Learn to recognize the signs of fleas on cats and kittens, and how to get rid of fleas on cats and in your house through effective treatment and prevention.
Your cat seems restless. She’s licking and scratching herself, and her skin might even look red or irritated. These could be tell-tale signs your feline friend has fleas, especially during spring and summer since these parasites thrive in warm conditions.
Knowing how to get rid of fleas on cats and in your home can be tricky. Prevention is easier than getting rid of them once an infestation is underway. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! Here’s how to tell if your cat has fleas so you can get rid of them quickly and effectively, plus some proactive steps to take in order to keep them from coming back.
The most obvious symptoms of fleas on cats are increased scratching and biting of fur. Additionally, the itching from fleas can make your cat groom more frequently and act restless. It doesn’t take many fleas to make a cat feel bothered and irritated. But these tiny, fast-moving parasites are more than just an itchy nuisance. Because they feed on your cat’s blood, they can cause anemia and weakness—and even transmit tapeworm infection. One or two small fleas can quickly turn into a whole infestation, and are great at hiding in your cat’s fur.
In some cases, you might notice your cat develop bald patches from over-grooming, or skin irritation from an allergy to flea bites. But it’s not always obvious that your cat might be suffering from these itchy, irritating parasites. In fact, Michael Dryden, DVM and Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Parasitology at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, points out that fleas can be particularly difficult to identify on cats because they are such fastidious groomers.
If your cat is showing symptoms of fleas, the first place to start is a visual check to look for signs of fleas. Experts suggest focusing your search on the neck and back of the cat, as that is where fleas tend to be the most concentrated (and also where your cat is less likely to be able to groom herself because they are hard to reach areas).
Divide the fur and search for small black dots on the skin. A fine-tooth flea comb can really help identify the parasites, and Dryden says to look for reddish brown or black specks, which could be the fleas themselves, their eggs, or flea dirt.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between flea dirt—another name for flea poop—and regular dirt from the yard, try this trick: Comb the cat’s fur to collect any small black specks. Place them on a dampened tissue or white paper towel. If the spots turn red, you’re probably seeing signs of fleas, which feast on blood that shows up red on the tissue test.
Not seeing fleas themselves, but still suspect an issue? Dryden says it can help to check all the animals in the home. “Sometimes you won’t find any fleas on one animal because it is such a good groomer, but you will notice it losing fur. But you might find a bunch of fleas on another animal.” Be sure to check other cats and dogs for fleas, and even your own legs for bites. If you’re still having trouble identifying signs of fleas on cats, enlist the professional eye of your veterinarian to help track down any hiding fleas or other skin issues that could be causing your cat irritation.
Once you’ve verified the presence of fleas on your cat, you’ll want to get rid of the pesky hitchhikers as fast as possible. Because not all flea products treat every life stage, you may need to use multiple steps to properly get fleas treated and out of your home and off your pets.
If you’re able to see fleas, flea dirt, or flea eggs on your cat, start the treatment process by combing and bathing your cat to get rid of as many as you can (though it may be easier said than done). If you’re wondering how to get rid of fleas on cats that hate water, you’re not alone. This method can be very difficult if your cat doesn’t tolerate your attempts at bathtime, so don’t force it. A spray bottle can help you drown the fleas without all the fuss: just lightly spray your cat with water, then run a flea comb through the fur. Put any fleas into a solution of water and dish soap so they don’t later jump back onto your pet.
After you’ve removed as many fleas as possible through bathing and combing, you’ll need to treat your cat for fleas at every life-stage: egg, larvae, pupa, and adult. Dryden recommends a long-lasting prescription product that will ensure you get rid of every single one of them. Because flea eggs can lay dormant for weeks, treatment needs to cover several months so that the eggs don’t hatch, thus restarting the issue all over again. There are several types of flea medication for cats. Talk to your vet about their recommendations for your pet, since dosing is based on weight, age, and other variables. It’s extremely important that you check to make sure your product is labeled for cats and NOT for dogs, since flea treatments for dogs can be toxic when used on cats. Always ask your vet for advice before beginning any type of treatment, especially if your cat is pregnant or nursing.
Here’s a breakdown of the basic types of flea treatments for cats:
Spot-On Flea Treatments
Cat flea treatments known as “spot-on flea treatments” are a medicinal liquid that’s applied to the back of your cat’s neck. Most of these medications are applied once a month and then absorbed into your cat’s bloodstream to protect against parasites (including ticks). They start working right away. Not all spot-on treatments require a prescription to purchase, but it’s best to check with your vet before applying any new medication to your pet. Be sure to follow the product’s specific label instructions carefully to ensure proper dosage and application. After applying the liquid, aim to keep your cat away from other animals in the home while the medicine absorbs, and keep an eye on them so they don’t rub it off. Examples of spot-on treatments include:
- Advantage: active ingredient imidacloprid
- Frontline: active ingredient fipronil
- Revolution Plus: active ingredients selamectin and sarolaner
- Bravecto Plus: active ingredients fluralaner and moxidectin
Another fast way to get rid of fleas on cats is with ingestible medications. Pills containing the active ingredient nitenpyram start killing adult fleas on your cat within 30 minutes of administering the medicine. But these don’t have as much of a long-lasting effect, and may require another dose if your cat gets fleas again. Chewables containing the active ingredient spinosad are another fast-acting option that starts killing fleas before they lay eggs, and provides a full month of flea protection to help prevent future infestations.
