How To Get Rid of Fleas On Cats

By Chyrle Bonk, DVM June 10, 2019

If your cat has ever had fleas, you have probably wondered how such little creatures can wreak so much havoc.  Not only do fleas cause cats to scratch themselves like crazy, they also deposit their eggs all over your house. The eggs then lie in waiting for the next available critter (victim) to come along.  Fleas can be a real nuisance for your cat and for you as they are so difficult to get rid of.  In this article, we will introduce you to some new ways to fight the flea battle and come out victorious!

What Are Fleas?

Fleas are small insects that do not have wings.  These flightless parasites live by feeding on the blood of their host (mammals or birds).

What Does A Flea Look Like?


What Does A Flea Egg Look Like?

Flea Egg

Does Your Cat Have Fleas?

Just because your cat occasionally raises a foot to scratch their neck does not necessarily mean that he or she is trying to chase down a flea.  Nibbling at the base of his or her tail can be innocent as well.  So how can you really tell if your cat’s itching is flea driven or not?  Besides scratching, you may notice your kitty is unable tor relax and is acting restless.  Your cat may shake their head and scratch at his or her ears.  You may also notice your kitty grooming excessively to try to get rid of the fleas. 

Take a close look at your cat’s skin by parting the hair of the groin, armpit, or tail head to try to catch a glimpse of a flea running by.  Check the skin for red bumps and the ears for signs of scratching.  You can also wipe your kitty from head to tail with a moist, white paper towel.  This will help remove any flea dirt that may be hiding out.  Flea dirt is flea poop that consists of digested blood.  You will know that it is flea dirt instead of regular dirt if it turns reddish brown when it makes contact with moisture.

If fleas have been a problem in the past or if you’re having trouble diagnosing your cat’s itchiness, get a flea comb.  The fine, closely set teeth of a flea comb will help to capture fleas and flea dirt.  Comb your cat from the base of the neck to the base of the tail in long, smooth strokes.  Make sure you have a dish of soapy water close by to drown any live fleas that you encounter.

How To Get Rid Of Fleas On Cats

The trouble with fleas is that the adult fleas you see are only a small fraction of the actual number of fleas that you have.  Millions more exist as eggs on your kitty and in your home.  Fleas are little and fairly defenseless, so fortunately there are many products out there to kill them.  Some products will also kill the eggs and keep them from returning on your cat for a specified period of time.  Always be sure to only purchase flea products from veterinarians since over the counter medications are typically not as safe. 

Let’s take a look at the different flea treatments out there:

  • Flea Shampoos

Flea shampoos for your cat can be an effective way of ridding them of fleas.  They are also cost effective, can be done at home, and work instantly!  The major downside is you have to bathe your cat, and in some cases you have to do so multiple times.  Shampoos that work on all life stages of the flea will kill both the adults and the eggs.  Some will even effectively repel fleas for a week after the bath.  This means less need to repeat and less chance of drying out your cat’s skin. 

You’ll need to first read the label of your chosen flea shampoo as some can be used directly from the bottle and some will need to be diluted with water first.  You’ll then wet your cat with warm water, including the face and feet.  Work the shampoo into the hair all the way down to the skin.  The efficacy of a flea shampoo can be decreased by your technique since contact with the soap is what kills the fleas and eggs.  Make sure you get every bit of your cat covered while avoiding the eyes, nose, and mouth.  Some shampoos will need to be left on for 5 to 10 minutes and then rinsed thoroughly with warm water.  You can use a flea comb on your wet cat to help get rid of the dead fleas, eggs, and flea dirt.

If fleas remain after a good shampooing, you may need to repeat in a couple of days.  It’s important not to over bathe your cat as this can dry out the skin and increase their itching.

  • Flea Sprays

Flea sprays are insecticides that you spray onto your cat’s fur to kill adult fleas and in some cases the eggs as well.  They can be very effective, work immediately and some of them last up to several weeks.  Flea sprays are cost effective and easier to use than shampoos.  The downside with flea sprays is that you will have to treat the whole cat. This can be tricky since you don’t want to directly spray into their eyes, nose, or ears.  You may also find yourself repeatedly spraying, especially if you don’t have one of the longer acting flea sprays.  The efficacy is reduced by the application method, so it’s important to safely cover all areas of your cat.

You’ll want to read the label to make sure the product doesn’t have to be diluted before you spray it on your cat.  You can use a flea comb to help spread the product and to help move it down to the skin.  For thick or long-haired cats, you may want to try parting the hair in several places to better get down to the skin.  To get the spray on your cat’s face, spray some on a paper towel and then gently wipe it on your cat’s forehead, cheeks, and chin.  You can try the flea comb to get the spray on your cat's face as well.  Then follow up with the flea comb again awhile later to remove the dead fleas and flea dirt.  Be sure to follow the label, and don’t reapply within the specified window to prevent toxicity.

