It’s a common misconception that only outdoor cats get fleas and ticks and that fleas and ticks on cats are limited to the spring and summer seasons. Fleas come in more than 1,000 species, but the types of fleas that bite cats and dogs are fairly uniform. Ticks come in several distinctive varieties and the season for both fleas and ticks can vary according to climate. We surveyed experts around the United States to learn about the specific issues.
The easiest way to deal with fleas and ticks on cats? Prevent the problem in the first place.
“It’s much easier to prevent than deal with a problem once it’s started,” says Dr. Brian Serbin, an Arizona veterinarian. “Dr. Google isn’t the best doctor. It’s best to talk to your veterinarian. We know what’s best for your pet.”
All vets interviewed recommend year-round flea and tick prevention treatment for cats — especially if they go outside and even if they go outdoors supervised. Every vet surveyed also recommends keeping cats inside for many reasons, including a much lesser chance of flea and tick exposure. Even cats in catios or cats on harnesses could encounter fleas or ticks.
“We really, as a veterinary profession, extremely emphasize the importance of keeping cats indoors,” says Dr. Richard Gerhold, a Tennessee veterinarian.
If your cat stays inside, this really minimizes the likelihood of the cat being infested with fleas and ticks and also reduces chances of other parasite infections, Dr. Gerhold says.
The source: Dr. Brian Serbin, D.V.M., a Phoenix veterinarian.
The season: The Southwest’s arid desert climate doesn’t foster fleas and ticks the way grassier, humid regions might, but pets in Arizona and other surrounding states aren’t immune from the pests, Dr. Serbin says. Since the climate is temperate, fleas and ticks appear year-round and don’t really have a season. However, some mild cold spells in the winter mean that pests are more likely to bite your cats in the spring, summer and fall. In the desert, cats get fleas more often than dogs do.
The ticks: The Brown Dog Tick lives in the desert, and this parasite bites cats, too. Beware of contact between your cats and wildlife, as ticks can live on animals like coyotes. The good news is, there’s little to no Lyme Disease west of the Mississippi River.
The advice: “What you need to realize is that ticks and fleas need a host to survive,” Dr. Serbin says. “They’re not just going to stay out in the environment without the host. They need to feed on animals. There are dormant stages of the flea and tick life cycle that can live for short amounts of time on the possible host.”
The prevention and treatment: Serbin recommends year-round measures, based on your veterinarian’s advice and tailored to your cat.
The source: Matthew Frye, entomologist with New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, Cornell University.
The season: Fleas can live year-round, even in the icy wintertime, when a host like a raccoon could carry the bugs. “But certainly, during the warmer parts of the year, there’s a greater chance of their populations being higher and the chance of transmission between a wild animal and a companion,” Frye says.
Fleas breed in shady, moist outdoor places with exposed soil. Key spots might be under porches and decks, so beware of your cat hiding in these areas.
The peak activity for ticks — who like to congregate in leaf litter — is in the spring for baby ticks and the fall for adult ticks. Summertime ticks are less active because of the heat.
The ticks: The most common tick in the northeast is the Black-Legged Tick, also known as the Deer Tick. There is also the Lone Star Tick, a southern species that has been making its way north, and the American Dog Tick, also known as a Wood Tick. Black-Legged Ticks prefer moist, dark habitats like forested areas. American Dog Ticks like sunny fields with tall grass. Lone Star Ticks can be anywhere. If you keep your grass trimmed, which keeps the moisture level down, you’re not likely to have ticks in your lawn.
The source: Dr. Richard Gerhold, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Knoxville.
The season: Fleas and ticks appear year-round.
The ticks: This region mostly has the Lone Star Tick and the American Dog Tick. There’s also the Brown Dog Tick, which is tropical in nature and can’t survive outside. If your cat gets this tick, she probably got it from inside a building where ticks had been previously — for instance, if you move to a new house that’s been infested.
Cats can get a serious disease called cytauxzoonosis felis, carried mainly by the Lone Star Tick. This disease attacks the red blood cells and can make the cat anemic, with very pale to almost-white mucous membranes. It is highly fatal to cats without immediate treatment.
The advice: Keep cats indoors! Also, keep your grass cut short to keep humidity low, remove leaf litter and try to discourage a high number of potential wildlife being in close proximity to the house. Keep the compost pile covered. Except for birdseed, don’t feed wildlife, and keep the bird feeder clean.
“For all diseases that exist, there’s no substitute for prevention,” Dr. Gerhold says.
The source: Dr. Michelle Matusicky, D.V.M., assistant professor — practice at The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
The season: Really, fleas and ticks can cause problems any time of year, and cat parents shouldn’t focus too much on a particular season.
“It is a common misconception that fleas and ticks have a season,” Dr. Matusicky says. “They have a life cycle that is constantly replicating.
“Sure, it is more common for a flea infestation to begin in the spring or summer seasons, but it can take months to get rid of completely,” she says. “If not properly cleared, they can set up in your home and live quite comfortably throughout the winter months.”
Flea infestations are much more common in the home than tick infestations, but the Brown Dog Tick actually can complete its entire life cycle indoors.
The ticks: Here, you’ll mostly find the American Dog Tick, Black-Legged Tick and Brown Dog Tick. Don’t be fooled by the “dog” in the names: The ticks sometimes bite cats, too.
The advice: “It truly is significantly easier to prevent rather than treat a flea or tick infestation,” Dr. Matusicky says. “This is both from the suffering the animal goes through — ranging from simple hair loss, itchiness and skin infections to transmission of serious blood-borne diseases — to the anguish an owner goes through trying to eliminate the infestation from the home.”
“From a financial standpoint, the cost of prevention alone is going to be cheaper than multiple trips to the vet for skin infections or other ailments that these ectoparasites have caused,” she says.
The source: Washington State Department of Health.
The season: With the mild weather in the Seattle region, fleas can be a year-round problem — but especially in the spring, summer and fall seasons. Ticks start coming out in the spring, when people and cats get outside more.
The ticks: The Western Black-Legged Tick, American Dog Tick and Rocky Mountain Wood Tick are the most common in this region.
If you spot a tick on your cat, manually remove it with tweezers, but don’t squeeze the tick’s body, or you could inject blood back into your kitty. Then, talk to your vet about either topical or oral treatments.
As for fleas, for every adult flea, there are probably 99 other developing fleas in different life stages within the environment. You will need to treat both your cat — talk to your vet about options — and your living space.
Thumbnail: Photography by Sitikka/Thinkstock.
Read more on what to do about fleas and ticks on cats on Catster.com: