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Cat Parasites - Fleas, Ticks, Lice and Mites

External parasites can cause serious skin problems for cats and may spread disease. Thankfully, there are several ways to prevent and treat parasites to help keep your family safe.

Parasites survive by feeding off other creatures. Some enter their host’s body and live in organs like the intestines (internal), while other parasites can exist outside on the skin, ears, and hair (external). But wherever parasites inhabit, they can weaken the body and potentially cause damage to their host’s overall health.

Fleas, ticks, lice, and mites are external parasites that most commonly affect cats. These parasites exist throughout your cat's environment both inside and outside.

If a cat picks up external parasites, it may develop dermatitis, a painful skin condition characterized by redness, swelling, and sores. Sometimes, a cat may have an allergic reaction to a parasite, or develop skin infections, which can cause further harm.

Knowing about the different types of cat skin parasites, and the associated clinical signs, can be an important step in getting the necessary veterinary treatment.

Types of Cat Parasites: How to Tell the Difference

Size, seasonality, species... there are many ways external cat parasites differ from one another.


Measuring 1-2mm in size, these flightless insects are perhaps the best-known cat parasite.

Adult fleas feed on the blood of animals. When they bite, they pierce the skin and cause irritation. This is why cats itch and scratch when they are suffering from a flea infestation.

While there are several hundred kinds of flea, the one that most commonly affects cats is, quite appropriately, called the cat flea. These fleas are well-suited to warm environments. They’re highly active in summer but also thrive in homes with central heating. Typically, adult fleas will jump onto a cat, and within two days begin laying new eggs.

Cats that are continually bitten by fleas may develop an allergy to flea saliva, which will further irritate their skin and may lead to skin infections. Furthermore, fleas are often contaminated with tapeworms, a type of internal parasite. If a cat eats these infected fleas, they risk developing a tapeworm infestation.


These parasitic arachnids share a resemblance to spiders with their egg-shaped bodies and eight legs. But their method of survival is more akin to fleas, in that they feed on blood.

Ticks are usually found in meadows and woodlands. When a tick senses an animal passing by, it will drop from the foliage and crawl onto its new host. At this point, it will latch onto the animal’s skin and begin feeding.

There are over fifteen types of ticks a cat may encounter in North America, including the Lone Star Tick, the Deer Tick, and the American Dog Tick. Often, you can spot ticks on a cat’s skin with the naked eye. They range in size from 1mm to 1 cm, and as they fill with blood, they become darker and larger. They typically attach themselves to the area around a cat’s head, neck, ears, and feet, so it’s a good idea to check these areas when your cat returns inside.

Ticks are very effective at spreading disease, including a bacterial infection called Lyme disease. While cats are less susceptible to Lyme disease than dogs and humans, you should always try to remove ticks as quickly as possible to keep your cat safe.


These tiny, six-legged, wingless insects survive by chewing on the skin of their host. If left untreated, they can easily spread across a cat’s body, which can lead to itching and hair loss.

Lice are specific to one species. So, you can’t catch lice from your cat, and they can’t catch human lice from you. The one variety of lice that affects cats is called Felicola subrostratus.

The widespread use of cat flea and tick treatment means that cat lice are less common nowadays. But a cat can still develop lice if they come into close contact with an infested cat or if they visit a location with poor hygiene procedures, such as a groomer.

If your cat is itching more than usual, check their hair for cat lice and lice eggs – tiny white dots known as nits.


Mites are miniature parasitic arachnids that bite and burrow their way into a cat’s skin. Highly transmittable, they can cause skin sores, inflammation, and itching.

The skin condition associated with cat mites is known as mange. Because there are many varieties of mites, there are several types of mange a cat can suffer from, including one called scabies. Some mites also target specific parts of a cat’s body, such as cat ear mites.

The signs of mange will depend upon the type of mite that is affecting your cat. You may notice flaky skin, hair loss, scaly skin patches, or redness. Cat mites can easily spread between pets, and while they can’t breed on humans, they can still bite.

Find more detailed information about mites, lice, ticks, and fleas.

How to Tell If Your Cat Has Parasites

We’ve already touched upon some of the signs, but the common symptoms of external parasites include:

  • Itching and scratching
  • Excessive grooming
  • Redness
  • Crusts, scales, flakes, or scabs
  • Hair Loss
  • A poorly kept, dry, or discolored coat
  • White or black specks on your cat’s coat
  • Head shaking
  • Sores or lesions (with fleas, sores often form around the base of the tail)
  • Foul-smelling skin or ears
  • Weakness or lethargy

If you see any of these signs, contact your vet. Many cat parasites can be easily dealt with and by acting quickly, you can help control the spread while also getting your cat the treatment and pain relief they need. Swift treatment will also prevent the parasites from spreading to other pets and family members.

It’s also worth noting that the clinical signs associated with parasites are similar to those caused by other health conditions, like allergies. So, it’s always best to visit a vet for a full evaluation. To learn more about how food and environmental allergies can affect cats, see Dermatitis and Skin Issues in Cats.

What to Do if Your Cat has Fleas, Ticks, Lice and Mites

If you visit your local pet store or search online, you’ll find a range of cat flea treatments, including sprays, shampoos, collars, powders, spot treatments, and tablets. Each of these products has advantages and disadvantages, and it can be difficult to know exactly which treatment is best for your cat.

Always consult with your vet first if your cat has fleas. Vets can provide you with products that contain insect growth regulators (IGRs), which not only kill adult cat fleas but also their larva. They can also recommend flea treatment products for your home.

For more tips, read Best Way to Get Rid of Cat Fleas.

If your cat has a tick, you may notice a small dark bump on its skin – but try to avoid touching it. Ticks can spread disease to humans as well as cats. Instead, use a special tool to pull the tick out of your cat’s skin.

Ticks need to be removed slowly and carefully. Squeezing a tick can push tainted blood back into the cat while twisting or jerking movements can detach the tick’s head from the body, which risks an infection. Your vet can advise you on the proper use of the tool or remove the tick for you if you feel unsure.

Cat lice are typically killed with topical shampoos, sprays, or powders. These products are sometimes harsh, so it’s important to follow your vet’s instructions. Further applications may be needed to remove nits. You’ll also want to wash your cat’s bedding and toys and disinfect litter boxes, home furnishings, carpets, and hardwood floors to prevent a recurrence.

A similar approach is needed for cat mites, although the exact treatment will depend upon the mite that is affecting your cat.

How to Protect Cats from Fleas, Ticks, Lice, and Mites

Preventative treatment is the best way to stop fleas, ticks, lice, and mites from afflicting your cat, as they kill parasites before they can imbed themselves into fur or skin. There are many preventative remedies available, including powders, collars, medication, and spot treatments.

Your vet will be able to provide you with tailored advice about the treatment of external cat parasites and recommend the most appropriate preventative product for your cat. One note of caution is that tick and flea treatments for dogs should never be used on cats, as they may be toxic to felines. If you believe you have used the incorrect product on your cat, immediately contact the pet poison helpline or ASPCA pet poison control for advice.

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If you have any concerns about your cat’s health, consult a vet for professional advice.

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