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Even if you take the best possible care of your cat, she is likely to become an unhappy host to a varied collection of parasites - internal, external or both. By knowing what to look for, you can help to eradicate most of these pests before they have the opportunity to harm your pet. Parasites are most harmful to young kittens and older, weakened cats.

External Parasites

Routinely check your cat's skin for signs of parasites, flea droppings that look like specks of hard, black "dirt" and dandruff. Also check her coat for lice eggs glued to the hair. Frequent or persistent scratching is a good indication your cat has a parasite problem.

Telltale Signs

Cheyletiella mites look like a really bad case of dandruff across the back, and severe infestations can result in scaling skin. Demodex mange mites are common and usually harmless to cats, but they can overpopulate in old or weakened cats or in kittens, causing secondary infections that appear as pimples or pustules on the skin.

Fleas can be tracked down by the "dirt" they leave behind, even if you can't spot the fleas themselves. If you see hard, shiny drops of "dirt" on your cat's skin, scrape some off and place it on a damp paper towel or tissue. If the dirt shows red or pink, your cat most likely has fleas.

Harvest mites may cause your cat to lick her feet frequently, and on examination you may find tiny, red larvae. They are common in the fall. Lice are small creatures and can be seen moving on the skin. While they are usually slightly paler in color than fleas, you can identify lice by checking for the presence of the eggs, or "nits" glued to your cat's fur.

Sarcoptes mange mites are too small to be seen, but leave behind scabs and crusts as they burrow into their host. They are most commonly found on the tips of the ears and on the elbows, and they cause intense itching and irritation.

Ticks are easily diagnosed, as they swell with blood and turn brownish-white. If an engorged tick releases and drops to the floor, it can look almost like a rotting grape. To remove a tick, firmly pinch the skin around the tick and, applying tweezers to the tick at your cat's skin level, pull hard to extract the entire tick, including the head. A slight "twist" of the tweezers as you pull will help loosen the head for removal. A drop of alcohol may also cause the tick to release its grip on your pet.

Try to ensure the tick's head is removed. Left behind, the head can cause an infection. Examine the tick to be sure the head is still in place. You can readily see the head at the top of the thorax. Put the extracted tick in a jar full of vinegar to kill it. Flushing a tick down the toilet will not kill it.

Tick control is very important, because ticks carry and spread potentially life-threatening diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichia and Lyme Disease. In rare cases, ticks can cause acute paralysis although removal of the ticks relieves the condition.

Telltale Signs

If your cat has persistent diarrhea, loses weight or you see her repeatedly licking her anal region or scooting her rear across the grass or carpet, she may have internal parasites. Be on the lookout for signs of maggots, larvae or eggs in the hair around the anus. Go to your veterinarian for proper diagnostics to determine the specific parasite and follow his directions for deworming. Although routine prophylactic deworming can be safe and effective, follow your vet's advice to see if your pet would benefit from the treatments.

Internal parasites can pose a health risk to you as well as to your cat, and they are often difficult, if not impossible, to detect except through blood tests and screenings performed by your veterinarian. Prevention is the key.