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How to Get Rid of Fleas On Cats: It’s Time to Bite Back

How to Get Rid of Fleas On Cats
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Updated March 27, 2024

Despite the presence of over 300 species of fleas in the United States alone, only one in particular has a preference for cats: Ctenocephalides felis, also known as the cat flea. Despite the moniker, these fleas are happy to get to know your dog and humans, too. Dogs have a flea named in their honor, as well: Ctenocephalides canis, or the dog flea. However, the cat flea is usually the one that affects domestic dogs, at least in North America.

More importantly, how do you know if your cat has fleas and what do you do about them? Read on to learn more about these bloodthirsty little creatures.

How to tell if your cat has fleas

Itchiness

Not all cats will have extreme itchiness from fleas, but if a cat has developed an allergy to proteins in flea saliva, even just one flea feeding on them can cause intense scratching, licking, and/or biting at their skin. You might see redness, scabs, and/or fur loss (from excessive grooming and scratching), particularly along the back. Other super itchy areas are the back of the neck, the hind legs, base of the tail, and the belly—especially between the hind legs.

Flea dirt

Flea dirt is a more pleasant way of saying flea poop. Often, you’ll see these small, black specks on a cat’s skin instead of the fleas themselves. If you suspect your cat has fleas, part their fur and look for flea dirt.

You might also find flea dirt elsewhere, such as on your cat’s bed—and yours if your cat sleeps with you. If you’re unsure that what you’ve found is flea dirt, put some on a paper towel and add water. If it turns red, it’s flea dirt.

Fleas

Fleas are fast, so when you part your cat’s fur and start searching for them, you may or may not see them. This is true for the environment too—and there, you may only see 5 to 10% of them. To have greater success finding fleas on your pet, use a flea comb, whose teeth are set closer together than regular combs.

A flea comb will pick up fleas, flea dirt, and eggs (though you aren’t likely to see eggs because they’re so small—about 0.5 mm). However, if your pet has longer fur, brush out any tangles first. Otherwise, pulling a fine tooth flea comb through tangles is something akin to your mom hurriedly brushing your tangled heap of hair when you were a kid.

How do cats get fleas?

Cats can get fleas from other animals—wild or domestic—including stray cats, your dog, or other people’s pets they encounter. They can also pick up fleas from the environment where any flea-infested pets or other wildlife have been.

Fleas can also come into your home on their own through windows or doors. If you moved into an apartment or home, fleas could potentially already be there, such as in the carpet or yard. In fact, the vibration of walking on carpet, or vacuuming carpet, will cause flea eggs to hatch. Even bringing in flea-infested used furniture or carpet can introduce fleas to your home.

How to get rid of fleas: A step-by-step guide

Treat your cat

  • Call your veterinary clinic to schedule an appointment. It’s a good idea to have an exam because your cat might also have other issues going on due to fleas, such as a skin infection, tapeworms, etc. If you have dogs too, they’ll need to be treated for fleas, as well. While waiting for your appointment, use a flea comb to remove fleas and flea dirt, but be mindful if your cat’s skin is red and irritated. Passing a flea comb over scabs or sores will be painful. Keep a bowl of warm soap water nearby and dunk the comb in it every few strokes to remove debris and drown the fleas.
  • On the off chance that your cat is amenable to a bath, bathing them in warm soapy water is a good way to kill adult fleas that are on them, though it’s not a preventative. Use a mild cat shampoo, baby shampoo, or the classic Dawn dish soap—though I don’t recommend using Dawn repeatedly because it can be drying.
  • If you think your cat will tolerate a bath, ask your veterinary clinic if they prefer you use a mild soap or shampoo to bathe your pet or a cat-specific flea shampoo. Never use dog-only flea products, as they are toxic to cats and can have serious side effects including death. Flea shampoos that have an insect growth regulator (IGR) like pyriproxyfen or methoprene prevents immature fleas and eggs from developing, which help with reinfestation (regular soap/shampoo won’t). If your cat is under 12 weeks old, the active ingredient in flea shampoos won’t be safe. If your adult cat is not amenable to bathing, a waterless foam is a possible alternative.
  • After your appointment, follow your veterinarian’s instructions on which flea treatment/preventative to use. This will likely be a topical product, and depending on other parasites your cat is at risk for based on geography and lifestyle (e.g. is your cat a mouser?), the medication may also prevent certain intestinal parasites, ear mites, and heartworm. Again, this varies by product.

