If you have an indoor cat, you may think she’s safe from fleas. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true. My two cats, who haven’t stepped foot outside since they were rescued years ago, got fleas last summer from a stray cat who’d been hanging around outside our front door. All it takes is one flea to hop in or hitchhike inside on the cuff of your jeans to incite an infestation. Here’s what you need to know to keep your cat safe.
How is your cat in danger? Fleas may seem like a minor nuisance, but they can actually put your cat in significant danger if not treated.
- Some cats are allergic to flea saliva. If your cat is allergic, her reaction to flea bites will be exaggerated. Each bite will cause a significant amount of irritation and itchiness. The aggravated scratching can cause redness, fur loss, and scabs all over her body. Any sores will also be at risk for infection.
- When your cat grooms herself she’ll inherently ingest fleas, which often carry the larvae of tapeworms and other parasites. The parasites will continue to develop in your cat’s gastrointestinal tract, which may cause future problems.
- Severe flea infestations can cause anemia.
How do fleas work?
The best way to understand how to make something stop is to understand how it functions. There are four stages of a flea’s life cycle to be aware of:
- Eggs – Once an adult female flea has fed on your cat’s blood, she can begin laying eggs. She’ll lay between 20-50 at a time in your cat’s fur. They aren’t sticky, so they’ll scatter and fall off as your cat moves around. By the time you see the first flea there may already be eggs scattered over your bedding, furniture, clothing, and carpet. The eggs will be white and smaller than a grain of sand. You may notice them in areas where your cat hangs out or sleeps.
- Larvae – The larvae will be blind when they emerge from the eggs, so they’ll hide out to avoid light. Flea larvae take several weeks to develop into the next stage and will sustain themselves by eating the pre-digested blood from adult fleas (“flea dirt” or flea poop) and whatever other organic matter they can find. Flea larvae are tiny (usually less than 1/4 inch), white, and legless. If the conditions in your home are just right, the larvae may begin to spin cocoons within a week or two of hatching.
- Pupae – The pupae stage is the last one before adult fleas emerge. The cocoons they start to build as larvae have a sticky outer layer that helps the pupae stay put in carpets, furniture, and bedding. The sticky cocoons are so effective that they aren’t easily budged by sweeping or light vacuuming. Adult fleas usually emerge from the cocoons within a few days or weeks, but pupae can stay protected in the cocoon for months if the conditions aren’t right for the adult flea to survive.
- Adults – An adult flea will begin feeding on your cat within a few hours of emerging from the cocoon. After the first meal, the flea will begin breeding and can lay its first batch of eggs a few days later, starting the cycle again. Adult fleas will do the majority of their feeding, breeding, and egg-laying on your cat. The life-span of an adult flea can last anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months.
How do you get rid of them?
As you can probably imagine from seeing all of the different stages (half of which will be hidden from view), getting rid of a flea problem can be challenging. You’ll have the best chance of success if you take action as soon as you see the first sign of fleas.
- Treatment – Talk to your veterinarian right away to get recommendations for the best type of topical treatment for your cat. If your cat is at high risk (if she goes outside or you live with a dog who goes outside), she should be on a treatment year-round.
- Flea comb – Use a flea comb several times a day to remove eggs and adult fleas from your cat’s coat.
- Treat carpets – Treat the carpets in your home with a product that’s designed to kill fleas in every cycle of their lives.
- Vacuum regularly – Get into a habit of vacuuming several times a day to suck up fleas, eggs, and anything left behind after the carpet treatments do their work.
- Wash everything – Wash bedding, toys, and clothing in hot soapy water to kill fleas and eggs.
It may sounds scary, but the more you know, the better equipped you’ll be if you find out your cats have fleas. The most important thing is that you’re prepared to keep your cats and your family safe, happy, and healthy.