Flea and Tick Prevention and Treatment for Cats

Lauren Jones, VMD
Written by:
Published: April 11, 2022
Flea and Tick Prevention and Treatment for Cats

Flea and tick infestations are two of the more common issues facing pets and pet owners.

That’s why flea and tick prevention is an essential part of your cat’s care routine. Using a monthly flea and tick preventative can ensure your cat stays healthy and pest-free no matter what adventures they get up to.

Why Is Flea and Tick Prevention Important for Cats?

Fleas and ticks are known as ectoparasites, or parasites that live on the outside of the host animal.   

Both fleas and ticks survive by taking a blood meal, which means they must bite their host to draw blood for food. While the bite itself is small, flea saliva can cause severe allergies, dermatitis, anemia, itching, and infection

Tick bites can also cause infection, abscesses, paralysis, and even death.

In addition to allergic reactions, fleas and ticks can also transmit a variety of diseases to cats, including:

  • Lyme disease

  • Anaplasmosis

  • Bartonellosis

  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

  • Tapeworms

  • Babesiosis

Cats aren’t as susceptible to tick-borne diseases as dogs, but there is still a risk of illness. In some cases, ticks can also transmit diseases to cats that can then infect humans (e.g., zoonotic diseases).  

The best way to prevent flea and tick allergies, or to reduce the risk of spreading diseases, is to prevent infestation in the first place. Fortunately, there are a variety of products to help keep your pet free of parasites.

What Are Flea and Tick Preventatives for Cats?

Parasite prevention products are aviailable in a few forms, includint pesticides, repellents, and growth inhibitors. Each of these forms combat pests at different lifestages.

When choosing a flea and tick preventative, it’s important to understand what parasites your are targeting. Some products are only effective against one species, typically fleas. These include flea dips, baths, and powders. Because they only protect against one species, you will need additional medications to protect against a wider range of parasites. Using multiple products is usually more expensive and increases the risk of adverse reactions.

Combination products, however, combine multiple ingredients to kill different stages of parasites. These typically provide coverage for both fleas and ticks, but they may also provide additional protection against heartworm, mites, or intestinal parasites. The spectrum of parasite control depends on the specific product and active ingredients.

Before starting your cat on any preventative, it is always recommended to discuss all medications, supplements, and preventatives with your veterinarian, especially if your pet has any health issues. It is critical to read the label and package insert of any product you use on your pet to ensure:

  • The product is the correct species for your pet (dog vs. cat)

  • The product is intended for your pet’s lifestage (kitten, adult, or senior)

  • The product is within the correct weight range for your pet

  • The product is administered correctly (i.e., is it a chewable or a topical treatment)

  • The product protects against the appropriate parasites

  • If the product should be given with food

  • It matches your administration schedule

  • It begins working fast enough

  • It works with your bathing schedule

  • You understand any safety concerns

  • You have the correct phone numbers to call in the event of an adverse reaction

Even if you’ve previously used the medication, it’s a good idea to re-read the package insert, as the warnings and directions may have changed. Follow all instructions exactly and contact your veterinarian or the manufacturer if you have any questions.

When Should You Use Flea and Tick Prevention for Cats?

Flea and ticks survive and thrive in mild to moderate weather, so it is crucial to protect our pets during the warmer months. This may mean year-round required prevention in the south and western states.

However, even northern states frequently experience a few warm, spring-like days during the winter months. These brief warm periods are enough for fleas and ticks to start an infestation in your house and on your pet.

Once inside your climate-controlled house, fleas can continue to reproduce, living in the floorboards, carpets, and anywhere your pet lives. If your pet isn’t using a flea and tick preventive, ticks may even crawl off your pet and onto the humans in the house.

Choosing a Flea and Tick Combination Medicine for Cats

While we are fortunate to have many combination preventatives for our cats, it can be confusing to pick the best product for your cat. As always, make sure to talk to your veterinarian and discuss the best option for your pet. You can also keep the below key factors in mind.

Species

Cats are not small dogs. Dog products cannot be used in cats and will lead to severe, often fatal, reactions. Most notably, the insecticides called permethrins are toxic to cats, potentially causing tremors, seizures, and death.

Check the label before applying any treatments to your cat.

Application Method

The most common flea and tick preventatives for cats are administered either orally, in the form of a chewable tablet, or as a topical liquid spread between the shoulder blades or down the back.

Topical Flea and Tick Products for Cats

Topical products may not be the best fit for some households with small children or other animals that may touch or lick the product before it dries.

Spot-on topical treatments can often have a medicinal smell or cause transient itching/irritation or even hair loss. Depending on the bathing frequency and your cat’s skin and hair coat, topical treatments are also potentially less effective. 

