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You almost certainly know that it’s important to prevent your cat from getting fleas and ticks. But do you know why it’s a big deal? After all, how much harm can one or two small insects do to an otherwise healthy cat? Well, read on for five eye-opening reasons… Warning: the following content may make you feel itchy!

1 – Do you really want your pet, your house, even your family to be home to blood-sucking insects?

Remember, while we tend to see the parasites on the pet’s skin, the vast majority of the fleas in a population aren’t visible to us. One or two fleas on your pet may well mean hundreds, even thousands, of eggs and larvae living in your home. The larvae particularly like to live in the carpets and soft furnishings, where they crawl around (like little maggots): growing and developing until they’re ready to hatch.

And of course, it only takes two fleas to set up a substantial infestation – a single female cat flea can lay 2000 eggs(1) in her lifetime, and in warm conditions – like our houses, especially in the summer or if there’s central heating, the full life-cycle can complete in only a few weeks. So what was a couple of annoying insects can rapidly grow into an exponentially increasing problem.

Think your cat isn’t infested? Well, they might not be – but flea infestations are far more common than most people think, with research(2) suggesting that more than 1 in 5 cats have fleas at any one time!

To make matters worse, while it is true that cat fleas do not survive well on humans in the long term, if they’re hungry they’ll have no qualms (or difficulty) in biting us for a snack while they wait for your cat to come back into range…

2 – Why should your cat have to put up with the itching?

The bite of a flea is always irritating. As they suck blood, they leak saliva into the surrounding tissues, causing local irritation and itching. Now, for most cats, one or two fleas aren’t causing a huge problem (but see above in terms of how quickly they can multiply!). However, a heavy flea infestation can cause a significant welfare impact on any cat, as they’re bitten again and again and again. And even one flea bite will lead to an unnecessary itch!

3 – Cats are prone to flea allergies

However, before you relax and decide that one or two aren’t a problem, consider this: according to research, about 1 in 12 cats(2) show signs of Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD). This, as the name suggests, is an allergy to that flea saliva. But while a non-allergic cat might have a scratch after a flea bite, a cat with FAD will often become severely itchy, often in multiple places, after just one bite. Other signs include scabs and lumps in the skin (miliary dermatitis), overgrooming, bald patches, and skin infections.

For cats with FAD, even a single flea is one too many – the only way to reliably control the condition is by thorough and complete flea control.

4 – Fleas suck blood… and so do ticks

While a single flea can only suck a small amount of blood, if there are lots of them, the blood loss can become significant. In fact, in small kittens, heavy flea infestations can cause clinically significant, or even dangerous, anaemia.

And ticks, of course, are a lot bigger and suck a lot more blood at each meal (well, the females do anyway). This means that a kitten or even a smaller adult cat who is pounced on by a whole family of ticks while strolling through the grass is potentially in serious trouble.

5 – Fleas and ticks can spread diseases

In fact, that’s one of the most important reasons to control these parasites. Among the infections spread by fleas and ticks are…

  • Tapeworms – the flea is the “intermediate host” and is key to the spread of the Dipylidium tapeworm. Any cat with fleas probably, therefore, has tapeworms too!
  • Feline Infectious Anaemia is caused by a blood-bourne bacteria, called Mycoplasma haemofelis. This parasite is mainly transmitted by fighting, BUT fleas also carry it, and may in some cases be able to transmit it from cat to cat. In addition, ticks seem to be much better at spreading this potentially fatal disease.
  • Bartonella – the cause of Cat Scratch Fever, an infection which can be passed on from cats to humans via scratches. It is passed from cat to cat though largely by fleas.
  • Feline Leukaemia Virus – there is some evidence(3) that, under some situations, fleas can even transmit FeLV from cat to cat.

So, how do we protect our cats?

Primarily, by using an effective, rapid and safe flea control programme. We strongly recommend talking to your vet about the best option for your cat! It’s also important to use flea control regularly, all year round, not just in the peak of the flea season – as we’ve seen, it only take a couple of fleas to set up an infestation, or pass on a dangerous disease, or trigger a flare up of FAD!

Scientific Articles:

  1. Sousa, C. (1997). Fleas, flea allergy, and flea control: a review. Dermatology Online Journal, 3(2).  
  2. Bond, R., Riddle, A., Mottram, L., Beugnet, F. and Stevenson, R. (2007), Survey of flea infestation in dogs and cats in the United Kingdom during 2005. Veterinary Record, 160: 503-506. 
  3. Vobis, M., D’Haese, J., Mehlhorn, H. et al. (2003) Evidence of horizontal transmission of feline leukemia virus by the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis). Parasitol Res 91, 467–470. 

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