What are fleas?
Fleas are very small, wingless, six-legged leaping insects that feed on the blood of their hosts. They are black to reddish black in color and have spiny legs as well as rows of spines along other body areas called “combs”. Their bodies are designed to jump and their narrow shape allows them to freely traverse carpet or fur. There are dozens of different species of fleas, the commonly called “Cat Flea” is by far the most common flea found on pets and homes in the United States. Despite their name, cat fleas are capable of infesting dogs, rabbits, rodents, birds, and sometimes even humans. If your pet is exhibiting symptoms of a flea problem, it is likely that they are hosting cat fleas. Dog fleas are actually much more common in Europe, and are rarely ever found in North America.
How do fleas develop?
Cat Fleas thrive best in warm, humid climates and in lower elevations. Fleas require blood in order to procreate. A female flea must feed on the blood of a host in order to lay her eggs. Their droppings, the reddish-brown “flea dirt” that you see on your pet or furniture, is actually what larvae need to feed on in order to live. The adults usually take up permanent lodging on the animals they feed on, and rarely abandon their host unless physically forced off. The female lays the eggs on the host animal and these eggs fall off to the floor or other surface below. The eggs hatch in a few days and the larvae begins to feed on organic debris it finds, but also must consume some dried blood in order to progress to the pupa stage. This blood is from the dried feces of the adult fleas, and it falls off the pets wherever they spend time.
Adult fleas lay eggs that hatch into white worm-like larvae with brown heads. They are tiny and difficult to see (about 1/50 inch). The flea larvae eat specks of dried blood. After a while, the blood turns them to a nearly purple color. They can move quickly, easily disappearing into carpets, pet bedding, and upholstery. They then spin loose, white, silken cocoons in which to pupate. Shortly after making the cocoon, the larva molts and forms a white pupa. The pupal stage is completed within seven to ten days, but adult fleas may remain inside their cocoons for several months if conditions are not favorable. A number of warm, humid days will stimulate the adults to emerge as does the presence of a host nearby. The adult fleas are ready to infest a host as soon as they leave their cocoon.
Do fleas carry any diseases?
Unfortunately, yes. Both to humans and their pets. In the 14th century, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is spread by fleas, killed over 25 million people (more than a quarter of the European population). This came to be called the “black plague”. Epidemics have also occurred in Egypt, Africa, China, India and even the United States, before the discovery of antibiotics. It is believed that over 200 million people have died of plague – which is more than the total of people killed in World War I & II.
Each year, an average of 7 cases of bubonic plague (one of three types of bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis) are recorded in the United States, mostly in the Southwest. The disease is typically carried by wild rodents, such as squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, mice, rabbits, and then transmitted to the fleas that bite them. Worsening the chance of infection, the digestive system of an infected flea can become blocked by rapid reproduction of the bacteria, causing the flea to bite repeatedly in an attempt to avoid starvation. Humans typically contract the disease from the bites of fleas or coming in contact with the feces of infected fleas. Pets also bring plague-infected fleas into the home. Cats are highly susceptible to the disease. Outbreaks can arise in urban and rural areas, especially where conditions are primitive or unsanitary. Symptoms of bubonic plague develop within one week of exposure to the bacterium, and may include headache, fever, weakness, fatigue and painful, swollen lymph nodes known as “buboes”. The disease responds well to antibiotics, but untreated persons may die within a week of showing symptoms.
Another disease transmitted by fleas is murine typhus (also called endemic typhus). In the United States, only a few cases are reported annually. These typically occur in southern California, Texas and Hawaii. In some studies, up to 13% of children were found to have evidence of infection in their blood serum. Transmission of a bacterium (Rickettsia typhi) that causes murine typhus takes place in rat-infested areas, in the same manner as mentioned above for bubonic plague, and by inhalation of airborne flea feces. Headache, body aches, fever and, occasionally, a rash and other symptoms develop within two weeks after infection. Like plague, murine typhus is highly treatable with antibiotics. Most people recover fully, but death may occur in the elderly, severely disabled or patients with a depressed immune system.
