Problematic pests- fleas, ticks, and mites

by | Jul 9, 2021

Fleas, ticks, and mites are all pests that can affect our favorite felines. While keeping your cat indoors helps to reduce the risk of infestation by these problematic pests, it can’t eliminate it. Most of these critters not only feast upon your pet, but many of them also bring unwanted guests to supper putting you and your pet at risk for diseases like Lyme disease, Cat Scratch Fever, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Learn more about what pests are interested in your pet and how to get rid of them.

Fleas are tiny, wingless bugs that live on the skin of their hosts and feed on their blood. There are around 2000 species and subspecies of flea in the world, all of which feed on warm-blooded animals, including cats and humans. Although many types of fleas specialize in specific mammals or birds, they can often survive on other hosts as well. They are tiny, voracious, and prolific. Cats can become infested with fleas from several sources, including prey animals, other pets, vet’s offices, and even just sitting next to an open window.

Fleas and your cat

While the insects themselves are tiny, the effect that they have on their host is substantial. The saliva of a flea releases powerful anticoagulants into your pet’s bloodstream, increasing the flow of blood. When the flea finishes feeding, trace amounts of the anticoagulant land on the skin, triggering the production of histamine.

Individuals who are especially sensitive to flea saliva may develop a full-blown allergy, leading to more dramatic symptoms such as raised rashes, hives, swelling of the face and paws, and difficulty breathing.

Occasionally, the loss of blood due to a robust colony of fleas can even cause anemia.

Flea-borne diseases

Fleas eat tapeworm eggs, so cats (and dogs) who swallow fleas as a part of their grooming may be at risk for developing tapeworms, which can quickly become serious. Fleas can also transmit several dangerous viral and bacterial diseases to our pets or ourselves, including endemic typhus, feline typhus, bubonic plague, and bartonellosis, better known as Cat Scratch Fever.

Fleas of California and Nevada

  • Cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis)—The cat flea is the flea most frequently found on both cats and dogs in the state of California.
  • Dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis)—Dog fleas are very similar to cat fleas in behavior and appearance. Dog fleas are rare in California, however, and most flea infestations on dogs are cat fleas rather than dog fleas.
  • Sticktight fleas (Echidnophaga gallinacean)—Sticktight fleas prefer ground squirrels and poultry as hosts, but they can occasionally be a problem for outdoor cats that like to hunt.
  • Ground squirrel flea (Oropsylla montana)—As their name suggests, ground squirrel fleas are most often found on ground squirrels. Ground squirrel fleas are also the most common vector for sylvatic plague in California.

While fleas are rare in Nevada, there are pockets of fleas that cats may encounter. Cats allowed to roam outdoors and hunt may be more likely to bring fleas indoors, which is a much better environment for their natural life cycle than the hot, dry conditions outdoors. Once in your home, fleas are likely to thrive and can quickly become overwhelming houseguests.

fleas in cats

Signs of flea infestation:

  • Excessive scratching, biting, or licking
  • Bald spots and thinning fur
  • Swollen or discolored skin
  • Swollen face, paws, or tongue
  • Rash or hives
  • Irritation and aggressive behavior
  • Black or white spots, either on your pet or on their bedding
  • Pale gums
  • Lethargy

Treating flea infestations

When trying to eliminate fleas from the home, all pets in the household must be treated to ensure that the parasites do not return. Most pet parents will want to wash their cats with a shampoo specially formulated to kill fleas on cats, but it’s important to contact your veterinarian first. These shampoos are generally safe for our feline family members, but if the infestation badly affected your cat’s skin or if your cat is suffering from allergic dermatitis, flea shampoo is likely to make the problem worse rather than better.

If your veterinarian does not recommend using a flea and tick shampoo, washing your cat with gentle soap and water will help to remove many of the fleas. You will then need to use a flea comb to remove any fleas and eggs, taking special care around the neck and tail areas. Whenever you see a flea on the comb, dunk the comb in hot, soapy water to remove and kill the insect. Comb your cat with a flea comb once a week until you are certain your cat and your home are free from fleas.

Once you have treated your pets, be sure to treat your home as well. Wash all clothes that may have come into contact with your cat and all human and feline bedding. Use hot water when washing exposed items as neither cold nor warm water is effective in killing the fleas.

Troublesome Ticks

ticks and cats

Ticks are tiny parasites that feed off of the blood of their host, and can sometimes transfer from pets to people. They are part of the arachnid family, along with spiders and scorpions. The bite of the tick itself is relatively harmless, but the pathogens that it spreads when feeding are not. Ticks latch on to their host and feed over the course of several days, transmitting pathogens.

Bites from ticks often go unnoticed as they are not painful and they don’t itch. On humans, their favorite places to latch on include the scalp, the skin behind the ear, the armpit, and the groin area. When feeding on cats, ticks prefer the face, neck, ears, feet, and legs. Some ticks take their time finding the perfect spot on their host, but others will simply attach at the nearest area of skin. If not removed, it may leave a small red bump or sore with a distinct center to it when they drop off. If you find a tick on your cat, or yourself, remove it as quickly as possible.

