The ordinary cat flea (Ctenocephalides
felis) is the most common parasite on the cat’s skin. All cats can be affected
except for those living at higher elevations, because fleas do not live above 5,000
feet. Cats living indoors can have fleas year-round.
Fleas survive by jumping onto a host animal, cutting open their skin, and
feeding on the blood. In most cases, they cause only a mild itch; but a heavy infestation,
especially of kittens or older, ill cats, might cause severe anemia or even the death of the
cat. Fleas also are an intermediate host of tapeworm. Some cats experience
hypersensitivity to flea saliva. This produces intense itching and a localized
or generalized skin reaction.
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Flea infestation can be diagnosed by finding fleas on the cat or by seeing
black and white, salt-and-pepper-like grains in the coat. These particles are
flea feces (the “pepper”) and flea eggs (the “salt”). Fecal material is made up
of digested blood. When brushed onto a wet paper, it turns a reddish brown.
The adult flea is a small dark brown insect about 2.5 millimeters in size
and can be seen with the naked eye. Although fleas have no wings and cannot
fly, they do have powerful back legs and can jump great distances. Fleas move
through the hair rapidly and are difficult to catch.
Look for fleas on your cat’s back and around the tail and hindquarters by
running a fine-toothed comb through her fur. Fleas are sometimes seen in the
groin area, where it is warm and there is less hair. Itching is most pronounced
in these areas.
New Methods of Flea Control
New products such as Program, Advantage, and Frontline have practically
replaced the use of dips, powders, sprays, and shampoos to treat and prevent
fleas. The new products are more effective and safer than the traditional
insecticides. They are also easier to administer.
Program (the brand name for lufenuron) was the first and remains one of the
most popular agents for controlling fleas on cats. Program is a tablet or
liquid given once a month with a meal. There is also an injectable form that is
given every six months.
The active ingredient accumulates in the cat’s subcutaneous tissue and the
flea must bite the cat for Program to work. Program works by inhibiting flea
eggs from growing and hatching. This leads to a steady drop in the number of
new fleas in the environment. Its effect is limited to the hard outer shell of
the flea, making it completely harmless to mammals. However, because mature
fleas are not affected, it can take 30 to 60 days or longer for the adult fleas
on the cat to die of old age before you notice a reduction in itching and
scratching. All pets in the household must be on Program for it to be