Flea (fle), noun. 1. Any of numerous small, wingless blood-sucking insects of the order of Siphonaptera, parasitic upon mammals and birds and noted for their ability to leap, 2. either of two common fleas of the genus Ctenocephallar, the very small, black C. felis (cat flea) or the similar, but larger C. canis (dog flea), both of which infest cats, dogs, and occasionally humans……
Technically, that is a flea, but for an infected cat, dog, and their concerned owner the only thing that really matters is all the biting and itching associated with fleas. Despite its name, dogs most often play host to the cat flea, just like their feline friends do. Though over 2,000 species and subspecies of fleas survive in the world, the cat flea takes its cue as the villain for these animals. As spring returns, fleas will once again raise their flattened heads and take off hopping. Getting rid of this annoying parasite can be done, but it requires a persistent, prolonged attack on three fronts-the animals, the home and the outside area-to win the war!
Understanding a Flea’s Life Cycle
In order, to get a handle on this flea-ridding task, it is important to understand the life cycle of the flea and how to disrupt the chain of events, which allow it to thrive. Less than 1/8-inch long at maturity, these black or reddish-brown, wingless insects appear in even smaller sizes as they grow. Their compact, flat appearance includes three pairs of legs, which makes jumping to a host a piece of cake. Claws on its legs and spines on its mouth, legs and backs make it difficult to be groomed off a pet. The blood-sucking female will begin laying eggs within 2 days of her first blood meal, consuming 15 times her body weight in blood daily.
Though fleas can live up to a year and a half (or longer) with a proper food supply and optimum conditions like temperature and perfect humidity, most live only for an average of two to three months. However, in that time-period, they make it their life’s work to produce a continuing army of pests. It is this continual production of flea reinforcements, which make the task of flea ridding so daunting. Four stages of development complete the life cycle of a flea-egg, larvae or caterpillar, pupae or cocoon, and adult.
Egg: An adult female flea will attach herself to a mammal (a warm-blooded animal) such as a dog or cat, living for several weeks on the pet. Every day, she will take 2 or 3 blood meals from the animal and lay 20-50 eggs in 24 hours. Under the right conditions (temperature 70-85 degrees with 70% or more humidity), the adult female flea has the potential to lay hundreds or thousands of eggs in her lifetime. Ideally, she can live out her entire life on this host feeding, mating and laying eggs. These tiny, pearly white, oval eggs, less than 1/32 of an inch long, will fall off the pet and land on floors, carpeting and bedding. Eggs can also survive in floor cracks, along moldings or outside in leaves.
These eggs, barely visible to the human eye, may appear to look like salt and pepper if observed. That is because a cat or dog will scratch itself, removing flea feces with the eggs. These droppings will provide food to the larvae when they hatch. Depending on environmental conditions like temperature, light and humidity, a flea egg will hatch in 1-10 days.
Larvae or Caterpillar: Flea larvae resemble maggots with a wormlike appearance. They have no eyes or legs at this time, however they have developed the distinct brownish head in a newer, larger size (3/16 of an inch). Fleas in the larvae stage have also developed chewing mouth parts. Meals consist of food debris, dead skin, dried blood, and excrement adult fleas produce while feeding on a cat or dog. Flea larvae live deep in carpet fibers, under furniture and rugs and in floor crevices, which camouflages their existence. Again, depending on optimal environmental conditions, the larvae will feed and crawl for 8 to 15 days before building small, silken cocoons also protected by carpet fibers, etc.
Pupae or Cocoon: This is the last phase to becoming an adult flea. The larvae will spin a sticky, protective, silken, outer cocoon with its saliva, which will be covered by dust, hair, and lint debris, helping it to blend into its surroundings well. It makes it virtually undetectable during the 7 to 10 days it takes to become an adult flea. The flea can stay in this stage for long periods of time, waiting for the right environmental signals to emerge. Warm weather and mechanical pressure caused by walking in a room or vacuuming carpet can help trigger a flea’s emergence from the pupae.
