Posted August 21, 2018 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein.
Cat fleas and ticks: Are they just an annoyance? Or can they cause real health problems? If my cat never goes outside, do I even need to worry about them?
The short answers are No, Yes and Yes. Fleas and ticks are certainly annoying, and if your indoor cat has them, their human family may also be affected. But fleas and ticks can also carry diseases and parasites, so you don’t want to be caught unprepared.
Understanding their life cycles are a big part of the battle. If you know how they affect your cat, you will understand how to better protect your family, both two legged and four.
The cat flea life cycle shows just how adaptable Mother Nature can be. Unfortunately for us and our cats, it’s nature at its most successful.
- An adult female can lay more than 40 eggs per day, and these
- Flea eggs can hatch into “larvae” in as short as one week.
- At the same time, hatched flea larvae can survive for months in protective cocoons.
- The cocoon stage is called a “pupa”. The pupa waits until it senses a “blood meal” (usually a pet) nearby, and then it will break out of the cocoon as an adult looking to feed on the closest victim.
- The flea life-cycle can be completed in as short as 3 weeks inside a home, but in cold conditions, the pupa can survive through the winter and last much longer.
The problem is that at any given time, all stages of the flea life cycle are going on in your home. So, no sooner than you’ve killed adult fleas, the larval fleas hatch, mature into adults, feed and lay eggs, and the cycle continues. This is why we generally treat for 3 months or a minimum of 3-4 life cycles to contain a flea infestation inside the home.
At any one time, for a flea infestation, you only see a small part of the problem. You may see a couple of adult fleas, but there are twice as many pupae, and 10x as many eggs, just waiting to add to your cat’s misery:
Remember, while those percentages are correct, we don’t even see most of the adult fleas present! They’re excellent at hiding. Although they much prefer your cat’s warm body, they can hide in your cat’s fur, your carpet or your favorite sofa cushion. So when you see “just 1-2 fleas”, unfortunately, there are many others waiting.
Worst of all, fleas multiply so rapidly that if you don’t initiate control as soon as you see any evidence of fleas, the problem can quickly get difficult to eradicate.
How can my indoor cat get fleas?
Even if your cat never goes outside, there is always a possibility of a flea problem. Any direct or indirect exposure to the outdoors puts your kitty at risk of fleas. If you have a dog or another cat who does go outside, they can bring fleas into your house to “share” with your indoor kitty. If your cat likes to sun himself on your back deck or enjoys an occasional stroll around the backyard for a short while, he can be exposed to fleas.
Although uncommon, fleas can also be brought into the house by people who have been in a flea-infested area.
If you are in a relatively new (to you) home, the fleas could have been present from the previous owner and pets. Remember that the protected cocoon stage can stay dormant for a long time, so wouldn’t get noticed until the fleas sense the nice, warm body of your kitty in the house.
Rodents can bring fleas into your house. But if they do, the rodents aren’t likely to last long, because your cat will help you take care of that problem!
If you take your cat out of your house (to a groomer’s, kennel, or to stay with friends when you’re going on vacation, for example), there is always a risk of exposure to fleas.
Are fleas that bad for cats?
Fleas often bite the ankles of people who walk across carpet or grass that is infested. But what about your cat?
Because fleas feed on the blood of their host, a severe flea infestation can actually cause anemia. But far more common would be for your cat to have a flea allergy. With allergies, usually the flea saliva is what causes the itching. So it only takes one flea biting your cat to cause endless itching and misery. Often you don’t even see any adult fleas, but you might see evidence of flea “dirt” (flea poop), which looks like pepper. Or you might not see anything, but treating for fleas helps the symptoms.
Fleas can carry tapeworms. So if your cat has what looks like rice grains on it’s stool, or you notice flat worms around the anus after a bowel movement, they might have come from fleas.
Fleas also carry several disease-causing bacteria, some of which can also affect humans. Bartonella, which causes Cat Scratch Fever, is one of them. Mycoplasma, which causes anemia in cats, is another.
You can see why cat fleas are definitely not something you should ignore!
Ticks develop in 4 stages also.
- Adult females lay thousands of eggs on the ground.
- These eggs hatch into a tiny larval stage that has 6 legs. They will feed on blood from an animal, then “molt” into a nymph stage.
- The nymph is a little bigger than a larva and has 8 legs like an adult. The nymph will also feed on an animal, then molts into an adult.
- The adults engorge on blood from a host, mate, and then go their separate ways. The male dies, and the female drops off to the ground and lays eggs to start the cycle over again.
- The larval stage is so tiny, it’s difficult to see. They can be about the size of a pin head.
- Each stage gets progressively larger, with adults being the easiest to find.
How about ticks? Do I need to worry about my cat?
Cats are usually excellent at grooming themselves, so even for most outside cats, ticks aren’t a big problem. By regularly licking their fur, they will often remove a tick before it attaches. But not all cats do a perfect job, and some areas are hard for them to reach. And of course, ticks are a problem for us people who live with our cats!
With warming climates and wildlife such as deer and raccoons, the threat of ticks increases. In a wet year like we’ve had this year in Montgomery County, MD, they are especially plentiful. Ticks carry a number of diseases. Lyme Disease is the best-known but there are many others. Cats are thankfully resistant to Lyme Disease but we aren’t. So if your cat has any outdoor exposure such as sunning in the backyard on weekends or if you have a dog, tick prevention should be administered year-round.
What should I do? Recommended Prevention for Cat Fleas and Ticks
We recommend Bravecto® for controlling cat fleas and ticks. Bravecto only has to be administered topically once every 2-3 months. This makes it a cost-effective and easy to use method of control.
If your cat will wear a collar, Seresto® collars have been shown to be effective for up to 8 months against both fleas and ticks.
Frontline® and other products are available without a prescription at many retail outlets. However, fleas seem to be resistant to many of these products and they are not as effective as they once were.
So if you want to make sure you and your cat won’t be bothered by pesky jumping and crawling critters, make sure to ask us about getting some flea and tick prevention for your cat!