Fleas are those little blood-sucking bugs everyone tries hard to avoid. They’ve been around for 60 million years and have been found on prehistoric mammals—so it doesn’t seem like they’re going away any time soon.
It turns out our feline friends are just as susceptible to a flea infestation as all those animals that came before. But how do you identify fleas on cats? And what should you do if you find them?
Fleas on Cats: What Do They Look Like?
Fleas are very small dark brown bugs that are 1.5 to 4 mm in length. From side to side, flea bodies are very compact and flat. No wings are needed for fleas’ incredible ability to jump. Often, these bugs move so fast and are so small that they are hard to find.
Using a fine-toothed comb (or a flea comb) across the body of your cat would be the best way to attempt to find live fleas. You’ll see the small bugs briefly before they jump away! However, the most common way you’ll know if your cat has fleas: flea dirt.
Flea Dirt on Cats
Fleas suck up the blood of your cat. Then, when they poop, it comes out as a brown-black color. Flea dirt is essentially flea poop! It can be found on your cat’s skin as brown-black specks. If you find some, use a fine-toothed comb and collect some of the specks with your cat’s fur. Place this debris on a wet paper towel. If the specks create brown-red smears, it is flea dirt. This is a sign that your cat has fleas.
Flea Eggs on Cats
Flea eggs are white and less than 1 mm long! Because they are so small, it is very challenging to see them. If you have a way of zooming in, flea eggs on cats can be found on individual strands of fur. However, most of the eggs are never found because they are so small and cats lick and groom themselves a lot. All in all, flea eggs are very challenging to see.
Flea Bites on Cats
Flea bites cannot be seen by the naked eye. However, fleas can create itchiness and inflammation in your cat’s skin that you can see, known as dermatitis. Some cats are actually allergic to the saliva of fleas, so even one bite from one flea can cause an allergic reaction in their skin. If you see redness on your cat’s skin and your cat appears itchy or uncomfortable, it could be a sign of fleas.
Other Signs of Fleas on Cats
Even if you don’t see physical evidence of fleas on your cat, that doesn’t mean they aren’t present. Here are some other signs that your cat could have fleas.
As mentioned above, flea bites can cause dermatitis, an allergic reaction that causes itching and redness on a cat’s skin. The most common symptoms are many tiny crusts on the skin all around your cat’s neck and shoulders, and possibly near the base of the tail. Other symptoms can include red skin, fur loss, obvious itchiness, or crust. Typically, the skin around the neck, shoulders or base of the tail are affected the most.
Many cats hide that they are itchy, but when they are really itchy, pet parents tend to take notice. Cats love to groom and lick, but you may see your cat very suddenly turn her head and begin feverishly biting and licking at her back or other areas. When you pet your cat, she may begin to lick, scratch, or thump her back leg as if to scratch.
Itching can cause loss of fur, so you may find clumps of fur from your cat laying on the ground.
Flea Dirt in the Home
In the environment, it is very hard to see fleas. The most common places fleas live on are pet beds and high traffic areas, meaning wherever your pets–or you–go the most in your home, that’s where the fleas are. Look for flea dirt on pet bedding and areas where your cat spends most of their time.
Pet parents may also experience symptoms of fleas! Small red bumps, especially on your legs and feet, as well as itchiness may be signs of flea bites. Once the fleas are gone, these symptoms typically go away quickly. But if you notice flea symptoms on your own body, it’s a good idea to inspect your cat, since flea infestations can spread quickly.
How to Get Rid of Fleas on Cats
Treating fleas on cats requires a multistep approach. Follow these steps to kill fleas on cats and get rid of them in your environment.
Use a Flea Treatment That Kills and Prevents
The most important way of getting rid of fleas on cats is to give them a flea treatment that is also a preventive (i.e. prevents fleas from jumping on your cat). There are many excellent flea prevention products on the market that also kill live fleas, and your veterinarian can recommend specific brands.
Be very cautious that you do not accidentally purchase flea preventives meant for dogs—this is deadly in cats.
Flea baths for cats are not generally recommended. Most cats do not like baths, but more importantly, flea baths will only kill the fleas currently on your cat—they do not prevent fleas from jumping right back on minutes later.
Treat Other Pets
Any pets in your home—including dogs, rabbits, and other cats—must be treated for fleas as well! If one of your cats has fleas, all your pets have fleas. You cannot get rid of fleas unless ALL pets are treated. However, fish, reptiles (ex. snakes and lizards) and amphibians (ex. frogs) do not require treatment.
Thoroughly Clean and Treat Your Home
Environmental clean-up and treatment are key to getting rid of fleas on cats. All bedding that your cat has access to must be thoroughly washed on hot and dried on hot. Daily thorough vacuuming of all carpet as well as the nooks and crannies of fabric furniture and wood floors may decrease the number of fleas (just don’t forget to empty the vacuum container right away!).
Realistically, calling a pest control to treat your house for fleas is the absolute best way to keep your cat and your home environment flea free. You and your kitty will need to leave the house for a few hours while they use chemicals to kill fleas.
How to Prevent Fleas on Cats
The most important thing any pet parent can do to prevent fleas is to apply a veterinary approved flea prevention product every month. Talk to your veterinary clinic or hospital about products they recommend.
Flea medications come in a variety of forms, including:
- Liquid medication. There are liquids that go onto the skin of your cat that should be applied on the back of her head to keep her from licking it. The liquid will absorb over a few hours, protecting the whole body.
- Oral medication. There are also medications you can give by mouth for flea prevention, but some pet parents find this difficult to do for their cats.
- Collars. Flea collars are generally not recommended, as they only prevent fleas a short distance from the collar—meaning your cat could have fleas biting their tail and back legs even when wearing a flea collar.
Preventing fleas includes keeping your cats strictly indoors—no adventures on the patio, even if it’s enclosed. However, many pet parents give their cat some fresh air on a harness or the patio. As long as flea prevention is applied every month, this should prevent fleas.
Don’t allow your cat to meet wildlife or other animals, since fleas as well as many other parasites could be spread to her through contact.