Fleas, Ticks, Worms - Oh my!
Category: Cat Health
Has this ever happened to you? You’re hanging out with your kitty, playing and petting away, when all of a sudden a tiny bug hops off your precious furbaby! Look closely and what do you see? Tiny creatures crawling on Fluffy, scurrying through their fur. Oh boy. Now you’re freaking out thinking you have an infestation in your home. Yup, we’ve all been there.
Fleas, ticks and worms all belong to the parasite family. Whether it be external or internal, they are one of the most common issues when it comes to cats. In fact, most cat owners will go through this situation at least once in their furball’s life.
Good news though! These problems are usually manageable and easy to treat. Don't stay idle though, because not only are these parasites painful for cats, but they can also carry dangerous viruses.
Read on to find out the difference between these three parasites and what to do if you suspect your furry friend might have them.
Fleas, ticks, worms: what’s the difference?
It’s a well-known fact that cats are curious creatures and like to explore. This makes them particularly exposed to parasites. There’s a multitude of undesirable bugs that can infest their skin, but fleas are by far the most common. Ctenocephalides felis, or simply cat fleas, are small oblong reddish brown insects that feed on your pet's blood. Basically, tiny vampires with a taste for feline blood. While they don’t have wings, cat fleas can – and WILL – jump as high as 8 inches horizontally and 5.2 inches vertically!
As soon as temperatures hit above the 50s, ticks come out hunting for feline blood in tall grass. These tiny bugs are dark in color with round bodies that swell up as they suck on their host’s blood. You might confuse adult ticks for small spiders since they resemble them a lot. Outdoor cats are of course the favorite victims of these blood-sucking parasites, but indoor cats can also pick them up. Just like fleas, ticks can be pretty painful for kitties and pose a serious threat to their health. Indeed, ticks are vectors of diseases such as Q fever, Lyme disease, Feline Babesiosis and, in rare cases, can even cause cats to develop anemia. While it is unusual for cats to catch these diseases, tick presence on your cat should never go untreated.
On to worms now, these internal parasites will form when a cat accidentally (when grooming for example) ingests a flea carrying the tapeworm larva. The most common types in cats are the roundworm and the tapeworm. Newborn kittens are extremely likely to carry them, since worms are transmitted by the mother through her milk. In fact, intestinal worms are so common in cats that more often than not they’ll carry them at some point. According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, worm prevalence rate reaches up to 45% in some cat populations.
It’s important to know that even indoor-only cats can get fleas, ticks and worms! People coming in and out of the house, open doors/windows, other pets… are all possible entry ways for these parasites. So make sure to check Fluffy’s fur regularly and keep an eye for any abnormal behavior.
Does my cat have fleas?
You’ll be happy to know that it’s pretty easy to determine whether or not your furball has fleas. To actually see them, do a quick fur check. Wearing a glove, gently hold your kitty still and caress their fur against the direction of hair growth. Look closely at spots like the armpits, neck, hind legs and around the groin area. If your cat has fleas, you should be able to see tiny black crawlers scurrying away or even jumping.
Don’t see any fleas? Your cat could still have them! Look for the following signs:
- Constant and intense scratching
- Excessive grooming including biting
- Frequent head shaking, general restlessness
- Hair loss, bald spots
- Red skin, scabby bumps (especially around the groin and base of the tail)
- Pepper-like black specs on your cat’s fur (this is flea excrement, which consists of dried blood)
- Tiny red spots on their bedding (flea excrement that’s been heated up by your cat’s body temperature)
In extreme flea infestation cases, cats may lose so much blood that they become anemic. While this is rare, keep an eye out for:
- Muscle and weight loss
- Pale gums
Yup, my cat has fleas. How do I get rid of them?
If you’ve determined that fleas have visited your precious furball, there’s a way to get rid of them at home.
- A fine-toothed metal flea comb (can be found on Amazon, pet stores and drug stores like CVS)
- Glass of water
- Liquid dish soap
- Your flea-infested kitty (obviously)
You’ve probably already figured out the next steps. Begin brushing your furball from head to tail. You should be seeing fleas on the comb. Dip the comb in the water-soap mix, and swirl it around to drown the fleas. Repeat this process daily.
