Ugh. Just thinking about fleas on your cat can make you start itching. That could be a sign that Fluffy has unwelcome visitors -- they can jump on you and bite, especially at the ankles and lower legs. If your cat has light-colored hair, fleas are easy to spot.
The reddish-brown, wingless cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, is only about 1/8 of an inch long. Their large back legs allow them to jump on and off your cat easily, as well as onto your lower limbs. Fleas lay eggs in your cat's fur, which you can't see with the naked eye.
You're most likely to spot fleas on your cat's tail, head, neck and abdomen. They move very quickly, so use a flea comb to get at least a few of them off Fluffy. Flea combs have very narrow tines to catch the fleas as you comb. Have a cup of soapy water on hand to stick your captured creatures in, as otherwise they'll jump off the comb.
Even if you don't see any fleas, if your cat has small bits of black dirt in his fur, those pests are on him. That black crud is so-called flea dirt, actually flea feces. Female fleas feed on Fluffy's blood, then lay thousands of eggs, repeating the procedure countless times. Flea dirt also feeds flea larvae, which eventually spin cocoons in which they grow as pupae. When the temperature warms up, these new fleas leave the cocoon, ready to suck the blood of nearby mammals.
Some cats don't show any real signs of flea infestation, other than occasional scratching. Others scratch incessantly, obviously miserable. If your cat suffers from a flea allergy dermatitis, he'll develop red, oozing sores and lose hair in areas from the bites. He could also start grooming himself obsessively. A kitten plagued with fleas can become anemic from loss of blood. Fleas also transmit other parasites to cats. If you find rice-like bits around your cat's anus, that's tapeworm, which he got from fleas. Ask your vet about the best worming medication to get rid of that internal parasite.
Ask your vet about the best monthly topical or oral flea control product to use on your cat. Some feline flea control products are available over the counter, while others require a veterinary prescription. Look for a preventive that gets rid of fleas and their eggs. You'll need to treat every cat and dog in your household. To get rid of larvae in your pet's bedding, or your rugs or upholstered furniture, vacuum thoroughly on a daily basis. Throw away the vacuum cleaner bag, because otherwise the fleas will breed inside it. Getting rid of fleas takes persistence -- you might have to remove your family members and animals and "bomb" the inside of your house with an insecticide, or hire an exterminator to do the work.
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: Fleas - A Source of Torment for your Cat
- University of Calfornia Davis: Fleas
- Purdue University Extension: Fleas
- VeterinaryPartner.com: Flea Control
- The Merck Veterinary Manual: Fleas and Flea Allergy Dermatitis - Introduction
- VCA Animal Hospitals: Flea Control in Cats
- Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images