Monday, June 11, 2012

Keeping Fleas in Check

Controlling Fleas On Your Cat

Sum-sum-summertime is upon us once again. Its heat and humidity bring out pests like fleas to bother us and our cats. And this year's mild winter will help ensure a bumper crop of the little blood-suckers to plague us. The more humid it is where you live, the more you'll be troubled by fleas. The southeastern U.S. is rife with them.

A female flea can lay 25-40 eggs per day and will continue doing so as long as she can consume blood. She will eat 10-15 blood meals every day. The eggs are laid on your cat, but quickly fall off into the cat's environment. They will hatch in about 2-5 days if the temperature is warm and the humidity level high enough. The larvae that hatch will eat any organic matter, such as flea feces, in their immediate environment. Within about two weeks with sufficient food, the larvae have matured into pupae, then a couple weeks later into adult fleas. 

Without a food source, the pupae can live for months, quickly stimulated to fully develop when they sense the vibrations of a host nearby. If you've ever gone on vacation for a couple of weeks, or moved into a new apartment, and walked inside for the first time, you may have noticed a swarm of fleas attacking your legs. They've been laying dormant as pupae, just awaiting your arrival. Fleas can jump about 12 inches to land on a passing host.

Problems Arising From Fleas

But more than just itching and scratching, fleas can present several health problems. Cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) are the most common flea and its bites can create several health issues.

The first is flea dermatitis. When a flea bites your cat (or you, for that matter), it secretes saliva that keeps the blood from coagulating so it can drink more freely. That's what causes the swelling, redness, and itching in a bite. In some hosts -- that would be you or your cat -- that saliva causes an allergic reaction more intense than the normal itching. It can lead to an infection in the bite area, seborrhea, skin reddening in areas other than the bite, and hot spots. Cats may "barber", or lick off their hair, in response, resulting in hair loss. The symptoms tend to be worse on the inner thighs and in the tail area.

Fleas can also spread tapeworms. Flea larvae consume the tapeworm's eggs. When your cat is scratching and biting at fleas, sometimes a flea gets ingested, along with those tapeworm eggs. If you see wriggling white worms about the size of grains of rice in your cat's poop or near the tail, kitty's got tapeworms. The worms live in your cat's small intestine and will prevent your cat from getting sufficient nutrition. You'll notice kitty losing weight and becoming lethargic.

If left unchecked, flea bites can cause your cat to become anemic. In heavy infestations, the fleas suck so much of the cat's blood that anemia becomes a problem. This is especially true for young kittens. Some can die from the condition. Anemia comes not only the loss of blood, but transmission of a type of bacteria by fleas that causes the destruction of red blood cells in a condition known as hemobartonellosis.

Increasingly, fleas have been the source of more serious health problems, some of which can also infect humans. These include plague and murine typhus! A recent typhus outbreak in California was traced to cat fleas, which can actually infest many types of animals, both domestic and wild. Typus causes headaches, fever, chills, fatigue and rashes. If left untreated it can be fatal.

So fleas are not something to take lightly!

Symptoms of Fleas On Your Cat

All cats scratch and groom, but if your cat is doing so excessively, especially concentrating around the hindquarters, you could have a flea problem. You may notice red, irritated skin or areas your cat has licked bald. There may be the aforementioned "hot spots" that become oozing sores. Your cat may start seeking out unusual places to sleep, in trying to get away from the fleas. And even exclusively indoor cats are susceptible. 

My poor little Vixen got a bad flea infestation once and I didn't realize it until I flipped her over onto her back to trim her claws. She'd licked all the hair off her tummy and the fleas just scattered when I turned her over! I immediately got some flea shampoo to bathe her, and the bath water turned pure red from all the blood she was losing. Anemia had already set in, so I had to give her a supplement to build her health back up afterward. There was one of her nine lives gone!

Fleas will stay near sources of water on your cat. This means the eyes, mouth, ears and...get ready to go "Ew!"...the anus. When grooming or loving on your cat, look for fleas or "flea dirt" -- actually flea poop -- in these areas. It will appear as little black spots, sort of like black dandruff on your cat's skin. If you put these spots on a wet paper towel, they'll spread out red as the water rehydrates the blood in the flea feces.

The fleas themselves are about 1/8 inch long, flat and oval, reddish brown in color. Their eggs tend to be mixed in with dust and dirt in the environment and are pretty much impossible to spot. Flea larvae look like tiny white worms, but are also very difficult to see.

Obviously, if you're getting bites around your feet and ankles, that's another sign that fleas have infested your home or yard. It's time to take action!