Nope, doesn’t seem like fleas. Is it ticks?
Ticks are bigger than fleas and therefore easier to spot (though unfed ticks can be pinhead-sized). To check your cat for ticks, use the same method as with fleas. Since ticks are bigger and bloat when fed, you might even feel them under your fingers. Red irritated spots from the bites might also be visible. Note that your cat may not show any signs or changes in behavior while carrying ticks, so it’s important to do regular fur-checks.
As we mentioned above, ticks carry a number of dangerous diseases that can be transmitted to your cat. In this unfortunate scenario, your kitty might show some of the following symptoms:
- High fever
- Severe weight loss
- Swollen glands or joints
- Eye discharge
Sounds like ticks. What should I do?
The best way to get rid of ticks on your own, is to physically remove them. Wearing a pair of gloves, grab the tick by the head using tweezers. Make sure that you remove the whole tick and not just part of the body, as their mouth can remain in your cat’s skin. Don’t forget to disinfect the area and your hands! Remember, coming in contact with tick blood can expose you to serious diseases.
Disposing of ticks in your trash can or toilet isn’t enough. Put them in some kind of sealed container instead, because they can easily crawl out and reattach on your furry friend.
This process can be stressful for any cat-parent, so you might want to have your vet do a proper tick removal.
I don’t see anything. Could it be worms?
Since worms are intestinal parasites, you won’t see them scurrying in Fluffy’s coat (duh). You might however be able to see worm segments in their litter presents (cute way of saying feces) or even hanging out their bum. In some cases though, your cat’s behavior can be completely unchanged, making it hard to know for sure. It’s recommended that you have your vet properly diagnose your furbaby. Some signs of intestinal parasitic worms can be:
- Bloated, round belly
- Bloody stool or diarrhea
- Sudden weight loss
- Difficulty breathing
- Constant coughing
Deworming your cat
If you have determined that your furball is carrying worms, it’s time for a trip to the vet. Don’t try to deal with this problem yourself. Only a veterinarian is able to recommend proper treatment, after determining the type of intestinal worm your kitty is carrying.
Once you begin treatment, you’ll typically see tiny white worms in your cat’s poop. This is totally normal and expected; your kitty is ejecting the worms. Just make sure you clean out Fluffy’s litter methodically.
How do I make sure these pests won’t return?
Preventing cat pests from coming back requires two things: parasite treatments and thorough house cleaning. There’s a multitude of prevention treatment, from spot-on products to collars and edible medication. One single product usually eliminates both ticks and fleas. When it comes to worms, your veterinarian will most likely recommend regular deworming appointments. Kittens require more frequent treatments than adult cats.
Since fleas and ticks can live on furniture, it’s important to clean out all areas of the house routinely. Here the keyword is: vacuum. Make sure to vacuum all surfaces, especially carpets, everyday. Yes, every day. You should also wash all bedding and furniture covers once a week (especially where Fluffy likes to lounge the most).
Can cats transmit fleas, ticks and worms to humans?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Make sure you maintain proper hygiene and you should be fine. Clean your hands and the environment you share with your furbaby frequently. You should also avoid being in close physical contact with your cat until they’re treated (no more kisses for a while, sorry).
When it comes to fleas, they prefer cat hosts over humans and won’t come to you as long as there’s a cat “available” to them. Flea eggs can however fall from your kitty onto your furniture and live there without a host for more than 100 days! In the unlikely scenario that you get bitten by cat fleas, know that they rarely cause major problems to humans. Do seek treatment though to avoid bacteria and virus infections.
The bottom line
Fleas, ticks and worms are all very common issues with cats. It’s easy for your precious furball to get infested with these parasites. While generally not a major issue, fleas, ticks and worms shouldn’t be ignored. Parasites are a nuisance for cats, and in some cases even dangerous for their health, but they should be fine after proper treatment.