What Are Cat Fleas?

R. Bargar

Although the common name for Ctenocephalides felis is cat flea, as cats are its primary host, this small insect is the most frequently encountered flea on dogs and other pets as well. Wild and feral animals also serve as hosts for cat fleas and are often the source of fleas that find their way into the home. Rarely, other types of fleas may become a problem on pets, but feline or cat fleas are responsible for most infestations. Understanding the flea lifecycle helps when getting rid of fleas on pets and in the home. Considered a public health pest, fleas can transmit parasites, diseases, and cause infections.

Cat fleas are small insects the live on the animal's skin.
Cat fleas are small insects the live on the animal's skin.

A healthy cat is not usually endangered by a few fleas, but cat flea bites do cause irritation to pets. Problems result when infestations occur or the cat develops allergic reactions to flea bites. Flea allergy dermatitis causes skin irritation and hair loss in both cats and dogs. A heavy flea infestation on a small or young animal can result in dangerous dehydration. Cat fleas are also transmitters of other parasites.

Fleas prefer the head, neck and back of a cat.
Fleas prefer the head, neck and back of a cat.

If a flea acting as an intermediate host for a tapeworm is swallowed, the pet will get a tapeworm. Fleas can also transmit diseases to humans, including plague, tapeworms, and other diseases. People sometimes suffer from flea bite dermatitis, as pets do. Redness and extreme itching are characteristic of this allergic reaction. The bites can also become infected when scratched.

Pets can transfer fleas between them, although most female cat fleas stay on their hosts. When pets rest together, the chances for flea movement from one pet to another are greatest. Most fleas, though, find new hosts immediately after leaving their pupal cocoons as adults. When they sense a host nearby, their powerful back legs allow them to jump into the host’s fur. Almost as soon as they find a host, they begin feeding.

Studies have shown that fleas prefer the head, neck and backs of cats. This may be due to cat grooming habits, as these areas are hardest for the cat to reach. Young cats are more likely to become infested with fleas. Their immature immune systems and less effective grooming abilities may be reasons for their increased susceptibility to cat fleas. An adult cat can remove about half the fleas on it while grooming.

Fleas have four stages in their lifecycle. Feeding on the host’s blood occurs during the adult stage. Females lay eggs which fall from the host animal and hatch into a larval form. At this stage, the flea has no legs and feeds on adult flea feces and bits of dried blood. The larval flea prepares a cocoon where it undergoes metamorphosis into an adult to start the cycle over.

Flea combs, baths and pesticide products are used to rid pets of fleas. Only the adults are active on the pets, so other methods are used to rid the home of fleas. Frequent sweeping, especially around pet bedding and along baseboards, picks up the eggs and cocoons. Insecticides are sometimes used to stop heavy infestations in the home.

Feral cats can serve as hosts for flees.
Feral cats can serve as hosts for flees.

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