5 Best Flea Treatments for Cats in 2022

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Cat flea treatment FAQs

A person is combing a cat for fleas.

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How do cats get fleas?

Cats that go outside are more likely to pick up fleas, but even indoor cats can get them, either from the family dog or when they go to the veterinarian or a boarding facility. Fleas can even hitchhike indoors on your clothes or shoes.

What are the health risks to a cat?

If your cat has fleas, you want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. These parasites can pose a threat to your cat’s health. A severe flea infestation can seriously damage a cat’s skin, induce an allergic reaction, or cause them to become anemic from blood loss. Fleas are also responsible for cats contracting parasites like tapeworms and may transmit diseases.

How do you check a cat for fleas?

Signs of fleas in cats include scratching, skin irritation, and the presence of dark red or black specks on your cat’s skin, fur, bedding, or furniture. These specks, about the size of grains of black pepper, are called “flea dirt” and are flea feces (or digested blood). To check your cat for fleas or flea dirt, run a flea comb (a small, very fine-toothed comb) through your cat’s coat or part the hair with your fingers to examine the skin. If you find any live or dead fleas or flea dirt, your cat has a flea infestation.

What is the difference between prescription and over-the-counter flea medication?

Some flea control products can be purchased without a prescription. Other products require your veterinarian to write a prescription. Most prescription products also prevent heartworm, and any product with a heartworm component requires a negative test for heartworms before starting treatment. Giving a heartworm-positive pet this type of medication can cause rare but potentially very serious and sometimes fatal complications. You can purchase prescription products directly from your veterinarian or buy them from online pet pharmacies and stores like Chewy, Petco, Petsmart, and Walmart PetRx.

Do prescription flea medicines cost more than over-the-counter treatments?

Yes, they cost more because they protect against more parasites, most importantly, deadly heartworms. There is no treatment for cats with adult heartworms, and they will eventually die from the infection. This is why veterinarians recommend using a year-round heartworm preventive for all cats, whether they live indoors or out. They also recommend year-round intestinal parasite prevention. For these reasons, prescription flea control products that also prevent heartworms and other parasites are the best choice for your cat. The more parasites you can prevent with one treatment, the better off your cat will be.

Why are some flea products are dangerous to cats?

Products labeled for use in dogs only should never be used on a cat. Some ingredients that are well-tolerated by dogs can be toxic to cats. “Anything with a permethrin, also known as pyrethrin, should never be used on a cat,” Sawyer said. “[Cats] are very sensitive to pyrethrins and can have significant neurologic side effects, even death. Never use a product labeled for a dog on a cat as it may have pyrethrins in it even if not exclusively mentioned on the label.”  

Are flea shampoos necessary?

Veterinarian-recommended topical and oral flea control products are far more effective than flea shampoos. Some flea shampoos are even harmful to cats since many contain pyrethrins.  “Nowadays, flea shampoos are rarely if ever needed because the topical and oral flea products are much more effective and safer,” Sawyer said. “For flea-infested animals, we typically give a fast-acting oral product such as nitenpyram [Capstar] and follow with a bath in Dawn dish detergent or another mild cat shampoo. You can use a flea comb to assist in removing dead fleas and flea dirt [flea feces].”

Do natural flea control products work?

All three veterinarians we consulted do not recommend natural products, which do not work nearly as well as veterinarian-recommended topical and oral flea control products. “They are just not proven to be really effective,” Bourgeois said. “My biggest concern with natural products is, even if they’re safe, if they’re not effective, that’s not helping our pets. I get more concerned about the secondary ramifications for the pet if we’re using something that hasn’t been proven to be effective, versus products that have been proven to be effective and well tolerated.” If you’re considering using natural flea control products that contain essential oils, exercise caution because some essential oils can be toxic to cats.

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