Oral Flea and Tick Products for Cats

Oral treatments require your cat to eat the entire tablet. This means you’ll have to watch your cat more carefully to make she they eat the whole dose. Be watchful is especially important if your cat doesn’t like the taste of the pill.

If your cat vomits after eating an oral flea and tick preventative, call the manufacturer or veterinarian for instructions on re-dosing, as well as to report a potential reaction to the product.

Feeding oral preventatives with a meal may help decrease upset stomach and help make the medicine easier to absorb.

Geography

Different geographic locations have different local parasite populations, including fleas and ticks, as well as other parasites such as heartworm and intestinal worms.

The Companion Animal Parasite Council is a terrific resource to identify the parasites in your specific area that put your pet at the most risk.

Access to Outdoors

Outdoor cats are at much higher risk of encountering fleas and ticks, especially in wooded, thick, or untreated yards. Using a flea and tick preventative is especially important in these cats to reduce the risk of infestation.

However, even if your cat is an indoor cat, there is still a risk—especially for flea bites. Fleas can easily enter your home through window screens, on other pets who go outside, or even on a human’s pants and shoes.

For those animals living in townhouses or apartment buildings, fleas can be shared between living spaces. That’s why veterinarians recommend that all animals, regardless of access to the outdoors, have year-round flea and tick prevention.

Lifestyle Characteristics

A very small percentage of cats carry a genetic risk factor for a mutated gene that causes drug sensitivity. These cats cannot safely process certain drugs, including some ingredients in preventatives.

Many veterinarians recommend testing cats for the MDR-1 gene, especially affected breeds. The Washington State University Veterinary Clinical Pharmacology Laboratory site has additional information on the mutation as well as which drugs to avoid and ways to test your pet.

While there are no cat breeds that are especially vulnerable to flea or tick infestation, some cats may be at higher risk due to their personality and breed characteristics. This includes their spay or neuter status. Intact cats may spend most of their day roaming outside, while spayed or neutered cats are content to stay at home, only venturing outside occasionally.

Similarly, some exotic breeds may be more likely to adventure and hunt outdoors. High-risk cats may benefit from multiple products to ensure full parasite coverage.

Lifestage

If you have a new kitten or your cat is on the smaller side, talk with your veterinarian about which flea and tick preventatives are safe before using any. Not all products can be used in all lifestages or weights.

Most preventative’s minimum age is 6-8 weeks, but always check the package insert for confirmation. Many preventatives also have a minimum weight required for safe use. Your veterinarian can help you figure out which product is the right one.

Medical Conditions

Most parasite preventatives are extremely safe, but there are some exceptions.

Some classes of preventatives, called isoxazolines, should be used with extreme caution in cats with a history of seizures or neurologic disease. These medications have been shown to reduce the seizure threshold.

No preventative should be used without thorough discussion with your veterinarian if:

  • Your pet has previously had an allergic reaction to the drug

  • Your pet is sick and/or underweight

  • Your pet is pregnant, nursing, or will be used for breeding in the future

Over-the-counter vs Prescription Flea and Tick Medicine

Over-the counter (OTC) flea and tick preventatives do not require a relationship with or prescription from a veterinarian. They are typically available for purchase online and in many retail pet stores.

Prescription flea and tick preventatives require a prescription from your veterinarian and typically cost a little more.

However, even if you’re using an OTC product that doesn’t require a prescription, you should always consult with your veterinarian to make sure it is a safe option for your cat. Your vet can help you:

  • Discover a potential adverse drug interaction with one of your cat’s current medications

  • Discover a potential adverse reaction to your cat’s current medical condition

  • Discover a better, safer, and broader spectrum product for your cat

  • Discover your cat needs testing before starting a preventative

  • Discover what to expect when starting a preventative

Cat owners have many products to choose from, but it is imperative to discuss with a veterinarian first. Most veterinarians recommend prescription products, as they are typically more effective and safer for your cat even if they cost a little more.

Comparing Combination Flea and Tick Medicine for Cats

The chart below outlines and compares some common flea and tick preventatives for cats to help you determine which flea and tick options are the best fit for your cat.

Always check with your veterinarian before starting any product, whether it’s over-the-counter or prescription.

Cat Flea and Tick Comparison Chart

Cat Flea and Tick Prevention Product Summaries

Advantage II is a topical monthly product that contains the active ingredients imidacloprid and pyriproxyfen. This combination of drugs kills all forms of fleas, including eggs, larva, and adults. However, this product has no tick prevention. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and who weigh more than 2 pounds. It is typically applied every month for prevention purposes.

