Cats aren’t typically thought of as catching fleas very often. Usually, when people think of fleas, you think of your four-legged canine friends. However, cats can easily get fleas too. The most common flea species you might find on your cat is the domestic cat flea, otherwise known as Ctenocephalides felis. Of course, that’s not the only type of flea that can plague your cat, but it is the most prevalent.
There are over 2000 species of fleas that can be potential culprits, although it is rare to find something other than the cat flea on your kitty. Each species tends to have a preferred food source, whether it’s cats, rats, dogs, pigs, or some other animal. Despite that, they have no problem feeding on other animals out of sheer necessity. This is one of the reasons the domestic cat flea is also the same flea that’s often found on dogs.
What Do Fleas Look Like?
Fleas are tiny, parasitic critters that live and thrive on blood. They have to have a blood host in order to survive and multiply. Blood is their nourishment and it gives them the ability to reproduce.
If they don’t eat, they will die. Fleas are thin, with flat-shaped bodies and siphon-like mouthparts designed to bite your cat and draw their blood. They tend to be reddish brown or dark brown in color (with some fleas appearing almost black they’re so dark) and they fatten up as they begin to feed.
An adult flea starts laying eggs about two days after feeding to begin the life cycle of a flea. It’s important when attempting to rid your cat and home of fleas that you understand this life cycle and the stages that a flea progresses through. Otherwise, you may find yourself only treating part of the problem and wondering why more fleas keep reappearing on your furry little feline.
Four Stages of a Flea’s Life
Fleas go through four stages of development in their lifetime. The four stages can be completed in two weeks during conditions that are ideal for a flea. Fleas love warm, slightly humid weather. That makes them prime pests for summer months. Unfortunately, it also means that in some parts of the country, fleas can plague your kitty all year long. In conditions and environments that are not ideal, the flea can take as long as a year to complete a life cycle.
The life cycle begins with the adult flea. Your cat can pick up an adult flea from anywhere, especially if they go outside at all. All types of animals can carry fleas and if one happens to be in your yard while your cat steps outside, they are like little heat-seeking missiles. They will find your feline and hop on for a permanent ride.
Once a flea attaches itself to your cat, it’s usually there to stay and it will complete its entire life cycle in your cat’s fur. An adult flea will feed in order to gain the ability to reproduce and within 24-48 hours, will then mate and begin to lay eggs. An adult flea can lay up 40 or 50 eggs a day, which nestle in your cat’s fur as they go about their business.
The eggs are moist and sticky at first and cling to your cat, but as they age, they begin to dry out. As your cat wanders around your house, they drop flea eggs all over the place, particularly places where they spend most of their time. Bedding, furniture, clothing, and carpet are all prime real estate for egg incubation. Once the flea eggs hatch, larvae emerge.
Larvae is the third stage of a flea’s life cycle. Larvae are very sensitive to light, direct sunlight can kill them, and they resemble tiny maggots. They prefer dark places to survive, so they burrow into cracks and crevices and carpeting to keep themselves hidden. They are so small, you rarely even know they are there.
During the larvae stage, fleas spin a little cocoon and transform themselves into what’s known as pupae. During the pupae stages of a flea’s life, they are the most protected they will ever be. They can hibernate in their tiny cocoons for months, even as long as a year with no food, waiting for the perfect conditions to emerge as a fully-formed flea.
Warmth and vibrations act as a trigger, prompting the flea to emerge. When they come out of the pupae, their antennae help them find a warm host, and they jump on. Their only goal is to find a host and eat, so that the life cycle can begin anew.
The pupae are what makes a flea infestation so hard to overcome. They are hardy little bloodsuckers and there’s always a new generation waiting to emerge. Fleas can multiply quickly in the right conditions and cause your cat untold angst before you manage to get a handle on the problem and get rid of them.
Finding Fleas on Your Cat
Fleas can usually be seen moving around on your cat if you have a flea problem. You’ll see them crawling, especially in warm, moist places. They like to hide out just behind your cat’s ears, crawl around on his face, and nestle in areas like the groin, the anus, the belly, and beneath the armpits. If you can’t see fleas because your cat’s fur is too dark, you can also use a flea comb to brush them thoroughly. The comb will pick up any fleas and flea eggs that may be present. Just make sure you rinse any live fleas into a basin of hot soapy water to kill them or they will hop right back on your kitty.
