Cats – Flea and Tick Control
What should I do to eliminate the fleas on my cat?
This is a simple question with a rather complex answer. Successful flea control has two aspects. Fleas must be controlled on your cat, and fleas must be controlled in your cat's environment. Since cats and dogs share the same fleas, the presence of a dog in your cat's environment makes flea control much more difficult. To appreciate the complex issue of flea control, you must understand something about the flea's life cycle.
Fleas seem to be rather simple creatures. How complicated can their lifecycle be?
Although you are only able to see the adult flea, there are actually 4 stages of the life cycle. The adult flea constitutes only about 5% of the entire flea population if you consider all four stages of the life cycle.
Flea eggs are pearly white and about 1/32" (1/2 mm) in length. They are too small to see without magnification. Fleas lay their eggs on the cat, but the eggs do not stick to the cat's hair. Instead, they fall off into the cat's environment. They hatch into larvae in 1 to 10 days, depending on temperature and humidity. High humidity and temperature favor rapid hatching.
Flea larvae are slender and about 1/8" – 1/4" (2 to 5 mm) in length. They feed on organic debris found in their environment and on adult flea feces, which are essential for successful development. They avoid direct sunlight and actively move deep into carpet fibers or under organic debris (grass, branches, leaves, or soil). They live for 5 to 11 days before becoming a pupa.
Moisture is essential for their survival; flea larvae are killed by drying. Therefore, it is unlikely that they survive outdoors in shade-free areas. Outdoor larval development occurs only where the ground is shaded and moist and where flea-infested pets spend a significant amount of time. This allows flea feces to be deposited in the environment. In an indoor environment, larvae survive best in the protected environment of carpet or in cracks between hardwood floors. They also thrive in humid climates.
Following complete development, the mature larvae produce a silk-like cocoon in which the next step of development, the pupa, resides. The cocoon is sticky, so it quickly becomes coated with debris from the environment. This serves to camouflage it. In warm, humid conditions, pupae become adult fleas in 5-10 days. However, the adults do not emerge from the cocoon unless stimulated by physical pressure, carbon dioxide, or heat.
Pre-emerged adult fleas can survive up to 140 days within the cocoon. During this time, they are resistant to insecticides applied to their environment. Because of this, adult fleas may continue to emerge into the environment for up to 3 weeks following insecticide application.
When the adult flea emerges from its cocoon, it immediately seeks a host because it must have a blood meal within a few days to survive. It is attracted to people and pets and wild animals such as squirrels by body heat, movement, and exhaled carbon dioxide. It seeks light, which means that it migrates to the surface of the carpet so that it can encounter a passing host.
Following the first blood meal, female fleas begin egg production within 36 to 48 hours. Egg production can continue for as long as 100 days, which means that a single flea can produce thousands of eggs.
This entire life cycle (adult flea > egg > larvae > pupa > adult) can be completed in as little as 14-21 days or take up to 1 year with the proper temperature and humidity conditions. This adds to the problem of flea control.
What can these fleas do to my cat?
If untreated, the female flea will continue to take blood for several weeks. During that time, she will consume about 15 times her body weight in blood. Although the male fleas do not take as much blood, they, too, contribute to significant blood loss. This can lead to the cat having an insufficient number of red blood cells, which is known as anemia. In young or debilitated cats, the anemia may be severe enough to cause death.
Contrary to popular belief, most cats have rather limited itching as a result of flea bites. However, many cats become allergic to the saliva in the flea's mouth. When these cats are bitten, intense itching occurs, causing the cat to scratch and chew on his skin.
What can I do to rid my cat of fleas?
Successful flea control must rid the cat of fleas and it must rid the cat's environment of fleas. In fact, environmental control is probably more important than what is done to the cat. If your cat remains indoors and you do not have other pets that come in from the outside, environmental control is relatively easy.
However, the cat that goes outdoors or stays outdoors presents a significant challenge. It may be impossible to completely rid the environment of fleas under these conditions, though flea control should still be attempted.
What can I do to protect my cat?
Flea powders, sprays, and shampoos will kill the fleas present on your cat at the time of application. However, most of these products have little or no residual effects, so the fleas that return to your cat from the environment are not affected. Thus, your cat may be covered with fleas within a day after having a flea bath or being sprayed or powdered.
