Preventing and Treating Fleas in Cats – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

We love what spring represents—new life, animals reawakening from their slumber, plants bursting with new buds, and warmer weather—but with spring also come the fleas! Fleas can wreak havoc on cats causing discomfort, severe skin conditions, allergic reactions, parasites (tape worms), anemia and even death in the worst cases, if left untreated. So it’s important to protect your cat from fleas, but it’s also important to know the dangers of some flea control products on the market today. In this article, you’ll become knowledgeable about the different flea treatment options, some of the health consequences associated with them, and you’ll learn ways to provide your cat with the safest possible flea treatments and precautions available. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly on preventing and treating fleas in cats and the options available.

Does Your Cat Have Fleas?

To check whether your cat has fleas, you can run a flea comb through your cat’s fur pressing along the skin to check for adult fleas or flea feces and eggs, which will look like tiny salt and pepper or black and white grains in the fur. These grains are actually flea eggs, which are white, and the feces, which are black—and when removed, you can rub the grains onto a piece of paper and the grains will turn a reddish brown color. Then you know you have a flea problem.

Flea Treatment Options – Chemical vs. Non-Chemical Treatments

Flea treatments come in many forms—including chemical options like “spot on” topicals, sprays, flea collars, and powders that can be toxic and have known health consequences — and non-chemical, natural options like using diatomaceous earth (DE) on carpets, rugs and cat beds and keeping your home clean. The safest method for preventing fleas is to use a combination of keeping your home environment really clean by vacuuming rugs, carpets and upholstery frequently; laundering cat beds and covers often; feeding your cat a very high quality, premium cat food to keep them healthy and their immune system strong; using a flea comb weekly; adding omega-3 supplements to your cat’s food, and adding a food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) on rugs and carpets.

Health Problems Caused By Fleas

If you are dealing with a flea infestation or have a serious flea problem then it’s imperative to treat the fleas before serious health consequences occur. Health problems caused by fleas can include dermatitis (skin inflammation), flea allergies (extreme itchiness and red rash), secondary bacterial infections, open and infected sores, and an inflammatory disease called eosinophilic granuloma complex. Flea infestations can also lead to anemia (with blood loss), which can be fatal if not treated in time. Kittens are particularly vulnerable to becoming anemic due to fleas.

Two years ago, I rescued an adult cat with a terrible flea infestation that nearly killed her—due to being abandoned outside. She was malnourished and starving and had become anemic. Fortunately, I found her just in time and she didn’t need a blood transfusion, which is often what is needed with serious cases of anemia.

Chemical Flea Treatments—Exercise Caution!

Beware of using any over-the-counter chemical flea treatment sold through a drug store or pet store, as many chemical flea treatments produced today including spot-on, powder, sprays, flea collars, and now ingestible chews (the latest addition for dogs), can be extremely  harmful and toxic to your cat’s health. They are essentially pesticides or insecticides that you apply directly onto your cat’s skin and they affect your cat’s organs and cause neurotoxicity and organ damage. The chemicals in these flea control products can cause severe and chronic health problems, some irreversible and deadly. Research has shown that exposure to these chemicals and insecticides over time can cause cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has received tens of thousands of complaints about the adverse reactions in cats and dogs upon immediate application including vomiting, trembling, incurring respiratory problems, having seizures and dying. If you notice any of these signs in your cat after application, take your cat to your veterinarian or emergency hospital immediately.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has researched and evaluated over 100 flea and tick products on the market, and found that many contain specific toxic chemicals that can poison cats and dogs and harm people, even when following the instructions properly. The NRDC list identifies the product, provides the health risk level, identifies the toxin and the health problems associated with that particular toxin. Here’s the list!

There is another chemical flea treatment that works a little different, in that it’s an insect growth regulator (IGR), not an insecticide—called Program (Lufenuron). Given orally once a month with food, it works by disrupting the life cycle of the flea by preventing eggs and larvae from developing into adults. But this too has been known to cause adverse side effects and health issues, especially when given long term.