Your comb may also pick up flea dirt, which is another name for flea feces. Flea dirt looks like black sand or little black pepper flakes, but if it’s flea dirt, it will turn red in color when you wet it. That’s because flea feces are mostly just dried blood. You may also notice flea dirt in areas that your cat likes to nap, such as a pet carrier or a favorite spot on the couch. Flea dirt (and flea eggs) tend to fall off your cat as they go about their business. If you see signs of either, it’s a good indicator you have a real problem.
You can also look for other signs and symptoms of fleas on your cat. Cats that are being plagued with fleas may behave restlessly or groom excessively. Unfortunately, excessive grooming increases your cat’s chances of swallowing a flea, and swallowed fleas can cause additional health issues. Fleas are also often carriers of tapeworms. This means when a cat swallows a flea, they could begin growing a large tapeworm inside their belly and will need treatment by a vet to get rid of it. In fact, if your cat has fleas, you can probably count on them having a tapeworm problem, too.
Other signs your cat may have fleas is shaking their head or pawing at their ears. You may even notice your cat seems to be losing fur in places. Sometimes, if a cat is itching really bad, they will develop irritation and scabbing, usually along their back and neck. This is because cats can be sensitive to flea bites and in their desperation to relieve the irritation, they can cause trauma to themselves along with secondary infections.
Sadly, if your cat has a major flea problem, he could even develop feline anemia and die from organ failure because the fleas are taking too much of his blood. This is more common in kittens and elderly cats, felines that are already ill, or cats that are smaller in size.
You can keep your home spotless and your cat super clean, but both can still be vulnerable to fleas. The most frustrating part is that for every one live flea you find, there are close to one hundred more in varying stages of the cycle of life. With numbers like that, you can see why fleas can quickly become out-of-control.
Getting Rid of Your Cat’s Fleas
There are a variety of methods and medications out there to fight fleas. The best thing to do is speak to your vet and decide which treatment options may be right for you and your cat. You will need to treat not only your cat, but your home and yard as well. You can either hire a professional to help you or you can do it yourself.
The most popular method of treating fleas in cats is to use a topical medication, sometimes referred to as spot-ons. These medications are usually administered monthly to the fur on your cat’s neck and shoulders, and then given a couple of days to spread and protect your cat’s entire body.
Sometimes, oral medications may be a better fit for your cat, especially if your cat has a heavy flea infestation and the fleas need to be killed rapidly to bring relief. Some of them continue to kill fleas long after you administer the medication, while others only kill the fleas when the cat is first dosed. There are also oral medications that work by inhibiting a flea’s growth and development and causing a females flea eggs to be infertile. However, drugs like this don’t even touch the adult fleas that have already settled on your cat.
Some owners like to use flea collars, with varying degrees of success. It largely depends on the type of flea collar you choose and whether or not you’re combining it with other treatment methods. You can also try bathing your cat in a specially formulated flea shampoo, although cats usually aren’t keen about being dipped in water.
Once you know your cat is flea-free, you can treat your home and yard.
Treating Your Cat’s Fleas Naturally
In some cases, pet owners would rather avoid using medications or chemicals to get rid of a flea problem. There are natural alternatives you can try.
One method is spraying your cat with apple cider vinegar. The vinegar won’t kill fleas, but it will discourage them from hanging out on your cat and making their home there. Other pet owners swear that rosemary is a great flea deterrent. You can grind it into a powder and sprinkle it in high-traffic areas that your cat spends a lot of time. Or feed your cat a little brewer’s yeast with their meals and see if that helps at all.
Diatomaceous earth is a natural remedy for fleas that is thought to work by dehydrating a bug’s exoskeleton and killing them. You can spread the powder all over your home, especially at entry-points, as well as sprinkle it in your carpeting and on your rugs. Let it sit for a couple days and then vacuum it up.
You can also try combing your cat on a daily basis with a flea comb. Not only will they love the extra attention, if there are any fleas, the comb will p