We need to talk about fleas

Swansea Cats Protection with Lyn Gardner

As a life-long animal rights advocate and campaigner I should embrace the whole of the natural world…but I confess that I really, really dislike fleas. I hate the jumpy, bitey little pests! What about you? If you feel the same as me, please read on…

Summer can be a particularly problematic time for those of us who share our lives and homes with cats and dogs because it inevitably means we need to deal with fleas. But deal with it we must, because if we hate fleas, our poor cats hate them even more, I promise you! So here is a brief guide which I hope will be of help.

Fleas are the most common skin parasite of the cat. They are not fussy about which species of animal they live on, but the most common flea found on cats and dogs is the cat flea. They don’t live on humans but rather hop on, bite and hop off again.

Flea lifecycle

Adult fleas live permanently on their animal host and the female flea produces eggs at a rate of 50 a day, which is a very unpleasant thought. The eggs fall off the cat and hatch into larvae in 2 to 16 days. They then change into immobile pupae in a cocoon. An adult develops in the cocoon and awaits signals suggesting the presence of a cat, such as heat, carbon dioxide and vibrations. The flea will emerge and attach to the host in seconds. If no host is present, the flea can wait in the cocoon for up to two years, again, a very unpleasant thought! In the right conditions the whole cycle can be completed quickly. Centrally heated homes with fitted carpets provide ideal conditions – warm and humid – for fleas to develop all year round. Are you still with me, or gone off to have a good scratch?

What are the signs of fleas?

An itchy, scratchy cat is an obvious one…don’t ignore it! Imagine how it must feel for a poor cat having fleas crawling through their fur 24 hours a day…awful. Bites on human legs may also be a sign of infestation. I’m allergic to flea bites (it’s actually their saliva that people and animals react to). Cats of course can also be allergic to flea bites, which must be dreadful for them. Just one flea bite can cause terrible itching, the cat scratches and breaks the skin, and if you’re not quick in treating the infestation, the sore can become infected. Poor cat. Cats hate fleas too.

Fleas are fast!

Fleas move around at great speed and hop a long way, making them difficult to spot. If you part the fur on a flea-infested cat you may not spot a live flea but will see horrible black specks of flea dirt…a tell-tale sign. Another way to check if your beloved feline has fleas is to place the cat on a sheet of white paper and comb it meticulously. A fine-toothed flea comb may trap one or two fleas but black specks of ‘flea dirt’ (flea poo basically!) consisting of undigested cat blood – can usually be found on the paper. When placed on damp cotton wool, ‘flea dirt’ slowly dissolves producing bloody streaks. Yuk, yuk, yuk. Flea dirt or white eggs may also be found where the cat sleeps.

Flea allergies

Some poor cats are allergic to flea saliva, so bites make them very itchy. They may develop:

  • inflamed skin
  • hair loss – due to over-grooming
  • thickened, oozing or crusty skin
  • lots of small scabs – especially at base of the tail or around the neck

The condition should be treated by a vet as soon as possible, but treatment will only be effective if the cat’s environment is totally cleared of both fleas and their eggs – just one flea can cause a problem in allergic individuals.

How can fleas be treated?

For effective control, adult fleas on the cat must be killed and re-infestation from the environment prevented. It sounds obvious, but products intended for DOGS should NOT BE USED ON CATS as they can be toxic. Your vet should be made aware of any flea treatments that have been used before they prescribe other flea control products.

The new, safe and most effective flea control products are available from veterinary surgeries where advice on their use is provided. It’s tempting to buy flea products without consulting a vet, but it really is a false economy and could result in causing harm to your cat. Once you’re set on an effective treatment, then you can buy the product wherever is best of course.

Killing adult fleas

A wide range of products are available to kill adult fleas on the cat. These include collars, shampoos, sprays, foams, powders, injections, tablets and spot-on products which are applied directly to the skin between the shoulder blades. Finding the right product for your cat is important because using something that is difficult to apply is unlikely to succeed. Shampoos and powders don’t work for long and there is no lasting effect. Many collars are also not very effective and can cause other skin problems, and your cat may get caught up in it as they usually don’t have a quick release mechanism. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best type of treatment for your cat.

Removing fleas in the environment

It is best to use a flea product – usually available as a spray – to get rid of any fleas in your carpets and furnishings. Although frequent vacuuming can help to reduce numbers of fleas, it will not eliminate them. Remember, these products are specifically for environmental use so SHOULD NEVER EVER BE USED ON THE CAT ITSELF – ask your vet for advice on choosing a suitable product. Anything that is heavily infested, such as pet bedding, should be disposed of.

How can fleas be prevented?

Re-infestation can be prevented by using a product that kills any adult fleas on the cat that may have been picked up from outside, or one that provides environmental control by interrupting the flea’s life cycle. Treatment must be regular – this is key. Remember that all the cats in the household must be treated as well as any dogs or house rabbits – using appropriate products for their species – to get a flea problem under control.

Why control fleas?

While many cats live with fleas and show minimal signs of infestation, control is advisable because:

  • the cat flea carries the larval stage of a tapeworm and cats can ingest these while grooming
  • adult fleas feed on cats’ blood – this can cause life-threatening anaemia (blood loss) in young kittens
  • fleas can transmit other infectious agents
  • some cats develop an allergy to flea bites
  • cat fleas can cause itchy bites on humans

It is usually much harder to treat a flea infestation – which can take weeks or months to get under control – than to prevent one…and I speak from experience unfortunately!

Rescued kittens

We were reminded very recently of the terrible and potentially life-threatening effects of flea bites on cats and kittens. We rescued 4 tiny, fluffy kittens from a back garden, and once safe in our care we discovered they were totally flea-infested. If their volunteer fosterer hadn’t acted immediately these poor little kittens might have succumbed to flea anaemia and died. Her quick action to use a kitten-safe flea product and good old-fashioned combing saved their lives. One kitten was found to have over 50 fleas on him! Poor little chap. Thankfully the infestation is now under control and all 4 kittens are doing really well.

With a bit of forethought and regular application of appropriate flea treatment, these horrible, bitey, jumping insects needn’t feature in your cat’s life at all…that’s certainly the way I like it to be anyway!


Who wouldn’t want a lovely Louis in their life?

I’m going to leave beautiful, handsome boy Louis to round things off. We can’t understand why this handsome boy hasn’t been snapped up and it’s left Louis scratching his head thinking ‘what does a cat have to do to get noticed around here?’

Louis is a friendly boy who loves his food, keeps himself looking good and enjoys the big outdoors as much as he likes lounging on laps. Why not come and meet him? He’s been waiting too long to be noticed.

If you’re interested in adopting or fostering one of our rescue cats or kittens please get in touch. IMPORTANT: we are keen to match the right cat to the right home, based on our knowledge of the cat and the information you provide. However, due to the high number of applications we’re sorry to be unable to respond to unsuccessful applicants. Please remember we are ALL UNPAID VOLUNTEERS trying to do our best for the rescue cats and kittens of Swansea.

We can be contacted via our Helpline

0345 2602 101 or email us at


Please note our helpline is answered by a messaging service and we will respond as soon as we can.




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