Makes you itch, doesn't it? Little, black, blood-sucking parasites that can jump far too high for their own good. And then there they are, crawling around your poor fluffy cat, biting him, and making him itch. And they aren't even polite enough to leave their droppings elsewhere, are they? No, they leave them not only in the fur of your cat, but also in your carpets, cushions, rugs, curtains...
Fleas1 are the bane of a cat owner's life. It's virtually impossible to avoid them, especially if you have outdoor felines. Furthermore, both people and cats can be allergic to flea saliva, making the bites swell and itch terribly. Fleas can also carry the eggs for tapeworm, which can infect cats and, more rarely, young children. Excessive flea bites can also lead to anaemia, especially in older or ill cats. And, in rare cases in these modern times, cats have caught the bubonic plague from fleas.
So at some point, you are going to need to get down to the itchy stuff, and try to uproot the nasty creatures from your cat and your home.
The easiest way is to look at your cat. Is he/she scratching a little more than usual? Invest in a fine-tooth comb, grab the cat in question (being careful to avoid the claws) and have a quick comb through the fur on his back, tail, behind the ears, under the chin, and on the tummy. Check after every run through with the comb, and if you see black specks caught between the teeth of the comb, carefully remove them, and place them on a damp tissue. If they turn a coppery red after a short while, congratulations! Your cat has fleas!
These black specks are the flea's droppings - left behind to feed the larvae that emerge from the eggs that they lay. They fall off the cat, and into the surrounding areas. Lovely stuff, isn't it?. The more droppings you find on your cat, the more active fleas you have to deal with. The brownish-red stuff is digested blood -- the fleas have been feeding on your pet!
The Initial Eradication
The next thing to do is to comb your cat thoroughly, placing all loose fur, droppings and any stray fleas in a bowl of warm water. Squashing fleas sometimes requires manual dexterity beyond normal human capacity - simply squashing them is insufficient, you need to aim your fingernails directly at the body of the flea. Drowning them is simpler and often more efficient. It takes a while getting used to grabbing them before they escape to freedom - they are speedy little things - but eventually you'll get the hang of it. Then chuck all the water, fur, droppings and dead fleas down the toilet, flush (and repeat with added bleach if you still feel a little grossed out). This way nothing spreads.
Once you have dealt temporarily with the cat, take a visit to either your vet, or the shops (be it a supermarket or pet supply store). The shop is less expensive for smaller infestations; whereas if you have a rather large job on your hand, many cats, or you haven't done this before, you might want to visit the vet for advice before you start messing around with the chemicals. An important thing to remember is that many flea products on the market are only intended for use in dogs, and are not safe to use on cats - a look at the label should tell you if the product is intended to be used on cats or not. Or, again, a vet could set you straight.
There are plenty of treatment options available for halting the fleas in their footsteps; the prices can range from fairly cheap, to pretty pricey (especially if you have a number of felines to de-flea). You can purchase the following quite easily:
Owners of predominantly outdoor cats often choose this option, as it does not require treating the environment. Another advantage of flea collars is that they are less expensive than some of the more 'high-tech' options.
However, many flea collars can irritate the cat's neck, even causing fur loss. Furthermore, flea collars (as opposed to cat identification tag collars) are often made without any elastic in them, making it impossible for cats to disentangle themselves if the collar is caught on something like a tree branch. Cats have been known to choke to death in such situations, so it's important to make sure that any collar is one your cat can free itself of in an emergency. Some collars made especially for cats have special quick release catches, whereas others have elastic built into the straps - or you can simply make sure there's at least two fingers' worth of free room between the collar and the cat's neck.
One very effective use of flea collars is to place one inside the vacuum bag to kill flea eggs while vacuuming. Ideally, remove the vacuum bag outside when you're finished, and seal it up inside a rubbish bag before throwing it away. If you simply vacuum flea eggs into your bag and leave them there, they can hatch weeks or even months later, and then escape.
This is one of the more traditional methods, but does not rank high in either effectiveness or convenience by today's standards. The powder needs to be applied to the root of the cat's skin to be effective - simply dusting the cat with a coat of powder won't do the trick. Furthermore, cats tend to try to wash the powder off themselves as soon as possible. The powders can also be problematic if inhaled by an asthmatic family member, or ingested by a child after petting the cat. The main advantage of this method is the low cost.
