Fleas are a pesky nuisance for both cats and their owners! A flea bite can irritate your kitty, plus these nuisances can even bite your legs and feet as you walk throughout the house. It’s no wonder that learning how to tell if your cats have fleas is an important part of being a cat parent.
Here, we want to help you learn how to tell if your cat has fleas, how to identify fleas versus other types of pests such as ticks, and how to get rid of a flea infestation.
Symptoms That Your Cat Has Fleas
When cats have fleas, they exhibit both physical and behavioral changes, and if you learn to notice these changes, it will help you as you identify whether your cat has fleas.
Here are some of the most common cat flea symptoms to look for:
Physical Symptoms of Fleas
If your cat has fleas, the chances are that you will notice either flea dirt or live fleas moving through your cat's hair coat close to the skin.
In the case of a severe flea infestation, you may see the fleas themselves jump on and off your cat and burrow themselves in your carpet, furniture, or bedding. Fleas look like small, brown insects roughly the size of a fruit fly. They move quickly and can jump very far at high rates of speed. The blood meal that fleas take from your cat ends up as dark debris in your cat's fur called "flea dirt". This dark debris will streak red when moistened on a white tissue or paper towel.
In more mild cases, fleas are harder to spot and if you suspect that your cat has fleas, you may have to be diligent about looking for them in their fur. Fleas generally hide in the warmest parts of your cat’s body, so look carefully at your cat’s armpits and groin area.
Lastly, you may notice redness and skin irritation if your cat has fleas, especially in the areas where fleas hide most often. The skin may be bumpy and you may also notice hair loss in certain areas due to an increase in scratching.
Behavioral Symptoms of Fleas
Fleas feed off the blood of animals, so when a cat has fleas, they exhibit behavioral changes and the physical symptoms we talked about above.
One of the first things you might notice is an increase in your cat itching or biting their skin. Cats clean themselves a lot, but there is a difference between regular grooming (using their tongue to clean large swatches of fur) and gnawing (chewing on an area excessively because it’s bothering them).
In addition to noticing your cat overgrooming, skin irritation, and even hair loss, you may also detect that your cat’s personality is different if they have fleas. Some cats may act restless, agitated, and edgy. And can you blame them? Flea bites are no fun for your cat and they are likely bothered by this uncomfortable development. Since fleas can hide in soft surfaces, some cats may even avoid carpeted areas or soft furniture.
Not only do fleas impact your cat physically, but they can even change their attitude and behaviors! Now that you know some of the most common cat flea symptoms, let’s look at how to tell if your cat has fleas by evaluating their coat and using some tools at our disposal.
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How to Identify if Your Cat Has Fleas
If you’ve noticed your cat acting differently or have seen any of the symptoms above, you may suspect that your cat has fleas. Here are some tips and tricks for telling if you have a flea problem on your hands.
1. Examine their fur - The first thing you should do is examine their fur and skin. If you have a long-haired cat, this will be a bit more difficult because fleas like to bury themselves deep in the fur right next to the skin. Combing their dorsal back and near the tail base looking for evidence of flea dirt is probably the most effective way to check for fleas. You can also flip them over on their back and look at the areas we mentioned above, the armpits and groin area. These areas stay warm and a bit moist, which is a flea’s paradise. Look for any black specks or skin irritation potentially caused by a flea bite.
2. Use a flea comb - Flea combs are combs specifically designed to identify and help groom out fleas from a cat’s coat. They have super fine teeth that get in between the fur to collect fleas, flea dirt, and flea eggs. When using a flea comb, make sure to brush slowly and methodically and get as close to the skin as possible. Keep a bowl with water and dish soap next to you so you can wash the comb as you get fleas and flea dirt out of your cat’s fur.
3. Examine your cat’s surroundings - In addition to examining the cat themselves, you should also look at where your cat spends their time because this may help you determine if your cat has fleas. Look closely at any cat beds, cat towers, or blankets that your cat sleeps on for reddish spots in the fabric. These red spots may be pieces of flea dirt, or flea feces, and can be a good indicator to tell if your cat has fleas.
The Flea Test
If you’ve done all these steps and do notice some black specks on your cat’s fur, skin, or bedding, you can do a flea test to determine if, in fact, these specks are fleas and not dirt, skin irritations, or another type of pest like ticks.
To do the flea test, place the black specks that you find on a white paper towel and sprinkle some water on them. If the specks turn a reddish color, this likely means that they are pieces of flea dirt. Flea dirt is the waste product of fleas and it turns red because it contains the digested blood that the flea ate. If the specks don’t turn this reddish color, your cat may not have a flea problem, (but consider talking to your veterinarian if you suspect that something else is out of the ordinary). The black specks could potentially be from the online cat litter you purchased for your feline friend!
Can Indoor Cats Get Fleas?
Some cat parents might initially think that only outdoor cats can get fleas, but this isn’t the case! Yes, indoor cats can get fleas, too. Even if your cat doesn’t go outside, fleas can make their way into your home in many ways. If you have other pets, such as a dog that goes outside, fleas can hitch a ride on your dog and bring them in the house. Plus, even indoor cats need to go outside of the house sometimes for veterinarian appointments, grooming appointments, or travel needs. These outdoor exposures can increase the risk that your cat gets fleas, even if they stay in their cat carrier the whole time. Even you can bring fleas into the house without knowing!
Where you live can have an impact on the chances of your cat getting fleas, as well. Fleas run much more rampant in warm, humid areas compared to areas that are hot and dry or that have cold winters. If you live in an area with a high prevalence of fleas and ticks, talk to your vet about flea prevention strategies for your indoor cat.
Flea Treatment Options for Cats
Most vets recommend flea treatments for both indoor and outdoor cats because not only do they prevent fleas, but most choices also prevent other parasites like ticks, heartworm, roundworm, and tapeworm in cats. These all-in-one solutions are easy to apply and help protect your kitty from an unwanted flea population settling into its fur.
Here are a few of the most common types of flea treatment options for cats:
Oral Flea Medications
Oral flea medications are pills or tablets that you give your cat to prevent fleas from the inside out. They work because the medication that your cat ingests is then transferred to any fleas that bite your cat. Inquire with your veterinarian if you can get an oral flea medication subscription, just like you do for your health monitoring kitty litter.
Topical Flea Medications
Topical flea medications are some of the most popular because they are easy to apply and work fast. Most of these topical flea meds are applied to the back of your cat’s neck and can start killing fleas in as little as 12 hours. You apply it to the back of the neck so it spreads over the cat’s body oils.
A flea collar can be worn around your cat’s neck and provide a constant flow of flea medicine. In fact, some flea collars can even last for months. They kill fleas by slowly releasing medication.
Flea sprays are topical solutions that are applied directly to your cat’s coat. They can last up to a month.
Fleas are an extremely uncomfortable and annoying pest for both you and your cat! They feed on animal blood, can cause itchy skin irritations, and can even spread disease. If you notice that your cat is grooming excessively, acting differently, or if you notice black specks on your cat’s fur (especially around the armpit and groin area), your cat may have fleas. Here, we shared some of the most common symptoms of fleas, how to tell if your cat has fleas, and how to treat fleas if your cat does have them. There are quite a few over-the-counter options, so talk to your vet to determine which one is right for your furry friend.