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Fleas in Cats

Fleas are a very common problem for owners of cats. They breed at a terrific rate: a female flea can lay several hundred eggs every week after she has had her first feed of blood from your cat. The life-cycle of a flea lasts about 3 weeks and involves four different stages of development. Understanding the life-cycle of fleas is a great help if you are to treat your pet effectively.

We all know that cats get fleas from time to time and it is no reflection on the standards of hygiene in your home if your cat has this problem. Most cats become itchy and spend extra time grooming or scratching if they have fleas. However some animals can develop an allergy to the flea bites and then the signs are more severe including loss of hair, scabs and spots as well as the extra grooming activities described above. In either case if fleas are the problem they will need to be treated promptly before a real infestation builds up in your home.

Often owners of cats with fleas will not see the fleas on their pet at all. A healthy adult cat will generally groom itself and in the process eat many adult fleas, therefore making it less likely that you will spot them moving about on your pet. In circumstances where the flea burden is very high or your cat is in less than optimal health you may be more likely to see the fleas as small brown insects running about in your cat's fur. You are also more likely to see fleas if your cat is white or has patches of white fur as the dark colour of the fleas will show up more easily.

If you are unsure about whether your pet has fleas try this simple test: Sit your pet on a sheet of white tissue or other absorbent paper. Vigorously rub the pet's coat or brush the fur to dislodge lose hair and dander etc. (Brushing or rubbing against the line of growth of the hairs will help). Move your pet away and examine the debris on the paper. If you see dark, comma shaped material gently wet it with a little water. If a ring of red (blood) coloured damp paper develops around the object you will know that it was the faeces of a flea and that your pet does have fleas.

Once you know your cat has fleas you will want to treat them. In order to do this effectively you must understand the flea life-cycle. A female flea lays eggs while she is on your pet, however these eggs quickly drop to the floor and get into your carpet or between boards of wooden floors etc. They will obviously be found in highest numbers where your pet spends most time so favorite sleeping places will have a high number of eggs in the bedding. If the flea eggs are to hatch and survive the conditions of temperature and humidity must be correct. Unfortunately our modern comfortably warm houses are also ideal for fleas as well as humans. The eggs hatch into larvae which feed on organic debris such as those lovely blood rich flea faeces of their parents. The larvae then pupate and form a cocoon in which they can develop and wait until conditions are correct for them to hatch. Up until now all the flea life-stages have taken place in your carpet and not on your pet. The pupae will hatch into adult fleas when they sense the vibration of animals moving nearby and carbon dioxide in the air from animals breathing. This ensures that they only hatch into adults when there is likely to be an animal nearby for them to jump onto and feed from. The adult flea does not live very long (about 20 days) but they breed prolifically in that time so a huge population of thousands of fleas can develop in a house within a few weeks of the arrival of a single female flea!

As you have read the flea is incredibly good at reproducing so we have to attack as many stages of the life-cycle as possible. I often ask pet owners to think of flea eradication not as a battle to be won with a single application of flea product but as an ongoing campaign of war against the flea! If you have a flea problem it will take time and effort to get rid of them. Don't expect any single product to eradicate fleas with one application it just won't work. Of course flea treatments can be expensive so cost may be an issue but try to use the best regime you can afford and keep going with it. Product failure is rare but people often believe a product has not worked because they simply expect too much from it.

Most clients who have a pet with fleas will want a topical insecticide product to kill the visible fleas on their pet. These products may came in the form of collars, powders, sprays, washes and spot-on preparations. I usually find the spot-on preparations are easiest to use but sometimes these may cause a local irritation to your pet. They are usually applied on the back of the neck so that they cannot be licked off. Wear gloves when applying them and I always suggest that you do it at bed time so that there is time for the product to disperse before you handle your pet again. Sprays are effective but cats often become terrified of the hissing noise and may salivate profusely. Washes are difficult to use in cats because they generally hate baths. Collars and powders are not very effective in my experience. Remember that only a small proportion of the flea population is on your pet as an adult flea. Once you have treated these adults on your pet there are many more waiting in your carpet so unless you use these products frequently they are often not enough to get rid of those pesky fleas.

As well as killing the fleas on your pet you will need to treat the carpets and floors of your home if you are to get rid of fleas. This is usually done in the form of an environmental spray although I have known of people replacing their carpets and it is certainly a good time to do it if you had intended it anyway, but rather an expensive option otherwise! An environmental spray is best applied when you can go out for the day and leave the house shut up for the spray to work. Before you spray ideally turn your heating on to increase the ambient temperature, hoover the room to simulate vibration and increase humidity by boiling a kettle in the room. These things will help to get the pupae to hatch before you treat the room (you can't kill the pupae). Spray the room and leave it shut up for as long as possible before you return to open the windows and doors to ventilate the room thoroughly before you use it again. Take care if you have fish or birds as these sprays may be toxic to them. I also advise that care should be taken if anyone in the household is asthmatic. These sprays kill fleas and also help to slow down or stop their development into adults use them about twice a year for best results. Vacuum your floors regularly to remove larvae and eggs from your household it will help if you put the off-cuts from your flea collar or a whole one inside your hoover bag to kill fleas which are sucked into it.

There is a flea product called Program which may be given every six months by injection to cats by your vet or may be given orally every month. This is one of the best products available in my opinion although it is slightly more expensive than other options. It acts as a contraceptive to fleas so they cannot breed. The injection is given to your cat and when the fleas bite they will consume the drug which prevents reproduction. There are no known side effects to this drug since it only affects insects. The only real drawback is that it is not suitable for exclusive use in cats with a flea allergy since the flea has to bite the cat to consume the drug and the flea bites are the problem. In cats with an allergy to fleas it would be best to use a product which kills fleas on contact such as Frontline or Advantage. If you do decide to use Program do remember that it does not kill the fleas it stops them breeding.

Remember to keep going with your flea treatments even if they appear not to work initially. It does take some time for effective flea control to occur even with the best products out there.

© Samantha Coe. All rights reserved. Further information, news and pet-related healthcare articles are available at

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