By Jennifer Kvamme, DVM
There are lots of reason to celebrate the arrival of spring and summer, but the return of fleas is not one of them. Not only are these blood-sucking parasites unsightly and creepy, they can also cause some serious diseases. So, how can you keep your cat tick-free this season? Here are a few ideas to consider ...
1. Spot-on Treatments
While spot-on medications seem like they would only work on the spot they are applied to (in the same way a collar works), they are actually very effective at covering the animal’s entire body. The drops work by a process of translocation, by which the medication is spread over the body by way of the oil glands, and by the cat’s natural habit of cleaning itself (i.e., wetting its paws to clean its fur). Spot-ons are not affected by bathing, swimming or rain and will kill and repel fleas for several weeks before reapplication. They may also work to interrupt the flea life cycle while it is in progress. Before choosing a particular spot-on product, read all labels carefully to be sure you are choosing the one most appropriate for your cat’s size and age, and always, only use a product that is expressly labeled for use on cats.
2. Oral Medications
If you need help controlling a recurring flea infestation, using oral medications along with spot-on treatments will help. Once a month flea control pills (in small tablet form) work to disrupt the life cycle of fleas, but do not kill adult fleas on contact. Some are made to be easy to administer, even for pets that are difficult to medicate, with flavor added to make them more like treats so they are accepted gladly -- or at least easier to hide in your cat’s food. With the oral medication, you won’t have to be concerned about small children coming into contact with the cat immediately after administration, as you might with spot-on treatments.
3. Flea Shampoos
Bathing your cat with a special medicated shampoo that kills fleas and/or ticks on contact can be an inexpensive (though labor-intensive) method of protecting your cat during flea season, or year round. You will need to repeat the process more often, about every two weeks, as the effective ingredients in these shampoos don’t last as long as a spot-on or oral medication.
4. Flea Collars
Another option is to use a collar that repels and kill fleas. Their effectiveness may depend on how invasive the fleas are in your pet’s environment, and the collar needs to make contact with your cat’s skin in order to transfer the chemicals onto the fur and skin. When adjusting the collar around your cat’s neck, make sure there is just enough room to fit two fingers under the collar. Cut off any excess length of collar to prevent your cat from chewing on it, and watch for signs of discomfort (e.g., excessive scratching) in case an allergic reaction to the collar occurs. Make sure you read labels carefully when choosing a collar to make sure it is size and age appropriate; this is especially when choosing a collar for cats. If your cat is particularly active or goes outdoors, you should avoid any kind of collar that does not have a quick release latch, since cats are prone to getting collars caught on fences and other objects and suffering choking injuries as a result.
5. Flea Dips
A dip is a concentrated chemical that needs to be diluted in water and applied to the cat’s fur with a sponge, or poured over the back. This is not like a shampoo bath, so you will not rinse your pet off after applying the dip product. These chemical products can be very potent. Misuse can lead to toxic reactions, in both pets and in the people treating them, so they are generally only used for severe infestations, and only infrequently. Make sure to read the labels carefully before use to make sure that it is appropriate for your cat and to make sure that you apply it exactly as stated. Because of the chemical potency of dips, they should not be used on very young animals (under four months) or on pregnant or nursing animals. Ask your veterinarian for advice for treating kittens, and pregnant or nursing pets.
6. Powders and Sprays
Flea powders and sprays are relatively inexpensive methods of repelling fleas for cats. Be cautious when applying these products, however, as the spray or fine powder can be irritating to the mouth and lungs if breathed in (for both animals and humans). Also be sure to use caution around the eyes, nose, and mouth. Because these products will wear off the skin faster than a spot-on treatment, you will need to reapply them more often. Always read labels carefully before using flea powders or sprays.
7. Clean House
For any level of flea infestation, light or severe, you will need to do a thorough house cleaning, and you will need to clean daily until the situation has been brought under control. Vacuum in every corner and along the baseboards, and throw out the vacuum bag when you are finished. Wash all of your cat’s bedding and toys with warm soapy water and vacuum out the car too. Even if you do not take your cat into your car, you may be carrying fleas on your shoes or pant-cuffs -- and fleas can start a colony in a car just based on that. Removing the majority of flea eggs and larvae present will help reduce the population of adults hatching in your home.
8. Household Sprays and Foggers
To further treat your home, you can use sprays and/or foggers that will kill the adult fleas, as well as the larvae and eggs as they hatch. These products are available at your veterinarian’s office or pet supply store. Care must be taken when using these products, as they can be toxic to fish, birds, cats and children. Read labels carefully and ask for advice from your veterinarian before attempting to use these products. To be safe, you may need to remove all of the animals from your home for 48 hours (or more), so that the pesticide chemicals from the spray or fogger has a chance to dissipate. In the face of a severe infestation, you may want to hire a professional exterminator to spray the house properly.
9. Flea Traps
You can purchase ready-made "flea traps" from your local hardware store, or you can make your own. Sticky pads (some with lights attached) are laid on the floor, where the fleas become attached to the sheet while jumping around. This will help eliminate some of the adult fleas from the environment, but not the eggs or larvae. A homemade light trap can be made by setting a small dish of soapy water on the ground near a light source at night (such as a small lamp or night light). Fleas are attracted to the warmth and light and will jump into the water, where they will drown.
10. Clear the Yard
If there are fewer areas for these parasites to live and breed, there will be fewer of them to be concerned with. Keeping your lawn, bushes, and trees consistently trimmed back will help reduce the population of fleas in your backyard. If you still have a problem, consider using one or more of the various yard sprays or granular treatments that are available from your veterinarian, pet store, or local garden center. Or, you might consider hiring a pest control service for regular yard treatments. Just be careful when using these products, as they can be harmful to pets, fish, and humans (you may want to warn your neighbors before each yard application so they can protect themselves from incidental contact with the chemicals).
Honorable Mention – Bathing
For light infestations, a simple lukewarm bath will often take care of the fleas that are on the body (yes, even for cats). The water and soap are enough to get rid of the fleas, and if used along with a flea comb, the situation can be brought under control with little fuss. This must be followed up by a thorough house cleaning and another method of repelling the fleas (see above solutions); otherwise the fleas that are hiding in the floor and furniture will jump back onto your cat.
Image: nscaletti / via Flickr
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