Cat scratching her head.

Controlling Fleas and Ticks

Much confusion exists about the proper approaches to external parasite control and prevention in pets. Many different products are now available for external parasite control.

The key to successful control is to choose and properly use the products that provide the best possible results for the specific external parasite and environment involved.

Flea Control

Fleas are by far the most common external parasites with which your cat will have to contend. Effective flea control entails not only treatment for fleas on the pet but environmental control as well. Consult with your veterinarian concerning the best approach to take to relieve your pet of these pesky parasites.

Insecticide Sprays, Powders, Collars and Dips

Once serving as the vanguard in the war against fleas and ticks, these products are being replaced by newer, more effective agents. However, some can still be helpful in certain situations, and warrant mention here.

Flea and tick sprays, available in both liquid and aerosol forms, are useful for spot treatments. Sprays containing natural chemicals called pyrethrins, derived from chrysanthemums, are the preferred products over others for flea control because of their safety and efficacy if used properly.

The major advantage of natural pyrethrins is that they are relatively safe for use on pets of all ages. The disadvantage is that they have poor residual flea-fighting activity, lasting only a day or so.

Newer, synthetic pyrethrin products available on the market today have improved this residual activity while still maintaining a good safety margin. If pyrethrin products are used, frequent spray application, both on the pet and in its environment (bedding, carpeting, etc.), is imperative for effective flea control.

In some instances, this means on a daily basis. Just be sure before doing so to check the label on the particular product you are using to confirm the safety of this practice. If you are in doubt, always follow label directions!

As with the sprays, pyrethrin-containing powders are preferred over others because of their low toxicity potentials. Powders do not evaporate like liquid products; therefore, under dry conditions, powders stay active on the hair and skin somewhat longer than do sprays. Again, frequent  application is required for best results. Exposure to water inactivates most insecticide powders.

Insecticide shampoos and collars are common items in both retail stores and in most veterinary clinics. However, since frequent shampooing can lead to excessively dry skin, and collars are of little use to begin with, these products are not recommended for flea control.

Dips, which are simply highly concentrated preparations of insecticides, are also no longer recommended for flea and tick control, because of their highly toxic nature and the advent of newer, safer products.

Second Generation (Once-a-Month) Products

When treating for parasites on your cat, a number of products designed to be administered only once per month are now available. For instance, fipronil (Frontline®) kills adult fleas on pets and helps to break the flea life cycle by killing immature fleas before they can lay eggs.

This product is also effective against ticks that your pet may encounter in the woods or field. Applied as a spray or topical drops, fipronil collects within the hair follicles and sebaceous glands of the skin, providing good residual action after initial application.

Imidacloprid (Advantage®) is yet another addition to the flea-control arsenal that can be incorporated into a comprehensive flea-control program. Imidacloprid works by killing adult fleas on contact, before they can lay eggs.

Natural Remedies

Throughout the years, countless natural remedies for parasite control have been touted as effective alternatives to insecticides. Some of these substances or devices are worn or applied externally; some are designed to be taken internally.

Products such as brewer’s yeast, garlic, and B vitamins have all been implicated at one time or another as flea-control remedies. Unfortunately, controlled scientific studies indicate little to no benefit in flea control with these products. In addition, some natural substances can be highly toxic to cats. Check with a veterinarian before giving any natural remedy to your cat.

Certain products containing abrasive-type ingredients (e.g., silica gel and diatomaceous earth) are available for external flea control. These noninsecticidal products act by damaging the chitin exoskeleton of the flea, leading to desiccation (drying up) and death of the flea.

Moderate success has been reported with these abrasive-type products. Drying and/or mild irritation of the pet’s skin may occur with these products. Frequent application (four to seven times weekly) is required if these are to be used.

Electronic flea collars have limited popularity, as well as limited benefits. Although manufacturers may stand by their efficacy, scientific studies have shown that their worth in controlling external parasites is minimal.

The idea behind them is that the device emits a high-pitched sound that can’t be heard by humans or pets, yet it drives fleas away. Unfortunately, aside from their relative ineffectiveness, some models might indeed deliver an audible pitch that can be heard by—and might be quite discomforting to—the cat wearing the collar.

Environmental Control 

Environmental control of fleas begins in the home. You can use insecticidal foggers to get the job done, or you can employ a professional exterminator. For excellent results, you can also use polymerized borate compounds, available under various brand names from a veterinary clinic or pet supply store.

Sprinkled on the carpets, baseboards, and/or furniture, these compounds will kill all fleas that come in contact with them. Noticeable results are usually obtained within a week after application. Best of all, these powders are odorless, easy to use, and safe for pets and children.

Under normal conditions, application of this product must be performed every 6 to 12 months. Carpets must remain dry for continued efficacy; if the carpet becomes damp or is shampooed, reapplication will be necessary.

Your yard should be treated with insecticidal granules every 6 to 8 weeks during the warm months of the year. Alternating the types of insecticidal granules used with each treatment (several different types are available commercially) can improve effectiveness of your overall control program.

Tick Control

Besides fleas, the next most prevalent external parasite that your cat will likely encounter is the tick. Dogs are more likely than cats to be parasitized by ticks, since cats, because of their meticulous grooming habits, rarely afford a tick the time it needs to attach itself.

Regardless, controlling ticks on your pet and in your environment is important not only for your pet’s health but for yours as well. These unsightly parasites, which attach themselves to their host via sucking mouthparts, can transmit serious diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease to pets and to people.

As far as their four-legged hosts are concerned, untreated infestations can also lead to skin irritation and in severe cases, blood-loss anemia.

Female ticks lay their eggs in and under sheltered areas in the environment, such as wood stumps, rocks, and wall crevices. Once hatched, the larvae, called “seed ticks,” will crawl up onto grass stems or bushes and attach themselves to a host that may happen to pass by.

Depending on their life cycle, immature ticks may seek out one to three different host animals to complete the maturation process into an adult. Since ticks are sensitive to the same type of chemicals as are fleas, treatment and control are basically the same.

Certain topical once-a-month treatments for fleas in cats can be effective in controlling ticks as well. Ask a veterinarian for details. Flea and tick collars can be effective at keeping ticks out of the ears.

Just be sure that if you plan to use one on your cat, it is of the “breakaway” variety that is designed to snap apart in case it gets snagged on a fence or tree branch. A pyrethrin spray or powder can also be applied to your pet’s haircoat prior to a trip outdoors to discourage ticks from attaching.

Certainly a thorough and consistent treatment of the yard (and sometimes the house) with an approved insecticide is the cornerstone of an effective control program. Since ticks can live for months in their surrounding habitat without a blood meal, treatment should be performed every 2 to 4 weeks during the peak tick seasons in your area.

If a tick happens to attach itself to your pet, use a pyrethrin spray to kill it. Never attempt to remove ticks from your cat by applying manual pressure alone, or by applying a hot match or needle to the tick’s body.

Most ticks first killed by the application of a pyrethrin spray will fall off with time once they die. In some cases, you may need to manually remove the dead tick after spraying. When picking them off your pet, never use your bare hands, in order to prevent accidental exposure to disease.

Instead, use a pair of gloves and tweezers to grasp the dead tick as close to its attachment site as possible, then pull straight up using constant tension. Once the tick is freed, wash the bite wound with soap and water and then apply a first aid cream or ointment to prevent infection.

Again, be sure that the tick is completely dead before removal; this will ensure that the tick’s mouthparts come out attached to the rest of the body. If left behind, the mouthparts can cause an irritating localized skin reaction.

Cat with a pink flea collar.
Cat with flea collar