How did fleas get so complicated?

The daffodils are out, signalling spring, sunshine and hope.  Cat fleas are also fans of warmer weather so now seems a good time to discuss how best to see off these itchy little insects!

Centrally heated homes and a reasonably mild climate mean that Cambridge’s cats will suffer fleas year round.  For the majority of cats, fleas will cause mild skin irritation but they can pass on other parasites, such as tapeworm and some nasty microorganisms, such asBartonella henselae and Haemoplasma species.  Cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) may bite humans and will readily set up camp on dogs, being less fussy than other flea species.  Some cats develop sensitivity to flea saliva, causing severe itching and allergic dermatitis.

If you needed further evidence to be convinced that fleas need controlling, it is reckoned that only 5% of the flea population in your home are adults.  The remainder, including eggs, larvae and pupae are in the environment that your cat occupies: that’s your cat’s bed, your bed, the carpets, the soft furnishings, the bottom of your wardrobe etc..  I’m itchy thinking about it!

The last few years has seen an explosion of new products making choosing the correct one for your cat more and more confusing.  Naturally, they are all marketed as ‘the safest,’ ‘the most effective,’ ‘the most convenient,’ or ‘the quickest to kill’ which makes it all the more difficult to decide which one will be best.

This proliferation in products gives me more choice, which is good.  In line with the clinic ethos that all cats are individuals, I believe that there is no ‘one size fits all’ flea control programme.  The age, lifestyle and allergy status of your cat, as well as other animal companions in your household need to be taken into account when choosing appropriate products.  I also think that the humans count too!  Some cat owners may have difficulty administering certain products, for example due to arthritic hands or their cat being unwilling to cooperate (you can imagine!).  This is very important in product choice, as incorrect use of an excellent medicine is never going to work.

So here goes, some considerations:

1)      Use the product exactly as the manufacturer recommends. This is important both for the method of application and frequency of use.   Most products only last four weeks.  Use stickers in your diary or calendar to remind you when the product is due.  If you are unsure how to use a product, or just don’t like doing it, book your cat in for a nurse appointment.  We can demonstrate the correct technique or simply administer the product for you.

2)      Treating for fleas even when you can’t see any on your cat is important as it will ensure that a flea infestation is prevented.   Remember, the majority of the flea problem isn’t on your cat but in the environment.  We see fleas all year round!

3)      Does the product kill more than just adult fleas?  The most efficient products, in my opinion address both the adults and the eggs and larvae in the environment.  We call this integrated flea control as it will eliminate any existing adults, prevents your cat acquiring fleas and prevents subsequent re-infestation of the environment.  Older, non-prescription products may inhibit the flea eggs from hatching or just kill the adults; for most cats, this will not be enough!

4)      How quickly the adult fleas die after exposure to the product is really important for allergic cats, as this reflects the amount of saliva antigen they will be exposed to.  Rapid death also reduces the opportunity for the fleas to lay their eggs and so will greatly help the environmental ‘pool’ of flea life stages.  The newer products have exceptionally rapid-kill and higher persistence than older, non-prescription products.

5)      Flea pupae in the environment are hard to eradicate and so getting on top of an existing problem can and will take time.  Don’t expect an overnight fix!

6)      Does your cat get ticks?  These are fairly easy to remove promptly using a tick hook (we can show you!) but can spread diseases.  It is sensible to use a tick killing product if your cat is bitten by ticks on a regular basis.  There aren’t many safe tick products in cats, but these are usually combined with a flea control, all in one.

Most owners will admit to worming their cat less frequently than they should.  There are some great combined flea and worming products, which take the headache out of remembering to treat for both!

7)      There are some concerns about humans absorbing products that are intended to remain on the cat’s fur.  Some supermarket flea collars, flea powders and spot ons contain pesticides that could be potentially harmful, especially to smaller people, who play with and touch them or where the cat is in very close contact, eg. Sleeping in their bed.  Again, newer products are absorbed through your cat’s skin and do not remain on the fur or are orally administered.

8)      Believe it or not, there isn’t yet a product that kills all known cat parasites, all in one; choosing ones that prioritise your concerns and don’t interact with each other is daunting and this is where prescription products, that come with veterinary advice is really essential.

9)      Never use a dog flea product on cats.  These are very toxic to cats and can even cause death.  Click here to read more and sign a petition to change how these medications are licensed and sold in the UK

10)   Our preventative healthcare packages include all your cat’s prescription flea treatments, whichever products are most appropriate for you and your cat.

If in doubt, we are very happy to discuss you and your cat’s particular circumstances and help you choose the best products that you will find easy to use.