Blood Sucking Parasites Part 1 Fleas Title

Photo Credit: jenny downing via Flickr

Fleas plague our pets more often than any other parasite. In North America the most common fleas species is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides Felis). Though they are called the “cat flea” they are actually found can be found on any species of mammal. Dog fleas are common in Europe, but very rare in North America.

Just Who Do These Cat Fleas Think They Are?

Cat fleas are small wingless insects that live off of the blood of a host animal. Their life cycle can take anywhere from 13 days to 12 months  and is composed of 3 different stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

Cat Flea - wikimedia

A Cat Flea
Photo Credit: Erturac via Wikimedia Commons

  • Eggs are laid on a host animal, but they easily roll off onto the ground or onto surrounding objects. They will hatch within 2 days after being laid.
  • Once the larva have hatched from the egg, they feed on organic debris in their surroundings – especially the excrement from the adult fleas which is made of dried blood.
  • The larva eventually spins a silk cocoon around itself taking it into the pupa phase. This cocoon is sticky which makes it easy for unwitting hosts to pick it up. The pupa can survive for up to 140 days in this stage waiting for just the right time to emerge as an adult. What are they waiting for? Vibrations and an increase of carbon monoxide (evidence of a host animal being present). They much prefer the higher body temperature of a dog or a cat to that of a human.
  • The flea will spend most of its adult life on a host animal. There it will mate and feed. Amazingly they can jump as far as 3 feet (the equivalent of a human being able to jump over the Washington Monument)! An adult female will begin to lay eggs 2 days after feeding. The eggs are laid at a rate of one per hour.

 Does My Cat Have Fleas?

Identifying a flea infestation can be pretty easy. The worse the infestation, the easier it will be to spot. Often the first symptom a cat owner will notice is the cat scratching him/herself frequently. Other symptoms your cat may have are itchy/irritated skin, hair loss, or if they have lost a lot of blood to the fleas, pale lips or gums. If you see this (or are otherwise suspicious that the cat may have fleas), get a fine toothed comb and comb through the hair at the base of the cat’s neck and the base of the cat’s tail. If the cat has fleas, you will see one or more of the following:

  • Adult fleas. These will be fast moving reddish-brown spots the size of a pin head or larger.
  • Flea dirt. There will be lots and lots of flea dirt. This will show up in the form of tiny black colored balls. If you take them and crush them against a white paper, the smear will be dark red in color. Flea dirt is really the adult flea’s excrement which is made of dried blood from the host animal.
  • Flea eggs. These are very small, hard white balls.

One More Little Detail…

You may notice that your cat has received a visit from another unwanted guest – tapeworms. This will look like small, white, rice shaped objects in your cat’s feces or in the hair around the anus. Fleas serve as a “middle man” in finding tapeworms a host animal. Here’s how it works: the flea drinks the blood of an animal that has tapeworms and thus ingests the tapeworm’s eggs. The flea then jumps on your cat who chooses to scratch the area where that flea is by biting. Your cat ends up swallowing the flea and the tapeworm eggs hatch right where they want to be.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Getting Rid of Fleas

The Do’s
Fleas: Cinco Scratching

Cinco getting in a good scratch.

  • DO call your veterinarian and have them help you design a plan that will work for your circumstances.
  • DO is READ THE LABELS AND FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS on any insecticides that you plan to use. Pets and people can be harmed when products aren’t used correctly.
  • DO use a product that will kill fleas in ALL stages of life.
  • DO treat all of the animals in the home for fleas.
  • DO wash pet bedding frequently.
  • DO vacuum frequently including any furniture that the cat or other pets like to spend time on.
  • DO throw away the vacuum bag IMMEDIATELY after vacuuming to assure that flea eggs won’t hatch inside the bag and re-infest your house.
  • DO clean the yard of any organic debris (lawn clippings, leaves, straw, etc).
  • DO make sure that if you are using multiple treatments at once, that these treatments can be safely used in combination.
  • DO call a professional exterminator if necessary.
The DON’Ts
  • DON’T use products made for dogs on cats. Cats are far more sensitive to insecticides than dogs.
  • DON’T assume that combing the cat with a flea comb will be enough. Flea combs will only remove 10% – 60% of fleas.
  • DON’T use flea shampoos with Pennyroyal oil. The active ingredient in this is pulegone which easily becomes toxic in mammals causing nose bleeds, lethargy, diarrhea, seizures, vomiting, and even death due to liver failure.
  • DON’T use any flea treatment without reading all of the directions and warnings first.

Also in the Blood Sucking Parasites Series:

Part 2: Ticks

Part 3: Heartworms

Are fleas a big problem in the area you live in?

Sources and Digging Deeper

Fleas – ASPCA 

Protect Your Cat and Your Home from Fleas – WebMD

Featured Creatures: Cat Fleas – University of Florida

Fleas: A Source of Torment for Your Cat – Cornell Feline Health Center

8 Natural Methods for Controlling Fleas on Cats – PetMD