This phase offers the most resilience for a flea and makes it resistant to insecticide treatments.
Adult: Once the environmental triggers show up, the adult flea will emerge from the pupae ready for action. An adult flea can be out of its cocoon within seconds of stimulation. Fleas can also detect the warmth and breath of a potential host, namely your cat or dog, and are anxious to establish themselves in a more permanent home. And so it begins….all over again…..
Signs of Fleas in Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats display one obvious sign fleas may be present - they scratch. A lot. Excessive scratching, licking and/or biting the skin presents a strong sign of the presence of fleas. A conscientious pet owner may also find droppings or flea dirt in a pet’s coat. These will appear as tiny black spots or flecks. These droppings are actually a cat or dog’s blood, which has been ingested and excreted from the flea. If a few of these are gathered on a paper towel and placed with a small amount of water, the droppings will change from black to brown to red, due to the blood present.
Other traces of flea infestation include, finding flea eggs on a pet or in its environment, scabs and hair loss. Some animals may also develop extreme allergic reactions to flea bites and their saliva, along with anemia and further parasite infestation.
Related Article: 3 Steps to Keep out Fleas and Ticks >>
Health Risks and Complications Thanks to Fleas
Allergic dermatitis poses a serious health risk for pets with severe sensitivity to flea saliva. Only one or two bites from a flea for an allergic pet can cause intense itching, hair loss, reddened skin, scabs, hot spots and pain. Severe skin infections may also develop with allergic dermatitis.
Extremely young pets (puppies and kittens) can suffer from anemia as the adult fleas feed, consuming 15 times their own body weight in blood each day. Severe cases of infestations have killed untreated kittens, puppies, calves, lambs and goats.
Infected fleas can also deliver tapeworms to their hosts. Cat fleas serve as the incubators of dog and cat tapeworms. While grooming, a cat or dog that ingests an infected adult flea can acquire tapeworms, requiring medical intervention by a pet owner. An animal infected with a tapeworm will excrete dried, tan, rice-like tapeworm segments in his feces or they will be attached to his rectum. It is possible for these segments to infect humans and other pets, providing another reason to eliminate fleas.
Getting Rid of Fleas - Persistent, Prolonged War
Fleas prove a vicious enemy, but pet owners can win the war if they map out a game plan and attack the problems on several fronts. First, and foremost, is providing some relief for afflicted dogs and cats.
Pet Treatment: Efforts have been made to create new, safer, and more effective flea products without dangerous pesticides for cats and dogs. Shampoos, like Vet Kem, Mycodex, and Virbac help remove adult fleas and the itching/biting associated with it. Flea dips can also be used for severe flea infestations on an animal, but make sure to follow the product directions exactly.
Some pet owners will also utilize traditional flea/insecticide collars and dusts. Working with a vet will help ensure the best treatment course for your cat or dog.
With a lower toxicity level, prescription products and their active ingredients, applied topically between an animal’s shoulder blades, have proven effective in adult flea control. Some pet owners find these types of applications easier than baths or sprays. The topical application moves through the animal’s coat or is absorbed into the skin, for a whole-body treatment. Many of these products can also used with bathing.
Flea and Tick Treatments>>
Dog Products and Active Ingredients
- Frontline® Plus : fipronil/(S)-methoprene
- Advantage® II: imidacloprid/pyriproxyfen
- Advantage Multi®: moxidectin/imidacloprid
- Revolution®: selamectin
- K9 Advantix®: imidacloprid/permethrin
- K9 Advantix® II: imidacloprid/permethrin/ pyriproxyfen
Cat Products and Active Ingredients
- Advantage® II: imidacloprid/pyriproxyfen
- Advantage Multi®: moxidectin/ imidacloprid
- Frontline™ Plus: fipronil/methoprene
- Revolution®: selamectin
Products with insect growth regulators (IGRs) such as methoprene and pyriproxyfen provide long-term control of flea eggs and emerging stages of the parasite.