There are also flea powders that are designed to be sprinkled onto the carpet prior to vacuuming. Other carpet treatments are often available via professional carpet cleaners or exterminators; these will generally be designed to destroy flea eggs as well as adult fleas.
Otherwise known as the 'flea dip', this is another one of the more traditional methods of flea control, and one of the least convenient for pet owners. Cats are notorious for disliking being bathed to begin with, and flea shampoos are even more corrosive to their sensitive skins than regular cat shampoo. Many professional pet groomers offer this service, if you want to give it a try without having to handle it yourself.
Environmental Aerosol Sprays
For use in the general house, these are very handy as long as you keep the windows open, and they tend to be quite cheap and readily available. However, you do have to evacuate the room for an hour or so, which isn't always possible in a busy house. And not only do they smell pretty awful, they can cause severe asthma attacks in people with asthma. The sprays can also leave an unpleasant residue on furniture, and should never be used in a room with uncovered food or drinking water (for human or feline consumption).
For severe infestations, akin to the aerosol household flea spray is the Flea Bomb. This essentially sprays a room with such a high concentration of anti-flea chemicals that you (and the rest of the people and pets) have to leave the house while it goes off. Flea bombs do a good job of penetrating into nooks and crannies where you might normally forget to aim the aerosol spray, but again, the chemicals used can cause problems when people re-enter the house if there are asthmatics, or small children who tend to put things in their mouths.
Topical Aerosol Sprays
Have you ever hissed at a cat? Did she like it? This may possibly be the worst flea control method ever thought of. After one dose, the feline becomes petrified of anything resembling an aerosol canister. Luckily for us all, some wondrous inventor thought of putting the same type of flea-busting solvent into a pump canister rather than an aerosol can - slightly less frightening for the cats, but they still really, really don't like it2.
Pills and Injections
These are both usually available by prescription from your local vet. The pills need to be given monthly - for some cats, this involves more of a wrestle than for others3. The shots are given every six months, which is generally done in the vet's office. This type of treatment doesn't directly kill the fleas, but rather prevents them from hatching eggs. As a result, it sometimes takes longer than other methods to work (existing fleas can survive for up to a week), unless it is used in conjunction with another method. These are often good options for the cat that might be allergic to other, more topical, solutions. Because this method doesn't prevent reinfestation, it usually only used on indoor cats unless, again, in conjunction with another method. These are generally more expensive than the 'over-the-counter' options available at most pet stores.
This method is also available via prescription from a vet, and tends to be about as expensive as the pills or injections. There are varieties of the spot treatment method available in pet stores without a prescription, but these are often seen as being less effective.
You dab a spot of liquid on the back of the cat's neck (or any other inaccessible-by-tongue area) and over a period of time, it spreads across the skin surface, aided by the natural movement of the cat's body; killing off fleas and their eggs. It usually lasts for about a month, depending on which brand you use. If you have more than one cat, it's important to make sure they don't lick the chemicals off each other immediately after the treatment - usually within 20-30 minutes, the liquid has diffused across the cat enough for this not to be a problem.
After treatment for any type of flea infestation, it's important to wash bed linens, towels, upholstery covers, and rugs (where possible) in hot water. This is for two reasons:
There are sometimes surviving, viable flea eggs in such places, even after treatment, and washing in hot water destroys the eggs.
The harsh chemicals used in flea treatments are not chemicals you want to have on your skin any more than necessary.
And In Conclusion
Repeating treatment on a regular basis is often necessary to prevent fleas from gaining a foothold in your household, with the frequency of treatment depending on the method employed. The main exception to this rule would be indoor-only cats in more urban areas where fleas are not being tracked into the house by other household members. While active infestations generally require treatment of the cat (using shampoos, spot treatments, etc) as well as environmental treatments (using household sprays, carpet treatments, flea bombs, etc), preventative maintenance often only requires treatment of the cat, especially if the cat is predominantly an indoor pet and/or a high-quality prescription treatment is used.
While fleas were once seen as a summertime-only threat, the advent of centralised heating means that fleas can thrive in your house year-round, finding all sorts of toasty nooks and crannies to live and hatch their eggs in. However, be aware that as weather gets warmer, flea activity does naturally increase, and you can never really get rid of every single insect, especially if you have an animal who ventures outdoors.
And if in doubt, always consult your vet. A vet will be able to tell you which flea treatments are most appropriate for your cat - for example, some treatments are not intended for kittens, or for chronically-ill cats. Others tend to cause problems in cats with skin conditions or allergies.