A Bloodsucking Pest: Fleas

Introduction to Fleas

Fleas are small (1/16 in.), dark, reddish-brown, wingless, blood-sucking insects. Their bodies are laterally compressed, (i.e., flattened side to side) permitting easy movement through the hairs on the host's body. Their legs are long and well adapted for jumping. The flea body is hard, polished, and covered with many hairs and short spines directed backward. The mouthparts of an adult flea are adapted for sucking blood from a host.

Several species of fleas may be pests, and five kinds have been found on a single animal. The cat flea is the most frequently found, although the dog, human, and sticktight fleas are also found in the United States. Fleas may attack a wide variety of warm-blooded animals including dogs, humans, chickens, rabbits, squirrels, rats and mice.

Flea Biology

The female flea lays her tiny, white eggs loosely on the hairs, in the feathers, or in the habitat of the host. The eggs readily fall off the host onto the ground, floors, bedding, or furniture. Some fleas can lay 500 eggs over a period of several months by laying batches of three to eighteen eggs at a time. The tiny eggs hatch in one to twelve days after being deposited. The white, worm-like larva avoids light and feeds on particles of dead animal or vegetable matter generally present in cracks and crevices. Within seven to fourteen days, unless food has been scarce, the third larval stage is completed, and the larva spins a tiny cocoon and pupates. Usually after a week the adult flea emerges and begins its search for blood.

Fleas are known to remain in the pupal stage from five days to five weeks in the absence of hosts. Adults emerge from the pupal case when vibrations from pets or humans let them know a host is near. This is one reason why people returning to an unoccupied home may suddenly be attacked by an army of fleas.

Adult fleas must feed on blood in order to reproduce. However, adults can live for long periods without feeding. Fleas usually live and breed most heavily where pets rest. Persons coming near these resting places are also subject to attack. If fleas are established in a home, they will feed on man as well as on the pets. The usual places of attack are the ankles and lower portions of the legs.

The so-called "sand-flea" is nothing more than a common flea that is breeding outdoors in the soil. Contrary to belief, fleas cannot go through several generations without having a blood meal.

The entire life cycle of a flea requires from two weeks to two years. Hot, wet, summer months favor egg laying. Hot, dry periods give maximum adult production, so greatest adult flea populations are produced in August to September.

Flea Control

Flea control is difficult for pet owners to implement because two things must be done: (1) treat the pet and (2) treat the premises. Pet treatment alone is not sufficient because the animal quickly becomes reinfested from untreated premises.

Flea Treatment

Flea collars are sold under several trade names and are sometimes effective on small, short-haired dogs or cats that are not subjected to flea-infested areas.

Other treatments are usually necessary to supplement flea collars on large, long-haired pets that are allowed freedom outdoors. Also, some pets may be allergic to flea collars. Ultrasonic flea collars have not been found to kill or repel fleas.

Veterinarians may prescribe or apply pesticides not available over the counter. Oral flea medication prescribed by veterinarians has provided control of fleas when pets are not allowed outdoors and effective flea control is accomplished in the house and yard.

Pets may be combed or shampooed frequently to remove adult fleas before they can irritate the pet or lay eggs. Frequent removal of fleas can quite effectively reduce flea infestations.

To be certain pets remain free of fleas, it is necessary to make routine use of flea control products, especially if pets are allowed to contact infested animals or premises.

Dust treatments should be applied carefully and rubbed into the fur working from the head to the tail. Special attention should be given to the top of the head, the neck, and the back. Apply treatments outdoors so fleas that leave the animals do not remain indoors.

Premise Flea Treatment

Pets become reinfested with fleas from premises. For the most effective control, sleeping areas, bedding kennels, and other areas frequented by the animal should be treated at the time the pet treatment is made.

All rugs should be thoroughly cleaned with vacuum cleaner or steam cleaner. Infested furniture, pet baskets, and cracks should be thoroughly cleaned to prevent the larvae from finding food. Dirt which is collected should be disposed of immediately to destroy fleas and flea larvae.

Many people remove pets from the home to attempt flea control. Flea infestations usually become more evident when pets are removed. The hungry adult fleas prefer to feed on cats and dogs. When the pet is removed, the fleas overrun the home, frequently attacking humans. Dogs and cats can be used to attract fleas from the premises. Recommended pet treatments at frequent intervals can be used to kill the fleas.

Spot treat with insecticides when fleas become established on a pet or in the home. Apply sprays according to label directions and do not apply directly to pets. Sprays are effective when properly applied to surfaces in the house. Insecticides can be applied for yard treatment. Sprays should be directed to all known or suspected breeding places.