5 Ways Indoor Cats Can Get Fleas—and How To Prevent Them


5 Ways Indoor Cats Can Get Fleas—and How To Prevent Them

Not even indoor cats are safe from these bloodsuckers. janelle leeson
janelle leeson By Janelle Leeson Medically Reviewed by Alicen Tracey, DVM Updated January 04, 2023 Medically Reviewed by Alicen Tracey, DVM Advertisement Pin FB More Tweet Email Send Text Message Print cat scratch his chin in an indoor setting
cat scratch his chin in an indoor setting Credit: chendongshan / Getty

There are many potentially pesky parasites roaming about that pose a threat to our beloved pets, from mites and ticks to roundworms and heartworms. But if a cat doesn't step a toe bean outside, can indoor cats get fleas, too? They sure can, says Brian Evans, DVM at Dutch.

"I've seen indoor-only cats who live on the 40th floor of a high rise in New York City get fleas," Evans says. How can indoor cats get fleas? Several ways. Here are the most common ways indoor cats get fleas and what to do if you spot an uninvited houseguest.

Life Cycle of Fleas

So, here's the bad news: fleas aren't particular about the species or things they hitch a ride and feed on. They have four life stages that go like this:

  • Female fleas typically lay their eggs on a host's skin. Because they don't stick, they roll off into the host's environment. According to Cornell University, a flea can lay up to 40 eggs per day.
  • It takes the eggs about twelve days to hatch. Then, the hatched larvae find somewhere dark and warm to build a cocoon and grow—such as carpet fibers.
  • In the cocoon, larvae grow into pupae. Until they sense a host nearby, they'll stay safely tucked away in the cocoon. Sometimes this can take months, unphased by insecticides, winter weather, or drought conditions.
  • Within hours of emerging, the adult flea will have fed on their host and females will begin to lay more eggs.

5 Ways Indoor Cats Get Fleas

Fleas can hop on over to your cat or home during any of these life stages. Here's how:

1. Other Pets

According to Evans, a flea hitching a ride on another pet, like your dog, is the most common way indoor cats get fleas. If you think your cat is safe from fleas because your dog is on flea preventatives, Evans says that's not the case. "Even then, some fleas can jump from the dog to your cat before they have been killed by the flea medicine on your dog. So, while it is good that your dog is on flea medicine, your cat could still be at risk."

RELATED: How to Treat Your Dog and Home for Fleas

2. Other Humans

Asking guests to leave their shoes at the door can help stop the spread of harmful hitchhikers like flea eggs and larvae. If someone else was in an environment with fleas, they can happily catch a ride on clothing or other belongings.

3. Rodents

There are a lot of different species of fleas, including dog fleas, cat fleas, and rat fleas. Despite their names, none of these fleas are picky eaters and they'll jump from species to species to feed.

4. Sharing Supplies and Household Items

These annoying little bloodsuckers can tuck away in the bristles of a pet brush or in the new sweater you found at the thrift store. Before bringing secondhand items in or swapping pet supplies, inspect them for flea dirt then sanitize, sanitize, sanitize.

RELATED: How To Keep Your Spring Cleaning Safe for Pets, With Advice From the Experts

5. Traveling

Your cat might be a happy house cat, but we'll bet that she ventures out of the house once a year or more to see the vet, travel with you, or stay at a boarding facility. Anytime your cat leaves the house or ventures to an area where other pets have been, she can pick up fleas.

What To Do If You Find Fleas on Your Indoor Cat

You can tell your indoor cat has fleas if they itch, are losing fur, or if you've spotted flea dirt. "By the time you have noticed that your pet has fleas, the fleas have already laid eggs in your house and there will be more fleas on the way," Evans says. That's why he recommends not just one spot-on flea treatment for your cat, but monthly treatments for all pets in your home. If you're dealing with an active flea infestation, these steps can help get rid of them:

  • Use a flea shampoo: There are shampoos formulated for active flea infestations (rather than prevention). If your cat is willing to be bathed, follow the shampoo's directions—typically letting the suds settle on the skin for several minutes—before washing away those pesky parasites. Just be sure to check the ingredients first. Avoid flea shampoo containing permethrins (contained in some flea products) as they are toxic to cats.
  • Spot-on flea treatments
  • Daily vacuuming and carpet cleaning to remove fleas and larvae from the carpet fibers
  • Deep cleaning of bedding, pet beds, and other fabrics

For severe cases of flea infestation, it's best to call the pros for extermination. Don't forget to talk to your vet for their recommendations on ridding your cat of fleas; they might suggest an oral medication or additional treatments.

RELATED: Cat Skin Conditions: How to Recognize & Treat Ear Mites, Ringworm, Fleas, More

How to Prevent Fleas and Ticks on Indoor Cats

Finally, some good news: fleas and ticks can be prevented by simply applying monthly treatments. In fact, Evans suggests a full spectrum spot-on treatment that also protects against heartworms. Yes, even indoor cats can get heartworm disease as heartworms are carried by mosquitoes (which can easily make their way into the house). 

"Unfortunately, I haven't seen any holistic or DIY flea preventatives that are effective," Evans adds. Because fleas carry diseases and other parasites (like the bacteria responsible for cat scratch fever and tapeworms if a flea is ingested), you definitely want to make sure your indoor or outdoor cat is covered—even in the winter months.

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