Preventing Flea Outbreaks

Obviously, preventing fleas from infesting your cats and your home is better than trying to get them under control once they gain a foothold. Fleas can live in your environment for a year, and their pupae can survive without hosts for months. So what works?

Keeping your cats indoors won't ensure that they stay flea-free, but it will help. If they're roaming the neighborhood and socializing with other cats, they're bound to be exposed to fleas somewhere. And when they come back into your house, in come the fleas with them. Freezing weather and drought-like conditions help to keep fleas in check outdoors. I live in Florida, so there's not much of either of those this time of year.

Vacuuming your house frequently, including along the baseboards, is helpful, and make sure you empty that vacuum cleaner bag every time. This gets any eggs the fleas may have deposited in your carpet. It also removes any flea dirt on which the larvae feed. For tile or hardwood floors, using a damp mop and detergent weekly will have the same effect. Again, it's important to get all the way to the edges, not just run the vacuum or mop around the center of the floor. Fleas will congregate toward the edges of the flooring. And remember, your cat goes underneath and behind furniture, so move all those things to get to all the spots kitty frequents.

Wash your cat's bedding weekly to get any fleas, eggs, larvae, or pupae living there. If your cat sleeps anywhere other than in his own bed (and you know they all do), that needs to be washed and/or vacuumed weekly, as well. This includes your bedding, any upholstered furniture, and any cat trees you have. If your washer has a sanitary cycle, use that one.

In your yard, it's helpful to keep your grass cut and the ground free of mulch. The drier and clearer your yard is, the less hospitable the conditions for fleas to thrive. This is especially true if you live in a very humid area. If you use a yard spray, use it under bushes, shrubs, decks, and porches, not in the main part of the lawn, where the sunlight and more arid conditions discourage the development of fleas. Flea eggs can also be deposited in the soil between the joints of pavers, concrete walks and porches, so treat those areas. Follow the instructions for these products carefully. And make sure you let any spray products dry for several hours before you allow your cats to go outside.

It's important to treat both indoors and out so that you can avoid bringing fleas back into your home once you've eradicated them there. If fleas gain a foothold, you may need to call in a professional pest control company to get them under control.

Treating Flea Outbreaks

When I was growing up, the only flea treatment options we had were to manually pick fleas off our animals or give them a good dusting of messy, stinky flea powder. When flea collars came out, we were thrilled! That is, until we realized that they don't always work all that well, and some cats have a reaction to the chemicals in them. But all of these methods are still available.

The next type of treatment that came along was "dipping" which involved a pesticide applied by a veterinarian or groomer. These were more effective than the home-grown remedies, but could get expensive. They lasted about a month and required a trip to the vet every time to have it redone.

The most popular flea preventatives in recent years are the monthly spot-on treatments applied between the cats' shoulder blades. They're very effective and keep your cat flea-free for an entire month. Advantage, Frontline, and Revolution are all examples of this type of product. However, some cats do have reactions to them, so you'll need to make sure you follow your veterinarian's advice in using them. And never use dog flea products on your cats, as the chemicals in them are too strong for a cat's lighter weight and more sensitive system and can kill your cat! There are also some flea prevention pills.

But not everybody wants to saturate their environment or their cats with toxic chemicals. While there are also many natural products on the market to control fleas, be very careful with these, as well. Make sure the product you choose is safe for cats. Some of the poisons in them that kill the fleas can't be handled by a cat's liver and can also be toxic to cats.

Flea shampoos can be a cheaper alternative than spot-ons, but anyone who's tried to bathe a cat knows that they may not be the best option. If your cat will tolerate a bath, however, they can be effective. Make sure to use a flea shampoo that is safe for use on cats.

The old-fashioned flea comb is still the most natural method for removing live fleas from your cat, but it does not remove the eggs, larvae, or pupae. These must still be treated to get the fleas under control. If you catch the infestation quickly and treat your home and yard at the same time, you may be able to get the upper hand on them with a flea comb. Just make sure you use it frequently. It doesn't take long for fleas to invade.

What Doesn't Work on Fleas

The ultrasonic devices marketed to control fleas have never been scientifically proven to have any effect on them at all. And such natural treatments as brewer's yeast, B-complex vitamins, and garlic have also proven ineffective in repelling fleas. 

The bottom line: obviously, prevention is far preferable to treatment for fleas. If you keep your environment flea-free, your cats should stay that way, too.

Old Maid Cat Lady has an assortment of flea prevention and treatment products of all types to help you and your cats enjoy the summer together. More are being added all the time, so check back frequently to see what's new.

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