Advantage Multi is a topical monthly product containing the active ingredients imidacloprid and moxidectin. This combination of drugs is fast-acting and kills parasites within hours. This product kills fleas and ticks as well as prevents heartworm infections and treats hookworms, roundworms, and ear mites. However, this product has no tick prevention. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 9 weeks and who weigh more than 2 pounds. It is typically applied every month.

Bravecto is a topical solution containing the active ingredient fluralaner. It has been shown to treat and prevent fleas and black-legged ticks for 12 weeks in adult cats and kittens older than 6 months of age. It also controls the American dog tick for 8 weeks. Bravecto is applied in a single dose every 12 weeks. During application, squeeze the medication onto a spot directly at the base of the skull, being careful not to let any run off. The dose of Bravecto depends on your cat's weight, with different products designed for cats between 2.6-6.2 lbs, 6.2-13.8 lbs. and more than 13.8 lbs. Bravecto is in the isoxazoline class of medications, so it should be used only under veterinary supervision in cats with a history of neurologic disorders, seizures, or epilepsy. 

Bravecto Plus is a topical solution containing the active ingredients fluralaner and moxidectin. Bravecto Plus is fast-acting, killing fleas and ticks within hours of application. This product also prevents heartworm and controls roundworms and hookworms. Bravecto Plus should only be used in cats and kittens over 6 months, who weigh more than 2.6 pounds. It is typically applied every 2 months. As a drug in the isoxazoline class, all Bravecto products should be used with caution in cats with a history of seizures, epilepsy, or neurologic disorders. Bathing after applying Bravecto Plus is not recommended.

Catego is a topical monthly product containing the active ingredients fipronil, dinotefuran, and pyriproxyfen. This combination of drugs kills all fleas (all forms), ticks, and chewing lice. Catego is fast-acting, starting to kill fleas within hours. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and weighing more than 1.5 pounds. It is typically applied every month.

Cheristin is a topical monthly product containing the active ingredient spinetoram. This drug kills fleas. Cheristin is fast-acting, starting to kill fleas within 30 minutes. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and weighing more than 1.8 pounds. It is typically applied every month.

Comfortis is a chewable tablet containing the active ingredient spinosad. Comfortis is a fast-acting agent, killing fleas within 30 minutes. However, this product is labeled to treat and prevent fleas only. Cats and kittens must be 14 weeks or older and weigh over 4.1 pounds. This product can be administered every month.

Credelio is a chewable tablet containing the active ingredient lotilaner. Credelio is fast-acting, starting to kill fleas within hours of administration. Credelio is labeled to treat deer ticks only in cats and kittens over 6 months. To treat fleas, this product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and who weigh more than 2 pounds. Credelio is administered every month. As a drug in the isoxazoline class, all Credelio products should be used with caution in cats with a history of seizures, epilepsy, or neurologic disorders.

Frontline Gold is a topical monthly product containing the active ingredients fipronil, (s)-methoprene, and pyriproxyfen. This combination of drugs kills fleas (all forms), ticks, and chewing lice. Frontline Gold is fast-acting, starting to kill fleas within 30 minutes and ticks within hours. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and weighing more than 1.5 pounds. It is typically applied every month.

Frontline Plus is a topical monthly product containing the active ingredients fipronil and (s)-methoprene. This combination of drugs kills all fleas (all forms), ticks, and chewing lice. Frontline Plus is fast-acting, working within hours, but it may take longer than Frontline Gold. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and weighing more than 1.5 pounds. It is typically applied every month.

Onguard Plus is a topical monthly product containing the active ingredients fipronil and (s)-methoprene. This combination of drugs kills all fleas (all forms), ticks, and chewing lice. Onguard is fast-acting and starts killing fleas and ticks within hours. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and older more than 1.5 pounds. It is typically applied every month.

Revolution Plus is a topical monthly product containing the active ingredients selamectin and sarolaner. This combination of drugs treats fleas (all forms), ticks, ear mites, roundworms, hookworms and prevents heartworm disease. Revolution Plus kills fleas within hours, but ticks may take up to 3 days. This product should only be used in cats and kittens over 8 weeks and weighing more than 2.8 pounds. It is typically applied every month.

Seresto is a collar containing the active ingredients imidacloprid and flumethrin. This combination of drugs kills and repels fleas and ticks for 8 months. Fleas are killed within 24 hours of application and ticks are killed 48 hours after application.  If a cat is bathed or swims frequently (more than once per month), it may decrease efficacy and need to be replaced as frequently as every 5 months. The product should only be used in cats and kittens over 10 weeks of age.

References

  1. American Veterinary Medical Association. Safe use of flea and tick preventative products.

  2. Clinician’s Brief. Isoxazolines.

  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Safe Use of Flea and Tick Products in Pets.

Featured Image: iStock.com/JazzIRT


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