We tend to think of fleas as a pet problem that can easily be treated with a short trip to the vet. In actuality, fleas can quickly infest a home, bite both pets and humans, and spread serious diseases. Back in the middle ages, fleas were responsible for the spread of Black Death (plague) that killed hundreds of millions of people, some estimates showing up to 60% of the entire population of Europe.1 While plague is no longer a big problem in the developed world, fleas are still vectors for many diseases that affect both humans and animals. Getting rid of fleas in your home takes an integrated approach that consists of: proper identification, regular cleaning, caring for your pets, and the use of various pest control products that are specifically designed to kill fleas. This article will walk you through all the vital information you will need to know about fleas and how to get rid of them for good.
Fleas are small, external parasites that require a host’s blood for survival. Fleas are common on dogs and cats, but can also affect raccoons, rodents, opossums, birds, humans, and many other animals. Adult fleas typically range from 1/12 -1/6 of an inch long. Most flea species are brownish-red, but can also be dark brown to black in color. They can be easily identified because they appear narrow and flattened in the vertical direction. This narrow body allows them to move through fur and hair more easily. They also have strong claws, which allow them to hold on to their hosts and keep from being dislodged. Fleas have 6 long legs, with the back pair being larger and more powerful than the rest. This is important because fleas do not fly or run, but are excellent jumpers. Scientists have observed that fleas can jump up to 8’ vertically and 13’ horizontally. This makes them among the best jumpers in the animals kingdom.
There are a few main types of fleas that are common pests in the United States. These include: cat fleas, dog fleas, oriental rat fleas, sticktight fleas, and human fleas. By far, the most common/widespread of these species are cat fleas, which as the name suggests, are found on cats, but also on dogs, humans, and other animals.
The Flea Life Cycle
The above description of fleas applies to adult fleas only. The flea life cycle actually includes four distinct stages. If you are seeing adult fleas, be aware that they make up only a very small percentage of the overall flea population. According to Wikipedia, the breakdown of typical flea populations is 50% eggs, 35% larvae, 10% pupae, and 5% adults. This means that the number of fleas in your home is actually much, much larger than the ones that you can readily see. In order to control fleas, you must understand the flea life cycle and be able to disrupt and destroy fleas at every stage of development.
Eggs: Female fleas can lay hundreds to several thousand eggs in their lifetime, depending on the species. These eggs look like clear, oval dots and are only about .5 mm big. It is very unlikely that you will see eggs unless you know where to look and have a magnifying glass. Flea eggs are not sticky, so once they are laid, they will most likely fall off the animal. This means that the majority of flea eggs are found in places like dirt, grass, carpet, and pet bedding.
Larvae: The next stage is the larval stage. Flea larvae look like white maggots with no eyes and no legs. They are approximately 3-5 mm long. Flea larvae do not feed directly on blood, but instead eat organic particles like dead skin, dead insects, and most often adult flea feces. Flea feces contains dried blood, so the larvae will likely appear to have dark or reddish material inside their otherwise clear or whitish bodies. At some point, which varies widely by species and external conditions, the larvae will spin a cocoon and enter the pupal stage.
Pupae: This is one of the most difficult stages to spot because the flea cocoon is rather sticky and will attract dust and other debris. This means that the pupae may look like a piece of dirt and will be unnoticable to the untrained eye. Various conditions may alert the pupae that it is time to emerge as an adult. These most likely are triggered by the approach of a potential host and include things like vibrations, increased heat, or an increase in carbon dioxide.
Adult: When fleas emerge from the cocoon, they will be adults and will begin the search for food immediately. Once a suitable host is located, the females will feed, mate and begin laying eggs, thus starting the life cycle over. Adult fleas only live about 100 days on average.
Signs of a Possible Flea Infestation
One of the most noticeable signs of fleas comes via your pets. Dogs and cats will often start scratching vigorously because flea activity can cause a lot of discomfort. If you notice that your pet seems to be irritated or scratching more than usual, you can perform a quick inspection. Look for adult fleas, as well as the other stages in the life cycle. Fleas will also leave behind excrement, known as flea dirt. The feces will look like coarse ground black pepper and may be present wherever your pet spends a lot of time, especially in bedding and carpets. Lastly, you may see or experience flea bites. Bites will look like small red bumps in clusters of 3 or 4, or possibly in a straight line. Flea bites can be very itchy and are sometimes painful. They are smaller than mosquito bites, but similar because they have one puncture point in the center. They are often found on the feet and legs or on warm parts of the body like armpits, trunks, or elbow and knee folds.