Some flea preventatives are prescription and some are not. If you’re unable to take your pet to the veterinarian, you can still call them for a recommendation on what to get over-the-counter.

Best flea medicine for kittens
Revolution Plus Topical Solution for Cats, 2.8-5.5 lbs, (Gold Box), 3 Doses (3-mos. supply)

Revolution Plus Topical Solution for Cats, 2.8-5.5 lbs, (Gold Box), 3 Doses (3-mos. supply)

Best topical flea treatment
Bravecto Topical Solution for Cats

Bravecto Topical Solution for Cats

Treat the environment

You can’t treat your pet and not the environment—both are required to resolve the problem. Treat your cat(s) and dog(s) at the same time you treat the environment; if not the same day, then at least within one day of each other.

  • Wash everything you can with hot water in the washing machine: cat bed, your sheets, clothes, pillows, plush pet toys, etc. Do this weekly until the flea infestation is resolved. And yes, this may be quite a while—a few months even.
  • While things are in the washer, vacuum everything. Carpet, couches, curtains, chairs, mattresses—anything that has fabric. Fleas love fabric. If you have a steam cleaner, that’s great to use too on carpet and upholstery. In the ideal world, vacuuming should be done daily until the flea infestation is resolved. If this just isn’t possible, then try for every two to three days, with weekly being the bare minimum.
  • Whether you have a bagless vacuum or one with a bag, you need to empty it out every single time you vacuum. Otherwise, the fleas will just find their way out of the trash, including eggs that hatched because of the vacuum’s vibration. For bagless vacuums, empty the contents in the trash, close the trash and take it outside, and then clean the vacuum parts with hot soapy water.

For vacuums with a bag, place the bag in the trash, close the trash, and take the bag outside.

  • Consult a professional pest control service about treating your home (and yard if you have one) every three to four weeks with pet-friendly products. Another option is using food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) but keep in mind that it’s not very effective after it gets wet. It’s also less effective in humid environments. If using DE indoors, apply it to surfaces like carpet once a week and let it sit for 24 to 48 hours before vacuuming it up. If this just isn’t practical for your situation, then let it sit for four hours. Four hours won’t kill all the fleas in the carpet but it will kill some.

Keep in mind that inhaling DE can be irritating for pets and people, so don’t use it if you or your pets have respiratory issues such as asthma. Even if you and your pets don’t have lung issues, wear a mask while treating areas and have your pets out of the area being treated.

  • If you have a yard, keep the grass cut short and avoid having things piled up in it. Fleas like shady/dark, humid areas, so you’ll want everything in the yard getting as much sun exposure as possible. If possible, try to keep wildlife out with fencing.

When to see a veterinarian

If your cat is clearly uncomfortable—scratching a lot, excessive licking, and/or biting at their skin—take them to a veterinarian. You should also schedule an appointment if you see any of the following: fleas, flea dirt, fur loss, irritated/red skin, sores, scabs, tapeworm segments around the anus (more on this later), or any other abnormal appearance to your cat’s skin or fur. Fleas are not easy to get rid of, so it’s ideal to get veterinary help. If you have pet insurance or you signed up for a pet wellness plan at your veterinary clinic, check to see if flea products are covered.

If your cat is a kitten, they absolutely should see a veterinarian because compared to an adult cat, they’re more prone to becoming anemic from fleas. And, some products are unsafe to use on kittens until they reach a certain age.

How to get rid of fleas in the house?

In order to get rid of fleas indoors, all cats and dogs must be treated with an appropriate flea product and you’ll need to treat your indoor environment (and outdoor, if applicable)—all within 24 hours of each other. It’s a lot of work, but it’s necessary to ensure success. In addition to the detailed cleaning recommendations outlined earlier, if you have a one cat/no dog home and you can keep your cat indoor 100% of the time, do so.

