Fleas are the most common parasite in cats – and every cat is likely to be infected at some stage in its life. However, with the advent of modern products it is possible to prevent fleas from becoming a problem in your household. Working closely with your vet, who will you give you advice on how to use these products correctly; you will be able to stop these nasty little insects making a meal of your pet and you!
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Why are fleas so difficult to eliminate?
Fleas are small, reddish-brown insects with a complex life cycle, most of which takes place away from your cat. Only the adult fleas live on your cat and drink its blood, the early stages live free in the environment, i.e. your home. For every flea that you see running through your cat’s fur, there may be hundreds of immature fleas waiting to jump aboard a passing pet – or if you are unlucky – on to you.
What is the Life Cycle of a flea?
Adult fleas lay eggs in cat’s fur. Each female flea can produce dozens of eggs every day. They are pearly white in colour and about the size of a grain of salt. The eggs do not stick to the fur and soon fall off on to the floor. After a few days, the eggs hatch into maggot-like larvae which hide in your carpets, in cracks in the floor or in your cat’s bedding.
They feed on dust and the droppings of adult fleas, which mostly consist of undigested blood. The larva spins a cocoon in which it develops into an adult flea. They may stay in this resting stage for several months. The adult flea breaks out of its cocoon and crawls out of its hiding place to look for food. If it can not find a cat it will hop on to any warm blooded animal that passes by, including humans.
Centrally heated homes provide ideal conditions for a flea to grow from an egg to an adult. The minimum time for the cycle is 2 and a half to three weeks but immature fleas can live for over a year before reaching maturity and re-infesting your pet.
How do fleas damage my cat’s health?
Fleas are the most common cause of skin disease in cats. Flea spit contains chemicals which stop blood clotting until the flea has finished feeding and these chemicals may cause an allergic reaction in your cat. Most cats are not affected, but those which are, suffer severe itching. Cats lick or rub the affected parts, wearing away the fur and making their skin become red and sore.
Sometimes a crusty rash will develop. Allergies appear most often in summer when the flea population is greatest. Skin problems may continue long after the flea which caused it has gone but they should eventually disappear after the cat has been treated for fleas. In the short term your vet may prescribe some drugs to stop the itchiness.
Is it just the skin that is affected?
If a cat cannot groom itself to remove fleas, large numbers may survive in its fur. The cat may lose so much blood that it becomes anaemic. Usually this only happens in kittens or cats which are already ill with another disease. Fleas may also carry eggs of tapeworms which develop inside your cat’s gut if they are swallowed.
How can I tell if my cat has fleas?
Take a sheet of good quality white paper and wet one side by running it under the tap. Place the sheet on a flat surface, e.g. worktop with the wet surface uppermost. Sit your cat against the edge of the paper. Rub or brush the small of your cat’s back so that scurf and flea droppings falls onto the wet paper.
Look for ‘coal dust’ which, after 30-60 seconds, goes reddish brown (this is the dried blood in the flea droppings). Sometimes there are no obvious signs of fleas and your vet might suggest testing your cat’s skin to see if it is allergic to flea spit.
What can be done to get rid of fleas?
The secret of successful flea control is to treat both the cat and its environment with effective products which kill both adult and immature fleas. There are a range of sprays, drops and shampoos to destroy the fleas in your cat’s fur.
Not all products are equally effective and those you can get from your veterinary surgeon are usually much better than those sold in pet shops or supermarkets. Other treatments can be given to your cat by injection to prevent fleas breeding in your house.
What is environmental flea control?
Treating the areas where your cat spends most of its time (including outhouses and sheds) is also important – particularly the places it lies down to sleep. Washing your cat’s bedding in hot water will destroy the young fleas (but not the eggs) and vacuuming your carpets also helps keep the numbers down.
Some products kill the flea itself and some prevent immature fleas from developing and re-infecting your cat in the future. Your vet can advise you on which product, or combination of products, to use. Treat your cat and your home all year round even if you do not see fleas.
What if I have other pets?
All the cats and dogs (because most fleas on dogs are cat fleas) in a household should be treated even if only one animal appears to be affected by flea bites. If you do not continue treatment the affected animal may be re-infected with fleas carried by other animals in your home or by fleas it picks up outside.
Fleas can be a real menace in centrally heated homes, particularly if you have more than one pet. Regular treatment with the products recommended by your vet should keep fleas under control all year round. Use your diary or calendar to note down when the next flea treatment is due – do not rely on your memory.