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What do fleas look like on cats? How to spot and treat cat fleas

Cat fleas are a real pest - both for cats and their owners. If you own a cat, you likely have already dealt with fleas.

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Article checked by a vet
Article checked by a vet

Cat fleas are a real pest - both for cats and their owners. If you own a cat, you likely have already dealt with fleas. If not, it’s best to be prepared in case your cat picks up an uninvited guest. This article explains what cat fleas look like, how cats get fleas, what cats with fleas’ symptoms are, and of course how to tackle a cat flea infestation.

What are fleas and what do they look like on cats?

The most common type of fleas are Cat Fleas, otherwise known by their scientific name Ctenocephalides felis. Fleas on cats look like dark brown insects with flat-surfaced bodies and 3 pairs of legs. They are very small, ranging between 1-3 mm in length, making them difficult to detect. Their eggs are even smaller, no more than 0.5 mm in size, and flea eggs look like tiny grains of white rice on cats.

While you may spot a live cat flea on your cat’s fur, you’re more likely to notice flea dirt. Cat flea dirt looks like small dark specks, which are actually the flea’s faeces. This is usually evidence that your cat has got fleas.

You can tell if your cat has fleas by checking around their groin area, under their armpits, behind their neck, shoulder and legs, and around the base of their tail. These are all humid areas where cat fleas thrive best and therefore will usually bite.

Signs your cat has fleas

Fleas look like moving insects on your cat’s fur or bedding; the most obvious sign your cat has got fleas. There are many symptoms of cats with fleas, and we have listed these below. If you notice any of these behaviours, you should check your cat for fleas.

  • Chronic Scratching or Biting

    A common cat fleas symptom is your cat scratching at their ears or biting parts of their skin. Flea bites can feel very itchy to cats, and by scratching or nibbling at their fur, they are trying to ease the itchiness.

  • Overgrooming

    While all cats enjoy grooming themselves, if your cat is grooming excessively, especially in areas where fleas most commonly reside, then this could be a sign of a cat with fleas. By licking their fur, cats are trying to scratch that itch. However, there are various other reasons cats overgroom their coat, and their skin can become sore quite quickly, so make sure to consult your vet if you notice any irritated skin.

  • Hair Loss

    This is usually a result of your cat overgrooming, which suggests their grooming behaviour is more intense than usual due to the presence of fleas. By repeatedly licking the same area, it can cause your cat’s fur to fall out and you may notice bald patches.

  • Avoiding Living Areas

    If your cat usually enjoys snoozing in their bed, on the sofa or carpeted areas of your house, and suddenly starts avoiding these places, it may be because they’re trying to escape the fleas.

  • Irritability

    Naturally, if your cat is constantly feeling itchy, they will be more irritable than usual. They may find it difficult to relax and show strange behaviours, such as rubbing their body against the floor aggressively, growling, or running around the room as fleas cause a constant irritation in their coat.

  • Bumps and Scabs

    Flea bites look like red scabs on your cat’s skin, caused by your cat scratching the bite area and making it sore. Your cat may be particularly sensitive to flea saliva if the area of skin becomes inflamed - a sign that your cat has got flea allergy dermatitis - and your cat will need to see a vet for treatment.

  • Anaemia

    If your cat is experiencing a heavy flea infestation, they may show signs of anaemia such as weakness, lethargy, decreased appetite and pale gums. This is most common in kittens and senior cats, as their bodies struggle to cope with the loss of blood if there are lots of fleas feeding on them.

  • Flea Dirt

    As mentioned, flea dirt is actually flea faeces and is usually a sure sign that your cat has got fleas. Flea dirt on cats looks like dark specks and you can confirm by combing your cat with a flea comb, placing the specks onto a paper towel and dropping a little bit of water on it. If the speck turns from black to dark red or brown, what you’re seeing is blood that the flea has digested and passed as faeces.

  • Tapeworms

    If your cat accidentally ingests a flea whilst grooming themselves, the flea can develop into an adult tapeworm in your cat’s intestines. You can check for signs of tapeworms by looking around your cat’s anus for moving worm segments, and in this case a worm treatment should also be sought from the vet.

    If you notice any cat with fleas symptoms, you can check for fleas using a narrow and fine-toothed flea comb to pull out live fleas as you comb through your cat’s fur. Make sure to pull the comb close to your cat’s skin as fleas nestle quite deeply into the fur, and pay close attention to cat flea’s favourite areas, such as your cat’s neck, behind their legs or around their tail. Cat fleas look like small black-brown specks on your comb. You should keep a bowl with warm soapy water with you, so you can dip the comb in to immediately kill the flea before they wander off in your home.

    If you’re seriously concerned about your cat’s fleas, for example if it’s a heavy infestation, your cat is a kitten or senior, or if treatment doesn’t seem to be working, you should consult with your vet. Fleas are preventable with regular use of preventive flea preparations. A cat with fleas needs treating immediately, and effective flea prevention and treatment products are available through your vet or over the counter at pet shops.

