Seeing a flea on your clean, well-cared for cat can be a horrifying experience. In addition to the major “ick” factor fleas bring, they can bite your cat, causing pain and leading to health issues.
Keep in mind that you might not actually see fleas on your cat because they’re hiding deep in the fur. What’s more, cats may swallow fleas through everyday grooming. So unless your cat is heavily infested with fleas, you may see little or no evidence of the small fleas that can cause these potentially big problems.
If your cat swallows a flea infected with tapeworms, your cat can also become infected. Tapeworms attach to your cat’s intestines with sharp, hook-like mouthparts. Once there, the worms are able to grow and steal nutrients from your cat.
You may see pieces of the worms stuck around your cat’s anus. These pieces, which look like white grains of rice, are actually packets of tapeworm eggs. If you look closely, you might even see them moving. Once the outer casing of these packets dries out, eggs will be released into the environment where a flea can swallow them and the cycle can be repeated.
The good news is that tapeworms rarely cause health issues in cats. However, it’s possible they can lead to abdominal pain and diarrhea, as well as itchiness around the anus.
Another danger that can result from your cat being infested with fleas is bartonellosis, which is an infection caused by various Bartonella bacteria but, most commonly, by Bartonella henslea. Cats can contract this disease, called bartonellosis, from flea poop. That’s right, poop. Infected fleas shed the bacteria in their feces and, unfortunately, fleas feed and poop right on your cat. It’s this close contact between flea poop and your cat’s skin that allows the bacteria to infect.
While cats usually don’t get sick from this infection, a wide variety of medical conditions have been linked with Bartonella infections, including mouth and gum disease, eye inflammation and heart disease. A main concern with infection is that cats can carry the bacteria in their system for more than a year, potentially passing it to other fleas and, in turn, other cats.
3. Flea Allergy Dermatitis
Cats can be hypersensitive to fleas’ saliva when they bite, causing a condition called flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), which is one of the most common causes of itchiness in cats. When fleas bite, substances in their saliva can enter your cat’s skin and trigger an immune response. This can cause intense skin irritation and itchiness that extends well beyond the location of the bites, resulting in hair loss around the tail base, belly and inner thighs, as well as causing skin infections that can make the problem even worse. If your cat is experiencing FAD, you may see or even feel small scab-like bumps on your cat’s skin. These miserable symptoms will continue until the fleas are controlled.
Thinking about just one flea being on your cat is terrible, let alone thinking about hundreds. But that’s just what happens if your cat ever has the unlucky experience of being infested with fleas. If a large number of fleas bite and take blood meals (yes, fleas drink your cat’s blood), your pet can develop anemia. This is a serious medical condition, especially in kittens, that must be promptly addressed through veterinary care. Symptoms include weakness, lethargy, rapid breathing and, potentially, death if the fleas are not killed. With severe infestations, we suggest treating the home and surrounding outdoor areas, as well as treating the pet for fleas.
How to help prevent fleas on cats
Because fleas can turn up just about anywhere and have a unique ability to stay around during all the seasons — especially if they’re hanging out in the warmth of a home — it’s difficult to avoid them completely. So to help prevent fleas, which can cause painful bites and lead to health risks for your pet, it's important that you use an effective flea prevention product for cats year round. Consider keeping all pets in your household on a flea control program. Look for a product that kills fleas through contact, so fleas do not have to bite your cat to die.