Note that not all products are safe for all animals. Check the product labels. Consult your vet. Cats should never use permethrin or amitraz for controlling fleas.
Several flea control products provide internal medications in pill or chew tablets well-suited for dogs that swim or bath regularly. Each product uses its own active ingredients with unique features:
- Capstar®: A rapid delivery system meant to wipe out adult fleas in 30 minutes. It lasts for 48 hours.
- Comfortis®: Provides 30 days protection in a fast-acting attack.
- Bravecto™ Chews for Dogs: Provides 12 weeks of protection.
Manual treatments with metal flea combs also work to rid a pet’s coat of adult fleas. However, many animals do not like to be brushed or combed in the best of circumstances, so though it is an effective means of reducing the flea infestation, it may not be tolerated well. For a cat or dog that allows this treatment, a diligent pet owner can regularly assess the number of fleas found at each combing and gauge the number of fleas present on an animal.
Extremely large flea infestations may require a pet owner to try several methods to bring relief to an animal. As always, consult a veterinarian about the best way to address the flea problem without causing harm to the cat or dog.
Home Treatment: One estimate stated over 95% of the flea population exists in carpet and grass. With this statistic in mind, gaining control on the home front with fleas demands a strong effort by pet owners. A good place to begin the assault is with the bedding and pet beds an animal uses since these harbor the highest flea populations. These should be washed regularly (once a week) with hot water and soap. Rugs, used as sleeping spots, should also be laundered with the same instructions.
Though not a miracle cure, vacuuming supplies an excellent weapon for flea control since it picks up all stages of fleas, curbing the total population. It also helps remove dirt and opens carpet fibers to make fleas more susceptible to sprays and pesticides. Daily or every other day vacuuming is very effective. The physical pressure associated with vacuuming can trigger the emergence of new adults that can then be attacked with flea sprays. It is also a good idea to promptly dispose of vacuum bags in sealed containers, such as plastic bags, to remove the flea threat. Vacuuming should continue for 10 days to 2 weeks to kill adult fleas and larvae.
Carpets, rugs and furniture can be spot treated with flea spray/dust as frequently as the product directions allow. Read the label on products and look for the best option for the flea problem. The ingredients permethrin and pyrethrins may kill adult fleas, but not eggs or cocoons. Products with boric acid, silica or diatomaceous earth will kill adult fleas and larvae. Apply these to rugs, carpeting, floor cracks, molding, beneath furniture cushions, in crawl spaces and under porches. Some pet owners will also vacuum again after these applications to remove any additional fleas the spray may have killed. Thoroughly clean any used rugs or upholstered furniture brought into a home to insure it does not promote a flea population as well.
Any product with an insect growth regulator (IGRs) will disrupt the flea reproduction cycle by killing larvae. These will also remain active for several months for extended control.
Periodic steam cleaning of furniture and floor coverings will also help eliminate fleas and help to disrupt the reproductive cycle.
Flea traps also aid in the removal and tracking of flea infestations. These non-toxic supplements work as electric light traps with sticky inserts, which attract adult fleas. However, flea traps alone will not solve the flea problem. These must be used in conjunction with other means of flea removal.
Outside Treatment: If a pet owner determines fleas are thriving in an outside setting, which a pet uses, it may also be necessary to treat these spots. Rarely is it necessary to spray an entire yard since fleas will avoid direct sunlight and high traffic areas. Look for spots where animals rest or sleep outside, like dog houses, kennels, beneath porches and decks, shaded areas and near foundations and treat these.
In some rare cases, a flea infestation can be generated by outside animals like raccoons, opossums and stray cats and dogs living in abandoned buildings, under porches and crawlspaces. To solve the flea problem completely, these animals may have to be removed.
When it comes to wiping out fleas from your pet’s environment, it is a war. Nonetheless, it can be won with an active battle strategy and a regular plan of attack. Don’t let fleas invade your domain and your pet’s environment without putting up a fight. Peace can be achieved on the home front for both your pet and you.