Bug Off! How to Protect Your Kitten from Fleas and Ticks


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

Kittens are not adult cats (don’t say “Duh”– hear me out), and they certainly aren’t small dogs. For the first part of my veterinary career (in the early 1980s) there were very few feline-specific prescription medications, and many veterinarians treated cats like undersized canines. Luckily for cats and the people who love them, we now know a lot about feline behavior, medicine, enrichment activities, and how to protect cats’ well-being physically and emotionally.

When you look at kittens wrestling, falling, and bouncing up like rubber balls, you might think they’re indestructible. But, those of us in the veterinary profession know they’re quite fragile and susceptible to disease and injury during this period, so they must be treated gently and protected fully.

This article focuses on preventing and treating fleas and ticks rather than detecting them, which is pretty simple to do: Just part the hair around the base of the tail and look for fleas (which are fast and sometimes hard to spot) or the dark droppings they leave behind (we call it flea dirt, but it’s really dried blood). You can also use a fine-toothed flea comb to capture the critters as you comb along the top of the cat’s spine. Ticks are often around the ears, armpits, or groin but can be tiny and hard to see.

Vigorous scratching can indicate fleas. Photo by Shutterstock

Fleas are literally a pain for all animals but can really be dangerous for kittens (as well as old or weak cats) as they draw blood like hundreds of little vampires.

“Some cats with fleas will be noticeably itchy; others will not,” said Dr. Colleen Currigan, president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “But whether the kitten is itchy or not, fleas can cause skin disease. Fleas may also transmit other serious infections, such as tapeworms, bacterial infections (that may play a role in the human disease known as cat scratch fever), and blood parasites. Young kittens can become severely anemic from flea infestation as well.”

The goal is to prevent infestation from ever happening, but if it does, you want to work with your veterinarian and treat it aggressively.

Experts now recommend year-round, lifetime parasite control for all cats. Period. I live in extreme Northern Idaho, where fleas and ticks are about as common as jackalopes, but I still treat all of our cats monthly with a preventive product.

Kittens often require a special product that might be different from the one you use on your adult cats. Most of the products veterinarians recommend are good for kittens older than eight weeks and are topical products applied between the shoulder blades. Most of these products are used monthly for the life of the cat.

Talk to your vet about the best flea meds for your cat. Cat gets flea medication by Shutterstock
Talk to your vet about the best flea meds for your cat. Cat gets flea medication by Shutterstock

If there is one thing I most want you to learn from this article it is NOT to use parasite control products designed for dogs on other animals, especially cats.

“The chemical permethrin is particularly toxic to cats and is found in many products labeled for use in dogs,” Currigan said. “Following exposure to permethrin products designed to control fleas and ticks on dogs, cats can start to exhibit signs of toxicity (including muscle tremors, seizures, and drooling) which can be life-threatening and warrant immediate veterinary medical attention.”

Use only parasite control products recommended by your veterinarian even if you intend to buy them somewhere besides the veterinary practice. You won’t hurt our feelings — we know many of you buy your products where you routinely shop.

If you have fleas in your house, you might also have to get sprays or foggers that have a quick-kill component to kill adults and an insect growth regulator, which keeps the immature fleas from developing. For a more natural solution, use borate powder, which kills fleas by sucking all of the moisture out of them.

Cat and flea shadow by Shutterstock
Cat and flea shadow by Shutterstock

Cats don’t get ticks as much as dogs, primarily because cats don’t frequent the areas where ticks lay in wait to latch onto a four-legged fast food meal as a heinous hitchhiker, but you can ask your veterinarian for a product that either protects against fleas and ticks or one that works separately from the product you’re already using for fleas.

While this article is about fleas and ticks, I do want to strongly recommend that you use products recommended by your veterinarian to protect your cat against heartworm disease. Protection starts by using products that both repel and kill mosquitoes, the carrier of heartworm disease. Even indoor cats are susceptible to heartworm as open doors (coming and going from your own home) don’t keep mosquitos out of the house.

About the author: Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. The author of 24 books, Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the American Humane Association, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent; a founding member of Core Team Oz for The Dr. Oz Show; and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. When his schedule allows, he practises at North Idaho Animal Hospital. Connect with him on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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