How To Tell If Your Cat Has Fleas
These signs mean your cat's dealing with fleas.
If your cat’s been itching herself a lot lately, you might be wondering if she has fleas. And yes, even indoor cats can develop flea problems.
But lots of skin conditions can cause itching — so how can you be sure fleas are to blame?
According to Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian in Colorado, and Dr. Megan Conrad, a veterinary consultant for Hello Ralphie, there are a few telltale signs to look for to determine if your cat is either dealing with fleas or something else.
Common signs a cat has fleas
Your cat may be battling fleas if…
You actually see a flea on her body
It should go without saying that if you see a flea on your cat, then she definitely has fleas. “One flea can lay hundreds of eggs a day, so once you have a few who make themselves at home, it is easy to have an infestation rather quickly,” Dr. Conrad told The Dodo.
“Sometimes the first sign of a flea infestation is seeing fleas crawling on your cat,” she said. “They are usually easiest to see on the areas of your pet that have thin hair, such as their stomachs or legs.”
But it’s actually not super likely that you’ll see a live flea on your cat, because cats are just so good at grooming themselves.
“If you get lucky, you might see a flea skitter by if you run your hands through your cat’s coat, parting the hair to look directly at the skin,” Dr. Coates told The Dodo.
There’s flea dirt in her coat
While it’s unlikely you’ll see an actual flea on your cat, there’s a good chance that you’ll see flea dirt in your cat’s coat (which is actually a buildup of flea poop — gross, but true).
“You’re more likely to see flea dirt,” Dr. Coates said. “It looks like coffee grounds.”
Dr. Coates said that flea dirt usually builds up in “hard-to-groom areas, like the top of a cat’s rump, right in front of the tail.” So check there first if you suspect fleas have moved in.
Lots of itching
If your cat’s itching more than normal, that’s a good indication that she has fleas.
Cats will itch themselves as a part of their normal grooming routine. But if she has fleas, it might be happening more frequently.
You might also see her scratching certain areas of the body a lot (most likely the hind legs or the base of the tail), and she may even start chewing on herself to soothe the area.
If your cat has fleas, you’ll also see her licking herself a lot more.
Just like with the extra itching and chewing, the excessive grooming is in an attempt to relieve herself and get rid of the fleas on her coat.
And as mentioned earlier, this excessive grooming may make fleas and flea dirt harder to find depending on how well she’s keeping herself maintained. “Because cats are so good at self-grooming, it can be hard to find evidence that they have fleas,” Dr. Coates said.
Thinning hair or bald spots
All that scratching, chewing and licking can lead to thinning hair or bald spots on some areas of your cat’s body. And if it’s bad enough, the skin under the hair might appear red or develop a sore.
How to check a cat for fleas
Visual clues, like noticing more scratching and grooming, can be a good indicator that fleas are at the root of your cat’s itching problem. But it’s also helpful to do a more in-depth inspection of your cat’s coat to see if there’s evidence of an infestation.
What do fleas look like on a cat?
“Fleas are small, flat insects that are dark brown or black,” Dr. Conrad said, and as she noted earlier, they are easiest to see around your cat’s hind quarters or stomach, where the hair is thinnest. Though, they hang out all over a cat’s body.
If a flea problem’s bad enough, you can sometimes see fleas jump onto your hands during a petting session.
What you need to check your cat for fleas
While you can use your fingers to part your cat’s hair to inspect for fleas, Dr. Conrad also recommended using a standard flea comb to help dislodge fleas and flea dirt from your cat’s skin to get a better idea of how severe an infestation might be.
How to inspect her skin and coat
Using your fingers or a flea comb, “you will want to look for fleas by parting the fur around your cat’s scruff or near the base of the tail, where they like to congregate, to see if fleas are present,” Dr. Conrad said.
“Because fleas sometimes live in your carpet or grass and only jump on your cat to feed, they can still be the culprit even when you do not see them present on your cat,” she said, adding that, in this case, you’ll want to find evidence of the flea dirt rather than look for live fleas.
And keep an eye out for irritated skin, too, as this can be a sign of excessive chewing and itching.
What to do if your cat has fleas
If your cat has fleas, it’s super important you put her on preventative medication ASAP.
“The best way to protect your cat from fleas is to talk to your vet about getting them on a regular prevention [plan],” Dr. Conrad said. “This can be topical or oral medication.”
(If your cat was taking flea medication on schedule and still got fleas, you might want to consider changing her flea and tick medication. Consult your vet to figure out which preventative medication may be the next best choice for your cat.)
However, there are a couple of ways to temporarily relieve the situation before your prevention treatment fully kicks in (which usually takes about a day or two). The oral prescription medication Capstar kills adult fleas and sterilizes flea eggs within the first 30 minutes, and a medicated flea shampoo specifically formulated for cats can kill fleas on contact.
“Flea shampoo can be a good starting point for treating a bad infestation, but [it] only kills adult fleas,” Dr. Conrad said. “[However,] bathing a flea-infested cat will not help if you are not treating the cat and environment.”
All pets in the home and the home itself will need to be treated for fleas. So dogs and cats will need to be put on flea prevention medications, and all bedding and soft surfaces should be washed in hot water or treated with flea-killing chemicals that are safe for use at home.
Dr. Conrad said it may even be a good idea to talk to an exterminator about treating your home and yard for fleas if the infestation is bad enough. “Once you start the process, it could take up [to] two months to get it fully under control,” she said.
As always, bring any questions or concerns about flea prevention or infestation to your vet, and they can give you personalized advice and recommendations for medications that best fit your cat’s age, health and lifestyle.
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