Facts, Identification & Control
Latin Name: Order Siphonaptera
- Adults small, wingless, about 2.5 mm long.
- Their bodies are shiny and reddish brown in color.
- Covered with microscopic hair and are compressed to allow for easy movement through animal fur.
Adults are parasites that draw blood from a host. Larvae feed on organic debris, particularly the feces of adult fleas, which contain undigested blood. Fleas commonly prefer to feed on hairy animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice and other domesticated or wild animals. Fleas do not have wings, although they are capable of jumping long distances.
Eggs are not attached to the host. Eggs will hatch on the ground, in rugs, carpet, bedding, upholstery or cracks in the floor. Most hatch within two days.
Fleas depend on a blood meal from a host to survive, so most fleas are introduced into the home via pets or other mammal hosts. On some occasions, fleas may become an inside problem when the host they previously fed on is no longer around. Then fleas focus their feeding activity on other hosts that reside inside the home. An example of such a situation is when a mouse inside the home is trapped and removed, the fleas that previously fed on the mouse are then forced to feed on pets or people.
Employing exclusion practices is important for many pest problems, but exclusion does not have a major, direct benefit for flea control. However, sealing cracks, gaps and holes to help keep rodents or other potential hosts from gaining access into the home is an important indirect way to keep fleas outside. The most effective ways to keep fleas from getting inside the home is to eliminate outdoor flea habitats and outdoor hosts, plus using area-wide flea control chemical products and veterinarian-approved flea control products on pets.
How To Identify and Manage a Flea Problem
Since fleas are relatively easy to see in their adult stage, most of the attention is directed at adult fleas. Adult fleas are usually easy to locate, especially if the homeowner and their pets return to the house after a long vacation or other absence during which the resident flea adults were not able to take a blood meal. Upon returning, the homeowners are often greeted by fleas jumping around and trying to land on them and their pets.
The flea eggs, larvae and pupae are another situation. Since these stages are much more secretive and much less active, they are found in out-of-the-way places like behind, under or in the furniture; in the pet’s bedding; inside cracks and grooves in the floors; and in the carpets. Flea eggs that were deposited by the female adult, fall off your pets as they move, allowing them to be disbursed throughout the environment where a pet spends time. Flea eggs represent about one-half of the entire flea population present in an average home. Larvae make up about 35 percent of the flea population.
If conditions are favorable, the larvae will spin cocoons in about 5-20 days after hatching from their eggs. The cocoons are the flea’s pupal stage and account for about 10 percent of the flea population. This cocoon stage is the last developmental stage before the adult flea emerges. If environmental conditions are not right for emergence, the cocoon can protect the developing flea adult for months or even longer. The adult flea does not emerge until a potential host is detected by vibration, rising levels of carbon dioxide and body heat associated with the host. A pet walking by, or people moving in the house alert the flea to emerge from its cocoon to feed. Once a flea has emerged from the cocoon, it will begin taking a blood meal on a host within 24-48 hours. Shortly after the first meal, adult fleas will mate and the female fleas begin laying eggs on her host within a few days. Female fleas are not able to lay eggs until they obtain a blood meal.
Many signs can indicate flea activity. A common indication would be pets that repeatedly scratch and groom themselves. This is caused by the discomfort of the flea activity as the adult fleas feed on the pet’s blood. People also may experience bites which leave behind itchy bite marks (a medical doctor can be consulted, since there are other sources of skin irritation beside fleas). Flea dirt, the adult flea feces, also can indicate activity. Flea dirt looks similar to coarse ground black pepper and may be seen in pet beds, carpets, rugs and other areas where the animal host rests. Read more on flea infestations.
Fleas are not usually found infesting a homeowner’s beds and bedding. Fleas that are observed in beds and bedding are most likely there only to take a blood meal or were perhaps dislodged from the animal if the pet is allowed to sleep in the same bed as the homeowner. However, if the homeowner does not wash and change the bedding for a long while, it is possible that the immature stages of the fleas could possibly take up residence in a bed or bedding. The more likely situation is that flea eggs, larvae and pupae are living under the bed or, even more likely, are living in the bed and bedding of the household pet(s).
Since the immature stages of fleas are very cryptic by nature, the first thing the homeowner should do is contact their pest control professional for assistance. Most of the time simply using over-the-counter products for controlling fleas will not resolve the root causes of the infestation. Your pest management professional will conduct a thorough inspection and locate areas where the immature stages of the flea population are residing. After completing the inspection, the next step is preparing the flea management plan. This plan will include:
- Identifying the flea species causing the problem.
- Education explaining the flea’s life cycle and how their habits, habitat and behavior affects the control plan.
- Inspecting for the presence of other animals that are the flea population’s source of food. This may include rodents either inside or outside the home or perhaps a raccoon or feral cat that is living in the crawl space.
- Homeowner contacting their veterinarian for advice and purchase of flea control products that can be used on pets.
- Regular bathing and grooming of pets.
- Explaining the use of growth regulators that will interfere with the flea’s normal development into the adult stage.
- Using a strong vacuum to physically remove flea eggs, larvae, pupae and adults.
- Frequently washing and drying pet bedding.
- Treating affected areas by using safe and effective flea control products where immature fleas may be located.
- Scheduling a follow-up visit.
Fleas do not fly and are wingless as adults. Their preferred method of movement is for the adults to jump onto a host when that animal passes close by. Flea larvae are mobile and will move slowly from one location to another by crawling. The main reasons flea larvae move are to locate food and a protective, shaded, moist location that is favorable to the flea larvae’s survival.
Yes, fleas can transmit diseases when taking a blood meal from a host or via contaminated fecal pellets. Some flea-borne diseases include:
- Plague – transmitted by the Oriental rat flea
- Flea-borne typhus, also known as murine typhus – transmitted by the bacteria-infested feces of infected cat fleas when they enter the body at the time of the flea’s bite or from scratching the area of the bite.
- Bartonellosis –Oriental rat flea and cat flea bites may transmit cat scratch disease.
- Flea tapeworm – can be transmitted if children accidently eat an infected flea or contact infected feces.
- Tungiasis – a tropical area ailment that is caused by the chigoe flea (Tunga penetrans) when it burrows into the skin and takes a blood meal. As the adult female feeds, she grows larger due to the development of her eggs. The bite of the chigoe flea often results in secondary infections and itching.
Flea infestations require multifaceted treatment plans. Addressing only a pet’s infestation or individual flea bites will not prove effective for ridding your home of fleas. Effective flea control should encompass both chemical and physical methods and should be conducted on your pet as well as inside and outside of your home. Contact a pest control professional.