Flea Bites; By Maslesha [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Problems Associated with Fleas
Fleas are responsible for billions of dollars of economic spending every year in the United States. From vet bills and prescriptions to treatment plans and pest control, fleas can be very expensive, especially if left uncontrolled.
Allergies and Infections
While flea bites are never a pleasant experience, some people and pets are especially sensitive to them and can develop allergies and infections.This may result in severe itching, painful skin infections, and swelling. This is the most common flea related problem in pets and is known as flea allergy dermatitis or FAD. Flea tapeworm is another infection that occurs in cats that ingest an infected flea during grooming. Secondary bacterial infections can also occur due to scratching flea bites.
There are a wide range of flea-borne diseases that can cause mild to severe illness. Some of these diseases are plague, murine typhus, bartonellosis (cat scratch disease), and tungiasis. The best way to avoid these diseases is to actively prevent fleas on your pets and in your home.
Methods of Flea Prevention
The majority of flea infestations in a home start when a pet, typically a dog or cat, gets fleas from outside and brings them indoors. For this reason, flea prevention usually starts with your furry friends. There are many things you can do to protect your pets. A visit to your veterinarian is a great place to start. There are many spot-on treatments, as well as sprays and oral medications that can help prevent fleas. Aside from these, there are also behavioral strategies to employ. Keeping pets on a leash when they are outside helps, as does bathing and grooming them regularly. Good old soap and water can help catch those flea stragglers before they can reproduce. You can also comb through your pet’s hair with a fine-toothed comb regularly.
Yard and Garden Care
Eliminating flea habitat in your yard is a good way to protect your pets. Fleas most often live in shady, cool areas of the yard near shrubs, bushes, and piles of debris. They are very rarely found in open areas of grass that get a lot of sunlight. To prevent them in your yard, trim back your bushes and shrubbery. It is a good idea to declutter your yard and get rid of piles of leaves, wood, and other debris. It is also important to prevent rodents and wildlife that carry fleas from coming into your yard. You can do this through exclusionary efforts like fencing, making sure your trash cans are closed, and getting rid of excess water, plants, and other habitat features that would attract them in the first place.
Inside the home, flea control is all about regular cleaning. Vacuuming is one of the best ways to get rid of fleas. A powerful vacuum can suck up fleas in all stages of development. Make sure to regularly vacuum under furniture, along walls, in cracks, and especially around pet bedding. You should also wash and dry pet bedding frequently on high heat. This will kill any fleas that may be living there.
Flea Control Products
There are a variety of products available to get rid of fleas. Some are natural and others are chemical treatments. Choose the treatments that fit your specific situation best.
Diatomaceous Earth (DE): Diatomaceous Earth is the fossilized remains of an aquatic organism called a diatom. They are ground up into a white powder. Diatoms are mostly silica, which has many microscopic sharp edges. This will cut the insects and cause them to dry out. This desiccant is natural and safe to use to help control fleas. It can be sprinkled around yards to help control fleas. Use food grade DE and make sure that you do not inhale it, as it is dangerous on the lungs.
Flea Traps: Flea traps are simple devices that often consist of a light to attract the fleas and a sticky disk or soap and water to kill them. They can be homemade or store bought. Traps are a great monitoring tool to keep an eye on the population, but they are not good as a complete control method. Traps may catch adult fleas, but they do not have much impact on the other developmental stages.
Flea Bombs: Also known as foggers, flea bombs will kill adult insects that are out in the open, but they usually don’t penetrate the cracks, crevices, and carpet fibers where eggs and larvae tend to be. Foggers should be used carefully and may be helpful in certain circumstances. They do not, however, address outdoor locations or animal infestations.
Insect Growth Regulators (IGR): One of the most successful ways to control fleas is through sprays that contain an insect growth regulator. IGR’s interfere with the normal development of insects and keep them from reaching adulthood. Some IGR’s do not work well outside because sunshine will break them down, so be sure to get photostable varieties if you need to use them outdoors. Harris Flea Aerosol Spray does a great job of controlling fleas for up to 7 months.
Residual Insecticides: Lastly, you can use a liquid or granulated residual insecticide to get at the source of the flea problems around your yard. An insecticide like deltamethrin from the pyrethroid family, will disrupt the nervous system of insects. As an example, Harris Flea and Tick killer is available for use indoors or outdoors and will help control fleas around your home.
PF Harris For the Win
Flea control is possible if done using a multi-faceted approach that targets the source of the fleas and implements prevention and control methods. Fleas affect not only our furry friends, but can be annoying and dangerous for humans as well. Eliminate fleas once and for all with some great Harris flea control products. Harris has been the leader in Home Pest Control for years and is America’s oldest EPA registered pest brand. You can win the battle over household pests using Harris products for all of your pest control needs.