

Fleas in your home environment are more than annoying – they’re also painful and potentially bad news for very young children for the same reason as kittens: anemia. Unfortunately, fleas are extremely resilient, able to survive underwater for up to seven days, and designed with flattened, crush-resistant bodies that let them live (and bite) another day. Once they get into your home and onto your pet, you’re sure to agree: the monthly charge to keep fleas away with a topical cat prescription is money well spent.

Fleas can also jump up to 5 inches, letting them climb nearly anywhere. That means, even if you clean thoroughly, mop everything, and wash all of your textiles, there could be adult fleas and eggs lurking on the edges of furniture, rugs, and more around your home. It’s better to keep them out initially, of course, but if you find them hanging around pay special attention to these out-of-the-way hiding spots for fleas.

An Important Note on Cat Flea Medications

Your vet will likely recommend – and potentially even hand you – over-the-counter topical flea medication for your cat. These medications work by absorbing into the fat layer of your cat’s body, eventually forming a barrier of protection that kills any flea rude enough to bite him.

When using these medications:

  • Always keep your hands clean and wash them thoroughly once the medicine is applied: It tends to be oily and hard to wash away out of necessity, but it’s made for cats’ metabolisms, not human ones. Failing to clean your hands afterward could mean a bout of nausea or weakness, depending on how much is spilled.
  • Part the hair on the back of your cat’s neck before applying directly to the skin: You want to choose this spot because he will be unable to groom it away and therefore it’s safer and more effective than traditional methods.
  • Ask your doctor if food or drink should be restricted immediately before or immediately after giving your cat the treatment, and ask about any known side effects. This will help you keep your cat safe and healthy as they recover. Some cats get nauseous after treatment, and will vomit if any food or water if given too close to the application time.
  • Make sure the dosage is correct for your cat: Most “OTC” topical flea medications come in different strength formulas, depending largely on the weight of the target cat. Start with the smallest appropriate dose for your cat; you can always increase it later, or try again, under a vet’s instruction.
  • Keep your cat away from other household pets for at least a few hours, or longer if directed by your vet. The reason for this step is that cats will often groom one another in hard-to-reach areas as a pack bonding experience, and might unknowingly ingest chemicals this way.
  • Opt for beds and bedding without crevices, if possible: Fleas like seams and hidden areas to tuck into, and the less opportunities for them to do so, the better. Hot water from a traditional washing machine is enough to clear up any issues on your clothes, blankets, or other linens. If you have a carpet shampooer, clearing up flea issues from carpet is an excellent reason to dust it off and make short work of those annoying flea eggs.
  • Always remember that fleas are a cycle: Because a single flea can produce 27 more offspring, by the time you get done cleaning up the adults, you have the younger fleas already stepping up to take over. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t wipe them out instantly – you have tools and knowledge on your site, and eventually, you will win the war on feline fleas!

Sources Cited:

  1. “Safe Use of Flea and Tick Preventive Products.” AVMA.org, (no publish date), https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Safe-use-of-flea-and-tick-preventive-products.aspx. Accessed January 30, 2019.
  2. Kvamme, Jennifer DVM. “How to Tell if Your Cat has Fleas.” petMD.com, (no publish date), https://www.petmd.com/cat/parasites/evr_ct_does_my_cat_have_fleas. Accessed January 30, 2019.
  3. “External Parasites.” AVMA.org, (no publish date), https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/externalparasites.aspx. Accessed January 30, 2019.

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