For severe flea problems that require chemical intervention, look for lower risk products such as those using Pyriproxyfen, Nitenpyram, Spinosad, S-Methoprene, or Lufenuron as the “active” ingredient. Be sure to check the ingredient label. If you can’t do this or find these products and must treat an infestation immediately—there are two chemical flea treatments sold by veterinarians that do require a prescription. They are also sold in some pet stores (under lock and key), called Advantage and Frontline. Of all the spot-on topical chemical flea treatments, these two seem to be the two most recommended by veterinarians—and if used, should be applied exactly per the directions. But, be very careful with Advantage—only buy Advantage for Cats, do not buy Advantix, which is ONLY for dogs, not for cats. It contains Permethrins, which can cause central nervous system toxicity in cats (tremors, fever, and in some cases, seizure or organ damage). Always check the box and label, and make sure the product is for cats only.

Today, in some regions, fleas have developed a resistance to these drugs. Personally, I do use Advantage only 1-2 times per year for my cats (since we have cat kennels outside), and I work to keep my house super clean year-round, regularly wash all bedding, feed them premium quality wet and dry food, and use a flea comb religiously. So far, this has worked for years—and no fleas. I am personally very concerned and cautious about using Advantage or Frontline or any chemical flea treatment, as they are insecticides that use harmful chemicals, and I have read the research about the severe and serious health risks associated with their use.

Don’t count on the manufacturer’s labels to warn you, they don’t—and won’t! As with many manufactured products in the U.S. today, there is very little government regulation for these flea products and the related health consequences to pets—so it’s up to you, the buyer and pet owner, buyer beware.

Safe, Non-Toxic Flea Treatment Options

There are many safer, less risky options available to control fleas including treating your cat’s environment and your cat’s overall health and immune system. To begin with, it may sound simple, but keeping your cat extremely healthy is number one. Generally, fleas attack cats with compromised immune systems, are sick or have infections, are nutritionally deprived, or are poorly cared for and have been neglected. Keeping your cat healthy with a healthy weight and using a high quality, premium cat food will help them. Be sure to read the ingredient label (avoid animal by-products, meat meal or meat by-product meal, dyes, grains, preservatives, additives, BHT, BHA or ethoxyquin) to make sure your cat is getting enough protein and hydration from their food, preferably wet food daily. Choose organic (with USDA label) if you can.

Here are more safe, healthy ways to prevent fleas in cats:
  1. Use a flea comb 1-2 times a week (or even daily if your cat goes outside) over your cat’s fur to catch fleas. Make sure the comb is dragged slowly along the skin to catch the fleas and flea dirt. Go slow, the comb can pull on your cat’s hair, which is uncomfortable for them. Be careful not to pull too hard or try to go too fast. Dispose of fleas in a bowl of soapy water, then flush down the toilet.
  2. Vacuum rugs, carpets, area rugs and furniture upholstery well and thoroughly twice weekly or every week. You may want to bring in a professional (green) carpet cleaner initially or once a year to get rid of eggs and larvae, in case you do have fleas. Be sure to dump the vacuum residue into a plastic bag and take it out to the garbage can outside.
  3. Launder cat beds or bed covers bi-weekly or as often as you can, especially during flea season. Use hot water and add white vinegar to your wash.
  4. Bathe your cat with a lavender or citrus-infused shampoo (non-human, and no essential oils!), which are two known flea repellants. Be careful about using any human shampoos on cats, even herbal–and do not use flea-pesticide shampoos or dips ever! They have been known to cause seizures and death in cats, and are considered highly toxic. Talk to your vet about shampoos, and consider getting one they stand behind.
  5. Use food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) on rugs and carpets to effectively repel fleas (available at health food stores or online). It’s harmless to pets and humans, but lethal to fleas. Any other kind of DE is not approved for use on animals or humans. To use, simply dust carpets, rugs, and bedding very lightly making sure it goes deeply into the grains of the carpet and rugs, so that no loose particles are on top of the surface. You want to avoid you or your cat inhaling the powder, so work powder into the surfaces and keep cats off for a couple of hours to let the powder settle.
  6. Add omega-3 fatty acid supplements to your cat’s wet food to improve and strengthen skin health.
  7. Treat your yard as well with food-grade diatomaceous earth during the dry season, and consider planting plants known to keep fleas away like lavender, eucalyptus, fennel, marigold, and some herbs.

Here’s to being flea-free!

Preventing and Treating Fleas in Cats - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Flea Life Cycle