Cat Scratch Disease
Close to 40% of cats will carry this disease at some time in their lives. While CSD usually does not affect cats in a negative way, it puts their owners at risk.
Humans get CSD when infected flea feces on a cat’s claws or fur is transmitted from the pet to their owner through a bite, lick, or scratch. CSD can cause fever, headaches, and fatigue in humans, as well as make those with a weakened immune system seriously ill.
If the dog eats a flea that is carrying tapeworm eggs inside their bodies, then that pet could soon become infected. Once inside your dog, the tapeworm hatches and attaches itself to your pet’s intestines, causing weight loss, vomiting, and irritation.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis
Just one bite from a flea can cause Flea Allergy Dermatitis, leading to extreme itchiness for your pet, which then develop into raw hot spots. If left untreated, these raw spots can eventually become infected. If your dog has a raw spot, you should take them to see your vet as soon as possible.
Harmful to cats, Haemobartonellosis is usually transmitted by ticks, but it can also be carried by fleas. The disease targets red blood cells and can range from mild to very severe symptoms. If very severe, haemobartonellosis can cause cats to suffer anemia that results in weight loss and a fast heart rate. In some cases, infected cats have been observed eating dirt, and without treatment, cats can die from this disease.
How can I know if my pet or my home has fleas?
If your pets are continually scratching themselves, there is a good chance they have fleas, especially if they spend a lot of time outdoors. If you notice a salt and pepper-looking mixture in your pet’s bedding, it is very likely to be flea eggs and digested blood from adult fleas. Flea larvae are rarely seen, but they are legless and whitish with a brown head, unless they have fed on fecal matter from the adults, in which case they assume a reddish, almost purple color. They are covered with short hairs, and when disturbed are able to flip about violently in order to escape. Carefully examine your pet’s skin. Look for the following:
- Adult fleas crawling on the pet, especially around the mouth and neck area, or the base of the tail.
- Small scabs on the skin, caused by flea bites.
- Flea dirt, which looks like small, black to rust-colored comma-shaped bits of dandruff.
Fleas may travel from pets to humans, especially at night. So when you wake up in the morning, also carefully examine the following:
- Upon awakening in the morning, to find you have little red, itchy welts from flea bites.
- There are little specks on your sheets, pajamas, socks, floor or carpet
Some people and pets are more sensitive to flea bites than others. When fleas feed, they secrete saliva that can cause an allergic reaction of severe itching and skin lesions. The flea bites can leave small, hard, painful red welts on the skin. Allergic animals may lose patches of hair and bite or scratch an irritated area until it becomes raw. Heavy flea infestations can severely affect an animal’s health, causing anemia and And they can be fatal to puppies and kittens. While grooming, cats and dogs may ingest adult fleas that carry tapeworm cysts.
How do fleas spread?
Fleas can invaded your home in a number of ways. Not only can they hitch a ride on the backs of animals, often falling off the host’s body and spreading the infestation to the surrounding environment. But they can also be transported on articles of clothing. If a flea-infested animal nests in a nook or cranny of a building, the fleas can spread to different rooms or apartments. It’s also possible that the fleas were already present. For example, flea eggs can lie dormant in a carpet for months until a potential meal walks by and disturbs them — tell-tale vibrations can cause flea eggs to hatch in seconds.
Inside the home, pets have preferred places to sleep or rest, and these are common problem areas for flea infestations. Outdoors, fleas build up in kennels, doghouses and other bedding areas. Fleas need mammals to infest and warm, somewhat humid conditions. Flea larvae need moisture or they can dry out and die. However, they can not survive in standing water. Wildlife such as raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, opossums and rodents inhabiting areas near the home also contribute to the spread of fleas. Pets will usually investigate areas in their yard where these mammals live, and this can facilitate flea infestation. Also, fleas can remain dormant for long periods of time waiting for the right conditions to emerge. A flea problem may disappear in dry or colder weather, only to re-emerge after warm & rainy weather.