However, there are some newer, effective products that can be a valuable part of the overall treatment plan:
CAUTION: Whatever product you use, be sure to follow all label instructions very carefully. Cats, and particularly kittens, are extremely sensitive to insecticides and can die from inappropriate use of these products. What is safe for an adult cat may not be safe for kittens. For kittens: The label must clearly state that the product is safe for kittens and at what age. If the product is safe only for kittens 6 weeks of age and older, it must not be used when the kitten is 5 weeks old. Never use dog products on a cat unless the label specifically states that it can be used on a cat.
What can I do to treat my cat's environment?
Environmental flea control usually must be directed at your house and your yard. Even though fleas may be in your house, most people never see them. Fleas greatly prefer cats and dogs to people; they only infest humans when there has not been a cat or dog in the house for several days. (There are exceptions to this.)
A professional exterminator may be called to treat your house or you may use a house fogger or a long-lasting spray. These foggers and sprays are very effective for adult fleas, but they will not kill adults that are still in their cocoon. You should purchase a fogger or a spray that kills the adult fleas and inhibits development of the eggs and larvae.
In climates with extended warm temperatures and high humidity, it may be necessary to treat two or three times with a 30-day residual product before all stages of the fleas are removed from the house. The second treatment is most effective if it is done 2 weeks after the first.
Yard control may also be done by a professional exterminator or with various insecticides you may use yourself. YOU MUST BE ABSOLUTELY SURE THAT THE EXTERMINATOR USES — OR THAT YOU USE — ONLY A PRODUCT THAT DOES NOT IN ANY WAY HARM WILDLIFE OR DOGS AND CATS. Be sure that any insecticide used has a 30-day residual effect. This keeps you from having to spray every week. In climates with extended warm temperatures and high humidity, it will often be necessary to treat monthly during the warm months of the year. You should use a 30-day residual product each time. Your veterinarian is able to help you choose the most effective product for your situation.
I have heard of a treatment for the house that is guaranteed for 1 year. Is that true?
There is at least one company that will treat your carpet with a flea-killing powder. The powder is non-toxic to people. It is worked deeply into the carpet to prevent it from being removed by vacuuming. This treatment has proven very successful, even in the face of heavy flea infestations. However, the treatment does not address fleas in your yard.
The same chemical, a form of boric acid, is also available for application by the home owner. However, the self-application kits do not offer the year guarantee.
Another option is a treatment which contains the insect growth regulator, fenoxycarb. As stated previously, these products are recommended for use once or twice a year. Fenoxycarb has no activity against adult fleas but is very helpful in inhibiting the development of eggs and larvae. It is a hormone-like substance which works against the juvenile stages of the flea; it is not an insecticide and is therefore a safe choice when children are in the home.
I have not seen fleas on my cat. Does that mean that none are present?
When a cat is heavily infested with fleas, it is easy to find them. If the numbers are small, it is best to turn your cat over quickly and look on her belly. If you do not find them there, look on the back just in front of the tail. Be sure to part the hair and look at the level of the skin. When the numbers are very small, look for "flea dirt." Flea dirt is fecal matter from the flea that contains digested blood. Finding flea dirt is a sure indication that fleas are present or have been present recently.
Flea dirt looks like pepper. It varies from tiny black dots to tubular structures about 1/32" (1/2 mm) long. If you are in doubt of its identification, put the suspected material on a light colored table top or counter top. Add one or two drops of water, and wait about 30 seconds. If it is flea dirt, the water will turn reddish brown as the blood residue goes into solution. Another method is to put some of the material on a white paper towel and then wet the paper towel with water. A red stain will become apparent if you gently wipe the material across the surface of the paper towel.
Many people find tiny drops of blood in a cat's bedding or where the cat sleeps. This is usually flea dirt that was moistened, then dried. It leaves a reddish stain on the bedding material and is another sign that fleas are present.
I just got my cat home from boarding and he has fleas. Doesn't that mean that he got them at the boarding facility?
Not necessarily. Pre-emerged adult fleas can survive up to 140 days within the cocoon. This is significant when your pets are gone from home for extended periods of time. During the time that the house is quiet and empty, pre-emerged adults remain in their cocoon. Even if the house was treated with an insecticide, their cocoon protects them. When people and pets return to the house, adults emerge from their cocoons and immediately begin to seek a blood meal. They jump on cats, dogs, and even people. Although it may appear that a cat just returned from boarding brought fleas to your home, it is also very possible that a sudden emergence of adult fleas may account for the fleas present.
Remember that you can bring fleas into your house by a flea jumping onto your clothing from your walking outside.
What should I do to control the ticks on my cat?
Some recommended products:
CAUTION: Whatever product you use, be sure to follow all label instructions very carefully. Misused tick products can be dangerous for your cat and especially for a kitten.