There is a common misconception around external parasites that an animal that seldom leaves the comfort of their own home is at no risk of being infested with them.
This misconception is almost always applied to indoor pets such as cats, but not so much to dogs because they frequently go outside.
So why are fleas so dangerous?
Let’s focus on fleas. They are the most common external parasites that cats can get. Not only do they pose a health risk by themselves, causing anemia when in large quantities, but they can also cause other diseases:
- Tapeworms – intestinal parasites that spread to cats and even humans, by accidental ingestion of an infected flea.
- Flea allergy dermatitis – a very common allergic skin reaction to the flea’s bite in cats and dogs.
- Cat scratch disease – a skin infection in humans caused by Bartonella bacteria that enter wounds through flea feces (“flea dirt”).
- Hemoparasites – such as Mycoplasma haemofelis, a blood parasite that can infect your cat and remain asymptomatic for years or cause anemia, lethargy, fever and loss of appetite when triggered by other diseases (such as FeLV) ou stressful events.
What is the flea life cycle?
Those very fast insects that you might see scurrying across your cat’s skin are the adults. These live on the host (your cat) and feed on blood, leaving behind a tell-tale sign known as “flea dirt” which looks like grains of very dark soil but is in fact your cat’s digested blood. The flea’s poop, if you will. Even if you don’t see the adult flea, if you find signs of “flea dirt” on your cat or in your cat’s favorite resting place, chances are there are fleas somewhere – you just haven’t found them yet. They are VERY fast and tend to avoid light, so they may be difficult to find for the untrained eye. Ask the team at your veterinary clinic to help you, if you suspect you may have a flea problem.
A female flea will lay up to 8000 eggs in her life, on the host and also in your home (carpets, beds, sofas, etc). When these eggs hatch, they are free-moving larvae that will feed on any organic debris they might find laying around, although their main source of nutrition is the adults’ feces (“flea dirt”) that they will find almost anywhere the cat has been resting. Once the larvae reach a certain size they will turn into pupae (in a cocoon) – like most insects do – and then hatch into adults and start the whole cycle all over again. Fleas don’t like the cold, but inside the comfort of our homes where it’s warm and cozy all the time, they will thrive all year round, as long as they have a host to feed on.
Bear in mind that in a home where a flea infestation is occuring, the adult fleas represent only 5% of the total flea population, between eggs, larvae and pupae!!
Can fleas infest humans or other animals?
In a nutshell, yes. Cat fleas, known as Ctenocephalides felis, are not picky when it comes to hosts. In fact, even though they are known as cat fleas, the majority of fleas found on dogs are usually of the same species (C. felis). Humans, however, are not their favourite dish. If there are cats around, the adult flea will gladly jump off the human host (they can jump up to 100 times their own size) in order to hop on it’s more adequate feline host.
Are you itching all over by now just by thinking about these pesky parasites? Imagine how your cat feels when he actually has them.
How does my indoor cat get fleas?
- Leaving the house – If you think about it, strictly indoors comes with exceptions. Be it a trip to the groomers, the vet or another house or pet hotel, anytime your cat leaves the house to go to a place where other pets have been, there’s a risk of picking up a few unwanted parasites. No matter how “clean” these places might be or how many protective measures they have in place, the existence of other animals always poses a risk.
- Other pets – If you have a multi-pet household, where an indoor cat coexists with a dog that gets a walk or two every day, there’s a pretty good chance fleas will make it into your home if both pets aren’t adequately protected. This is particularly true when temperatures outside are warmer, making external parasites more common (fleas don’t do well in cold weather). And remember, before you bring a new pet or stray animal into your home, even if just for a little while, a little flea preventative might go a long way into avoiding a BIG flea problem later on.
- Used beds – We’re all for recycling and re-using and if someone gave you a pet bed or you bought a second hand accessory that had previously been used by another cat, especially plush toys or pet beds, you should know that eggs and larvae may be lurking in it. If possible, wash these items at high temperatures to eliminate possible parasites (and other germs) and let it dry thoroughly before letting your cat use the “new” second hand bed or toy.
- Moving house – It’s not uncommon for pet owners to report having flea infestations just after moving to a new house. This can occur because the previous homeowner had pets, so flea eggs and larvae might have been left behind (flea eggs can survive dormant for quite a long time in the environment). Or maybe your moving company left your couch or boxes outside on the lawn for a little while and fleas happily caught a ride inside.
- Humans (coming into the house) – It’s true. Both family members or visitors can bring fleas attached to their clothes inside the house, albeit unwillingly. Especially when they have been in contact with other animals whilst wearing those same clothes.
In the end, fleas can hitchhike their way into our houses and infest our indoor cats at any time. You might even live happily oblivious to this problem for years, until one day you realize your cat has got fleas. Which is probably why you came online, searching for reasons why this happened.
How do I deal with the fleas?
Many products are currently available to prevent fleas in our cats, be they collars, spot-on solutions, pills or sprays. The correct one, to begin with, depends if you’re dealing with a current infestation or if you’re acting preventatively. Some products will need the flea to feed from the host, others act through the skin of the host only needing superficial contact with the flea. The best course of action is to seek professional guidance and ask your veterinary staff what to use. They will know what types of products have been showing larger resistances in your area (because fleas can become resistant to some of the products) and which have better levels of success. You’ll want to get it right the first time to avoid creating resistance in the parasites. Recommendations may also vary, according to your cat’s specific needs. Tighter preventative measures may be warranted for cats with known flea allergies or other diseases put them at higher risk of developing symptoms from Mycoplasma haemofelis, for example.
Just remember, preventing fleas in your cat is easier than dealing with a home infestation and you can create reminders in the PETABLE app so that you never skip a programmed flea preventative again. If you haven’t got the app, install PETABLE now (it’s free). Your cat will thank you for it.