  • Topical and Oral Flea Treatments

These flea products are gaining in popularity as they are easy to use and very effective at treating adult fleas on your cat.  Most of them last for 30+ days so that they kill the hatching fleas as well.  These types of flea products work within 24 hours.  Some are even effective within 30 minutes of administration.  Topical and oral flea treatments are more expensive and some of the topical treatments can cause a local skin reaction at the application site.

Read the label or have your veterinarian show you how to apply topical flea medications.  Some require only one application site, while others want you to place it in two or three areas.  Most of them come in pre-measured doses based on weight so there is no guessing.  You’ll want to part the hair in the specified spot, usually between the shoulder blades, and squeeze the product directly onto the skin.  The medication absorbs into the skin and then goes systemic to kill fleas all over.  For most products, you won’t want to bathe your cat for 24 to 48 hours.

Oral products are as easy as giving your cat a pill.  Okay, so that’s not always that easy, but most of these are flavored so that your cat may willingly take them or you can squish them up and hide them in food.  These products, again, are absorbed in the gut and go systemic to kill fleas all over the body.  They are quick acting and effective for a month or more.

  • Flea Collars

Flea collars are a more viable option for flea treatment in cats these days.  Flea collars have vastly improved from what they used to be even just a few years ago.  Flea collars are more than localized treatment; some contain ingredients that are released on a timely basis and travel throughout your cat’s system, the way a topical or oral treatment does in order to reach all areas of your cat’s body.  Most flea collars kill adult fleas within 24 hours and last up to eight months.  The downside is that it’s a collar and some cats just won’t tolerate being harnessed like that.  Collars should also have a break-away option in order to be considered safe so that your cat doesn’t get tangled and choke.

Flea collars are easy to use: simply place around your cat’s neck and adjust for a perfect fit.  Snug the collar up so that you can just fit two fingers underneath and then trim off any excess.  Leave on your cat for the specified amount of time or until it’s no longer effective, then dispose of it properly.

  • Flea Combs

Flea combs can be an effective way of getting rid of fleas without the use of chemicals or medications.  However, you will have to be overly diligent and borderline obsessive about using them.  Flea combs have fine, very closely spaced teeth that grab the adult fleas so that you can remove them from your cat.  For most flea infestations, you’re going to have to repeat the combing procedure over and over to remove all of the adults and then to remove fleas as they hatch.  It can be difficult and arduous to get all of the fleas in this manner, so flea combs work best for minor infestations or as a follow-up to other flea treatments, such as shampoos or sprays.

Using a flea comb is easy. However, you will have to be willing to put in the time as it is not going to get rid of your cat’s infestation immediately.  Start by combing your cat in long, smooth strokes.  Have a dish of soapy water close by to clean the adult fleas from the comb.  Comb until you’ve covered your entire kitty and until you stop getting fleas.  Then repeat several times a day until you no longer have problems.

  • Natural Flea Treatments for Cats

If you don’t have complete faith in flea treatments containing chemical insecticides, then there are some natural methods you can use.  These treatments have varying degrees of efficacy.  Even though these products are natural, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe for your cat.  Always discuss any flea treatment method with your veterinarian before applying it to your cat.

Lemon juice, vinegar, and essential oils have long been touted as natural flea sprays for cats.  They work by repelling fleas instead of killing them, so efficacy may be limited.  Some essential oils are toxic to cats, so be sure to check with your veterinarian first.  Bathing your cat with dish soap is another way to kill fleas.  Dish soap can be very drying to your cat’s skin, however, so repeated use is not recommended. 

Preventing Flea Infestations on Your Cat

If your cat has become a revolving door for fleas, then it’s time to talk about prevention.  After all, it’s typically easier to prevent something from happening than it is to deal with it after it’s happened.  The first step is ridding your cat of fleas.  You will also want to treat any other critters in the household as the fleas will jump ship and take up residence on someone else.  If you are having recurring infestations, consider using a long-term product such as a flea collar, topical treatment, or an oral flea treatment

Once you have your animals free from fleas it’s time to focus on your home.  The flea egg that is lurking in your area rug will hatch. An adult flea will then be ready to find the first furry body that it encounters and cause you to have a whole new problem on your hands.  Treating your house can be as simple as frequently vacuuming and doing laundry to as much as using insecticide sprays and bombs.  Vacuuming carpets, furniture, and drapes as well as washing bedding and toys will help get rid of flea eggs.  The trick is to clean your home once the adult fleas are gone from your cat so that no more new eggs are laid.  You may also choose to use an area spray for your home or yard to chemically get rid of eggs.

When your animals and home are clear of fleas, make sure you don’t introduce any new animals into the mix.  New animals should be checked or treated for fleas prior to arrival.  This includes visitors as well as new furry family members.  If your kitty goes outside, try to limit his or her interactions with other animals that you don’t know.  Since your cat had fleas previously, it is a good idea to periodically check your cat for fleas even if they are not showing signs of a flea infestation.


Fleas on your cat can be something that keeps you up at night.  Fortunately, there are many products out there to control them. It takes just a little time and persistence to make your kitty flea-free.  Always discuss flea treatments with your veterinarian to be sure you are using products that are safe and effective.  This will ensure that you are getting the most out of your flea control.

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