How do cats get fleas?

Fleas are very determined insects, so it’s not difficult for them to jump onto your cat and make themselves comfortable. One female flea can lay up to 50 eggs a day, and before you know it you have a full-on infestation on your hands. Below are some common ways cats can get fleas.

  • Outdoor Cat

    If your cat is going outside, they are more likely to come across fleas. This could be from the garden, from visiting other flea-infested homes or areas, or if your cat likes to hunt wild animals (more on this below). Look into the pros and cons of letting your cat outside.

  • Other Animals

    Cats love to hunt and usually prey on mice and birds, so if they come into contact with an animal with fleas, they will likely catch them too. If you have other pets in the house, such as rabbits or dogs, then your cat could get fleas from them.

  • Irregular Treatments

    Of course, if you’re not keeping up with your cat’s preventive flea treatments, they lack the defences to manage flea infestations. There are a variety of flea treatments available and it’s essential to treat your cat regularly for it to be effective.

  • The Vet

    Even if you keep them inside, cats can get fleas even with a simple trip to the vet. As so many cats visit the vet each day, even if only one has fleas then they could jump off and wait for the next cat. Also, if you take your indoor cat for walks, they could pick up fleas this way.

  • New Home

    Whilst your new home may look perfectly clean, there is always the chance there are hidden fleas around. If you’ve recently moved and you notice your cat with flea symptoms, make sure to clean your new home thoroughly. If the problem persists, contact your local flea control to help.

What to do when your cat has fleas?

If your cat has fleas, it’s important to get the situation under control as soon as possible. Follow our steps below to get your cat and home flea-free.

  1. Treat your cat for fleas

    There are various topical flea treatments available, such as cat flea sprays and flea collars, but currently the most effective is the spot-on treatment. This comes in a small bottle that you squeeze onto the back of your cat’s neck, which is absorbed into the skin so when a flea bites anywhere on your cat, it ingests the treatment that kills it. The spot-on treatment will kill any fleas on your cat, and can stop eggs from developing. It is best to purchase this from the vet so your vet can confirm if this treatment is suitable for your cat. If you have other pets in the house, it’s essential to clear them of fleas too with appropriate flea treatment.

  2. Wash fabrics above 60 degrees celsius.

    Fleas jump off cats and can settle into their bedding or your clothes, sofas and other soft furnishings. Throw all possibly affected items into a bin bag, and place into your washing machine to wash on a 60+ degree cycle to kill any fleas.

  3. Hoover the house thoroughly.

    Fleas tend to live in the environment, and only jump onto your cat to feed. They will lay eggs anywhere - from your carpets or the crevices of your floor, to items of furniture and particularly in bedding. It’s essential to hoover the whole house thoroughly and repeatedly to ensure there are no fleas remaining. Afterwards, empty out your hoover and wash its waste compartment with warm, soapy water.

  4. Call in an expert.

    If you’ve carried out the above steps and fleas are still a problem, you might need to call in flea control to help. There are flea sprays you can use on your carpets and soft furnishings to kill persistent fleas, but it’s essential that everybody in the house stays away until surfaces are dry. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions for all products used to treat fleas.

How to prevent your cat from getting fleas?

While fleas can be more of a problem in spring and summer due to the humid environment, they can still present a problem in winter as we heat our homes. The best way to prevent your cat from getting fleas is to use spot-on treatment as prescribed, which is usually monthly, to ensure your cat is protected all-year-round

You should groom your cat regularly to maintain a healthy coat, although it can also help to detect any fleas early. It’s also essential to regularly clean your cat’s bedding, as well as hoovering the house often.

Cat fleas FAQs

What kills fleas on cats instantly?

The quickest way to kill fleas is to administer topical preparation or medication from your vet, some of which can kill adult cat fleas within 30 minutes and prevent fleas from laying eggs. Always consult your vet for the best treatment for your cat specifically.

Are cat fleas visible to the human eye?

Although cat fleas are very small insects, between 1-3 mm, they are still visible to the human eye. You can check if your cat has fleas by using a flea comb to pull out any adult fleas. Thorough treatment is necessary as fleas and their eggs can still be missed.

Can humans get fleas from cats?

Humans cannot catch fleas from cats, although they can still be affected by them. Cat fleas will often bite on your lower legs, especially around the ankles. However, they do not settle into human hair the same way they do in cat fur.

Although cat fleas can be a nuisance, infestations are manageable and prevention is entirely possible. Ensure to treat your cat, home and other pets thoroughly to remove cat fleas completely. It’s essential to look after kittens in particular, as they can become anaemic with a heavy flea infestation. Before you let your kitten outside, weigh up the pros and cons and be sure to apply the appropriate flea prevention treatment in advance.