Sprays, Shampoos, and Powders
Other cat flea treatments that can be found at pet supply retailers include dusts, shampoos, and sprays. But Dryden cautions that these products aren't always effective because they don’t provide long-lasting coverage to address the hatching eggs. Instead, Dryden recommends prescription products that your veterinarian can provide—especially newer ones that can kill fleas fast. He adds that older flea products don’t work as well anymore since fleas have become resistant to their properties.
Natural Flea Remedies
It’s tempting to search for a chemical-free method to kill fleas on your cat, but Dryden points out that as fleas have become increasingly resilient over time, natural or homemade remedies like essential oils, dish soap, and apple cider vinegar are simply not enough to kill all the fleas on your cat.
Dryden says that even though oral and spot-on medications may kill the fleas on your cat in a matter of hours, it’s important to continue using them for the duration of recommended time for complete eradication of the flea problem. And you should regularly re-apply the treatment if needed based on the product’s instructions.
In addition to treating your cat, you’ll also need to take steps to get rid of any fleas or eggs that might be hiding in your home. Fleas hang out in the furniture, carpet, or bed—especially in areas where your cat sits frequently. Flea eggs that hide in the upholstery will hatch later and start looking for a furry friend to feast on, so it’s critical that you get rid of these uninvited houseguests ASAP with help from the vacuum.
Experts point out that a regimen of vacuuming and washing makes a huge difference in the overall effectiveness of flea treatment. Focus on vacuuming any cracks and crevices (like the couch cushions), underneath your furniture, and anywhere your pets like to hang out. Don’t forget to dispose of the vacuum bag in a sealed plastic bag, or wash out the canister right away so that no fleas escape. Steam cleaning carpets and furniture once you’ve treated your cat can also help ensure fleas are destroyed at all their life stages.
Along with proper treatment of your pet, vacuuming and thorough washing of textiles are usually enough to eliminate most fleas from your home. Wash sheets, pet bedding, and pillows once a week. Use the high-heat setting on your washer and dryer and bid farewell to any fleas that might be hiding in the fabrics.
But for some households, washing and vacuuming is just not enough—especially if they experience a really stubborn set of fleas. In this case, it may be worth considering a household flea spray or “bug bomb” to get control of an infestation. The Entomology Department at the University of Kentucky recommends sprays that contain certain insecticides in the active ingredients, and warns that the spray must get underneath furniture where fleas and their eggs might be hiding in order to adequately treat the room.
If you still have fleas after trying the above options, it’s time to call a professional exterminator. A pro will assess the infestation and kill the fleas, their eggs, and their larvae. Full treatment may take a few sessions, and if they have to come back more than once it doesn’t mean the first treatment wasn’t a success—it just means there were fleas who were good at hiding!
The best way to get rid of fleas on cats is to prevent them from taking hold in the first place. Most veterinarians recommend year-round flea prevention for all cats and dogs since they are much easier to prevent than eliminate. And while cat fleas and dog fleas are technically different species, they are not picky eaters. Either type of flea can crossover and infect both cats or dogs, meaning it’s incredibly important to treat all pets in your home for fleas for several months—otherwise, you’ll be chasing your flea problem from animal to animal.
Dryden says flea and parasite prevention is just as important for cats as it is for dogs, even if they are indoor cats. “Cats deserve better,” he says. “We do this [prevention] for dogs but we aren’t as good as doing this for cats. Even indoor cats are still at risk because they go outside sometimes or other animals or humans bring them in.”
He recommends prescription-strength spot-on flea barriers that are used to both treat fleas that may be on your cat, and also provide long-term flea prevention. Many of these products are available online or from pet supply retailers, though the newest, most effective treatments are only available by prescription from your vet.
If a monthly spot-on treatment isn’t the best option for your cat, another method to help prevent fleas is a flea collar that contains the active ingredients flumethrin and imidacloprid. Just keep in mind that cat flea collars should have a breakaway mechanism to help prevent your cat from getting tangled when climbing and hiding in small places.
In addition to preventative methods on your cat, keep in mind these steps to keep fleas out of your yard, since pets frequently pick up fleas outside. Cut grass and reduce areas of brush where fleas might like to hide out. Consider treating your yard with outdoor products for fleas prevention to keep the pesky pests away.
Remember: Year-round prevention is key to getting rid of fleas and keeping them away, especially in cats who have a history of fleas. Once you’ve treated your cat for fleas, spent a few weeks vacuuming and cleaning, and taken preventative steps to keep them from coming back, those itchy bugs will be no more than an unpleasant memory. Remember, it can take up to three months to be sure every flea is gone, so be consistent with cleaning and preventative flea barriers. Reach out to your vet for any questions about treating your cat for fleas, and keep an eye on any lingering skin issues that might require a closer examination by your vet.