Fleas - if your cat ever goes outdoors or comes in contact with animals that do, you are probably familiar with these pests. Given the right conditions, these tiny brownish insects can quickly multiply and turn into a horrible infestation. Many cats are allergic to fleas. For them, even a single flea bite can trigger an acute response to dermatitis. For cats that are not allergic, fleas can be just plain itchy and irritating and also a source of tapeworm infection.
Kittens and sick cats are particularly vulnerable to fleas. Left untreated, hordes of fleas have been known to cause severe anemia in kittens and even death.
Know the Enemy
Fleas are small parasitic insects that feed on blood. There are dozens of species of fleas, each adapted to a particular host. The cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, is the most common type found in modern homes. The cat being their preferred host, these fleas can also suck blood from humans, dogs and other animals. The flea's life-cycle consists of four stages. An adult female flea lays several thousand eggs in her lifetime at a rate of as many as 50 eggs a day. Eggs usually fall off the host and then hatch into larvae.
Flea larvae prefer warm dark places, such as carpets and soft furnishing, where they feed on flea droppings for several days. Then they weave a small cocoon where they turn into adult fleas.
The adult flea can lay dormant in its cocoon for many weeks, waiting for a potential host to pass by. Triggered by heat, movement and exhaled carbon dioxide, they come out of their tiny silky shells and jump onto a passing animal or person.
It can be hard to tell whether or not your cat carries fleas. These insects prefer to be in dark places and hide deep inside the cat's coat. If you part your cat's hair, you may just glimpse a flea as it scurries away into safety. What you are more likely to notice are tiny black specs that are easier to spot on white cats. Wipe those black specs with a wet tissue and note how they turn into small red dots. These are in fact fleas feces made out of dry digested blood.
Treating the Problem
The fleas that are actually on the cat represent only a fraction of the flea population present in the house, so treatment must include the surroundings as well as the cat. Regularly vacuum your house, giving particular attention to carpets and upholstery. Because vibrations trigger fleas to come out of their cocoons, they often come alive right after vacuuming, while inside the vacuum bag. To prevent them from returning to your home, make sure the bag is sealed and quickly disposed of.
If you have a major flea infestation you should consult a professional exterminator and treat the house with special anti-flea products. Make sure you use only products that are not toxic to cats.
As for treating your cat, there are several good products on the market that are very safe and effective. Available from your vet, these products can be used orally (Program) or topically. Advantage Flea Control For Cats or Frontline Plus Flea And Tick Control serve to inhibit various stages of the fleas' life cycle.
There are other products in the form of drops, sprays, collars and shampoos that can be used to fight fleas. While cheaper and available over the counter, many of these are either not safe enough or simply ineffective.
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