What should I do if I find fleas?
If you have a flea problem, you must treat your pets. Consult your veterinarian for the best methods to control fleas. Some pet products are not as safe as others. Be very careful about which pesticide product you choose. Pets may ingest pesticides that have been sprayed or dusted on when they groom themselves, and some pets are more sensitive to pesticides than others. Make sure you use products that are labeled for flea control on your particular pet. Do not use a cat product on a dog and vice versa. Follow all label directions. It may be necessary to wear gloves or other protective equipment when applying the product. Keep children away from flea control products, and do not let them handle pets that have been recently treated. Newly developed spot-on formulations are safer and easier to use than traditional insecticide dusts, sprays and shampoos. These new products contain insect growth regulators (IGRs) that are less toxic to people and pets. IGRs are also available in flea collars. Bathing your pet also helps to drown adult fleas.
Prevention is the best approach to manage fleas. Pets can receive a flea preventative on a regular basis in the form of a pill or food additive. These products can prevent the establishment of flea populations in homes. If fleas do become established, it is important to identify flea hot spots and concentrate your control efforts in those areas.
To control fleas indoors
Vacuum floors, rugs, furniture and other surfaces where your pet sleeps, eats and sits. This will pick up adult fleas, eggs, and larvae. Also vacuum crevices around baseboards, behind doors, and under furniture, cabinets and appliances. Toss the vacuum bag out immediately when done.
Wash all pet bedding in hot water and tumble dry on the hottest setting. Steam cleaning or shampoo carpets, rugs and furniture can help, but if not thoroughly dried, can actually encourage the emergence of more fleas. If fleas persist after doing all these things, they may have taken hold in carpet or upholstery. In that case, call your Pest Technician to safely treat fleas in your home.
Tip: Diatomaceous earth (DE) is an very safe and effective way to protect your pet’s bedding from harboring fleas.
Diatomaceous earth is a silky-fine powder made from the fossilized remains of microscopic aquatic organisms called diatoms. The sharp edges of the diatoms cut through the hard exoskeletons of fleas, acting as a desiccant or drying agent, effectively killing the fleas and their larvae. Safe and non-harmful to pets, it can be sprinkled on bedding and carpet areas that your pets sleep and play on. Fleas are unable to populate in such an environment.
Elimination of fleas on household pets is extremely important in preventing the production of eggs, which then infest pets and their homes. If an infestation is occurring due to breeding and larvae on the interior it generally is controlled with your Pest Professional providing an application of a residual insecticide, preferably with the addition of an insect growth regulator as well. Vacuuming of the carpet prior to the application is important, as this vibration and contact will stimulate the emergence of adult fleas from the pupa, exposing them to the pesticide application. If flea infestations are repeatedly being reintroduced, also consider outdoor control measures.
To control fleas outdoors
Remove debris and low-hanging vegetation to open areas to sunlight and help reduce fleas. Close off crawl spaces, areas under porches, and openings into basements and attics where pets or wild animals nest. Have your Pest Technician treat kennels, dog runs, doghouses and perimeter fences. The pupae are unaffected by the insecticide so you may still see some adult fleas emerging for up to two weeks after the treatment.
How high can you jump?
Fleas are amazing jumpers! Their long hind pair of legs can allow them to jump vertically up to 7inches, and horizontally up to 13 inches – making the flea one of the best jumpers of all known animals, relative to body size. If humans had the jumping power of a flea, they would be able to leap nearly 300 feet long and 150 feet high!
General characteristics and facts:
Scientific name: Siphonaptera, Ctenocephalides Felis
Common Name: Cat Flea
Average size: .06-0.12inces
Commonly found: On pets, in upholstered furniture and carpet
Diet: They feed on the blood of a host such as dogs, cats, birds, etc.
- Fleas can live over 100 days without feeding.
- That have fleas and go untreated can develop anemia.
- They can jump up to 8 inches.
- They can transmit bacteria and diseases.
- Their saliva is an allergen that can cause irritation in humans and animals