Tick-borne diseases

Ticks in California and Nevada can transmit serious diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and Lyme disease. Although cats are more resistant to these three illnesses than people or dogs, they are not immune. Signs that your pet may have contracted RMSF or Lyme disease could include vomiting, reduced appetite, depression, swollen joints, and lameness, while tularemia causes a high fever, reduced appetite, and swollen lymph nodes.

Two diseases more likely to affect cats, hemobartonellosis and cytauxzoonosis, may cause severe anemia. Symptoms of anemia can include lethargy, loss of appetite, generalized weakness, cyclical fever, jaundice, pale gums, depression, and unexplained weight loss. If your cat is showing any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian right away. The longer a tick stays attached to their host, the more likely they are to infect their host with these diseases. Remove all ticks as soon as possible to minimize the chance of infection.

Tick Toxins

Occasionally, toxins from the tick’s saliva are injected into the bloodstream, leading to a disorder known as tick paralysis, which can lead to severely depressed lung function. This is a rare condition in cats, but a serious. Multiple ticks or ticks that have been feeding for an extended time The simple act of removing the tick often relieves the symptoms, but a subsequent visit to the veterinarian is still a good idea.

Indications that your cat is suffering from tick paralysis may include:

  • Loss or change of voice
  • Labored breathing
  • Inability to walk or move
  • Weakness in the rear legs
  • Grunting
  • Increased salivation
  • Vomiting

Ticks in California and Nevada

  • Brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)—As implied by the name, this variety of tick would prefer to feast on your dog than your cat, but they can occasionally hop on over to our cats as well. Brown dog ticks are found throughout the United States.
  • Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni)—Rocky Mountain wood ticks are the most common tick in Nevada. They are one of the primary carriers of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
  • Western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificuls)—Also sometimes known as deer ticks, western black-legged ticks are much smaller than the brown dog ticks and transmit many bacterial diseases, including Lyme disease.
  • American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis)—American dog ticks can transmit both Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia.

Prevention and removal

Use tweezers to remove any ticks you find. Grasp the tick as close to the head as possible and pull directly backward. Do not twist the tick as this can dislodge the head underneath the skin. Do not use your fingers to dislodge the tick. Using your fingers increases the likelihood of infection.

Many chemical tick repellents, such as permethrin and DEET, can be toxic for our feline family members as well. Using tick collars or spot-on products designed specifically for cats can help reduce the chances of being parasitized without adding dangerous chemicals to their environment. Regularly check both indoor and outdoor cats for ticks.

Maddening Mites

Mites are diminutive arachnids in the subclass acari, the same subclass as ticks. They are much smaller than ticks, however, and most of them can’t easily be seen with the naked eye. For the most part, they are too small to spread illnesses, but while they don’t spread illnesses, they do cause a great deal of discomfort all on their own. Several types of mite can infest your cat’s skin, causing itching, skin irritation, and hair loss.

mites in cats

Mites that infest cats

Multiple species of mite can irritate felines, each causing similar itching and inflammation. Some mites feed along the entire surface of the skin while others stay within certain limited areas, such as the ears. Left untreated, a mite infestation can lead to chronic skin conditions, open sores, and dangerous infections. Here’s a rundown of the mites most likely to invade your cat’s castle.

  • Canine Scabies (Sarcoptes scabiei)—While the species of mite that causes canine scabies prefers to live and breed on dogs rather than cats, it can sometimes move to cats. The mites’ saliva and droppings can make the skin they crawl on intensely itchy and inflamed, leading to a condition known as sarcoptic mange.
  • Feline Scabies (Notoedres cati)—Feline scabies is a rare but highly contagious condition. It causes extreme itching, leading to bald spots and skin crusting, usually starting on the head, neck, and ears. If one cat has feline scabies, all the cats in the household should be treated.
  • Walking Dandruff (Cheyletiella blakei)—Walking dandruff is an infestation of mites that appears as if a severe case of dandruff came to life. Most often caused by the Cheyletiella blakei mite, an infestation may cause intense itching, but not always. Skin crusts develop along the back as well as small bumps known as miliary dermatitis, even in the absence of itching and scratching.
  • Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis)- Ear mites infest the outer ear and ear canal of your cat, causing inflammation and itching. Untreated ear mites can lead to physical damage to the ear as the cat scratches, including the possibility of torn eardrums.

Signs of infestation

Mites are often visible on the animal’s fur, but even when they are not, changes in fur color, thinning fur, and scabbed skin can often alert you to the problem. Depending on the type and severity of the infestation, your veterinarian may prescribe a topical solution, ear drops, or an insecticide wash for your pet.

Cats, like people, can be harassed by many varieties of pests. Using the latest prevention methods will reduce your cat’s chances of being victimized by these bugs. Knowing the signs of an infestation will help you eliminate the invasion before it becomes a more serious health concern.

If you don’t find evidence of any of these pests your cat may be suffering from dandruff. Learn more about feline dandruff here.


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