It’s also important that pets stay on year round flea prevention because fleas aren’t just summer creatures. They’re out in the cold, as well. Fleas can survive for 10 to 20 days when temperatures are between 33 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if there’s a long freeze, fleas aren’t just outside. Like you, they can be inside too, where it’s nice and warm. Your indoor environment (and even the warmer dens and burrows of wildlife) can be a great place for fleas to have a cozy winter on the couch by the fireplace. Also, since it can take months of diligent laundering and vacuuming to rid a home of fleas, keeping pets on prevention through the winter is a small price to pay in comparison.

Understanding fleas

What are fleas?

The flea is a wingless insect where males are about 2 to 3 mm long and females are about 4 mm long. The cat flea affects cats, dogs, birds, and over 130 wild mammal species across all continents except Antarctica. Despite the title of my article (which I couldn’t resist), fleas don’t actually bite. It’s more of a slice-and-slurp. They pierce the skin with serrated blade-like mouthparts, then insert a straw-like part and slurp away. With the energy demands of egg laying, female fleas ingest more blood than males.

Lifecycle

  • Eggs: Within about 24 hours of feeding, a female flea begins producing eggs—up to 50 a day and about 2,000 in her lifetime, which is two to three months. These eggs are laid on the animal, but fall off into the environment. It’s unlikely that you’ll see these pearly white ovals as they are only 0.5 mm long.
  • Larvae: Depending on the climate, the eggs hatch in 1-10 days and the larvae that emerge feed on flea dirt, other organic debris, and sometimes tapeworm eggs. Whether indoors or outdoors, larvae prefer shady/dark, humid areas.
  • Pupae: After feeding in the environment for five to 20 days, each larva spins a whitish cocoon that is similar in size to the eggs. At this point it is a pupa, which will develop into an adult flea. Like larvae, pupae are in the environment (indoor and/or outdoor) and not on your pet.
  • Adult: The adult flea can stay in the cocoon for days to weeks to five months before emerging. Why the wait? For fleas, there’s no point in getting out of bed unless there’s a meal nearby, so things like warmth or vibration (like vacuuming or a person or animal walking across a carpet) is promising enough for them to come out If fleas feed on people, it’s generally around the ankles and calves, but they can feed on other parts of the body, too.

How fleas affect cats

There are a variety of feline problems that can arise from fleas, some of which are mild and some are severe.

  • Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD): Cats can develop an allergy to flea saliva, which results in intense itchiness. As a result, a cat can develop sores, scabs, and fur loss.
  • Tapeworms: Since cats are fastidious groomers, they’re bound to ingest a flea or few while cleaning themselves. If they ingest a flea that’s carrying the immature (larval) stage of the tapeworm Dipylidium caninum, the cat will become infected and the tapeworm will grow to maturity in the cat’s small intestine. A few weeks after becoming infected, a cat will shed sections of the tapeworm called proglottids. These look like grains of rice and may or may not be observed on a cat’s anal area or on their stool. Proglottids contain tapeworm eggs, which flea larvae might eat.
  • Bartonella: Fleas can carry a bacterium known as Bartonella which can be transmitted to cats while a flea is feeding on them. Cats often won’t have clinical signs from a Bartonella infection, but some might develop a fever, enlarged lymph nodes, and other symptoms. Bartonella can also affect people if a person gets a cat scratch and flea dirt (that was on the cat’s nails) gets into the wound.
  • Mycoplasma: This is a less common bacterial blood infection that cat’s can get from infected fleas. Cats may not develop any symptoms, or they can develop non-specific signs like weakness, fever, and weight loss. Some cats with Mycoplasma can develop severe anemia.
  • Anemia: Due to their small size, kittens in particular are more prone to developing anemia from a heavy flea infestation.

Prevention measures

Flea preventatives

Follow your veterinarian’s directions for flea treatments for your cats and dogs—the frequency of treatment depends on the product. Keep your cats and dogs on a preventative year round because fleas from the summer can winter indoors.

Environment

Get into the habit of washing bedding and vacuuming once a week. If you have a yard that your pets go into, keep the lawn short. If needed, use diatomaceous earth or have a professional spray your home and yard every three to four weeks with a pet-friendly product.

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