Introducing the Flea
Whilst not generally dangerous to humans, fleas do present serious problems elsewhere. Fleas are the number one cause of skin disease in pets and can cause problems ranging from simple itchiness to weeping sores, scaly skin and an unpleasant smell.
You will find that some dogs are actually allergic to flea bites and one bite can set off a horrible reaction. Fleas also have the ability to transmit tapeworms in both cats and dogs. They even bite humans!
Although we are a pest control company based in Birmingham, and offer a specialised flea control service, we think it’s our duty to inform the rest of the UK about the dangers of pests. With that in mind I hope you enjoy this article about fleas!
What is a Flea?
Fleas are tiny dark brown parasitic insects that infiltrate the hair and more importantly the skin of pets. What makes them quite impressive – though dangerous – is that they are able to jump over 150 times their size; that’s the equivalent of a human jumping over 300 metres.
It is this incredible jumping skill that allows them to hop from host to host and other parts of the environment.
Fleas are actually wingless, though their aforementioned jumping ability makes up for this. A flea’s diet is blood, with females consuming around 15 times their own body weight each day!
The blood that they are not able to digest is excreted from the flea and dries to form what is commonly known as ‘flea dirt’. Flea dirt becomes food for the larvae and is the most obvious way to identify an infestation.
Where do Fleas Come from?
Fleas thrive in damp, grassy areas including the areas underneath porch steps, along nearby ponds and even in the shade of bushes or trees. Animals such as raccoons, squirrels, rodents and feral cats are common carriers of fleas.
The scary fact is that it only takes a few tiny fleas to cause a massive infestation in your home. Even humans can bring fleas into a home as they have the ability to cling onto almost anything.
When pets are taken for a walk, to play in a park or run around the garden, they are always exposed to fleas. Visits to vets, kennels, car journeys and even trips to the groomer can expose your pet to fleas! It is therefore very important to keep an eye on your pet after you visit such places. It’s obvious to see when your pet has fleas, as they will be itching, scratching, biting and generally look to be in discomfort.
Once fleas have made contact with you, your pet, or your home, they can live virtually anywhere! Carpets, curtains, beds are places they love, but what they love most are your pets!
Why Should We Worry About Them?
Fleas can pose a serious problem for your pet’s health. Not only can fleas cause itching and minor discomfort, but they can also pose a serious threat if they’re left too long.
The minor risks fleas cause to pets are minor itching, scratching, biting and general restlessness.
Fleas are responsible for the most common veterinary dermatological condition: flea allergy dermatitis (DAT)
If severe, flea infestations have the ability to cause anaemia – smaller and/or younger pets are most susceptible to this. If an animal ingests fleas, they are likely to have transmitted tapeworms; a nasty infection for pets to have.
Some people believe that fleas do not pose a threat to their own health but fleas can be harmful and very discomforting for humans.
Allergic reactions are the most common. Symptoms are usually in the form of small, raised lesions named papules. These are usually red or purple and severity can vary depending on the host’s reaction to the bite.
Tapeworms; now these are nasty. For humans to get tapeworms, they have to literally ingest fleas. Again, children and younger people are more at risk.
Typhus – essentially a high fever. Symptoms include headaches, delirium and sometimes people have been known to come up in red rashes.
Plague – rodent fleas that can be carried by dogs/cats can be vectors of bubonic plague.
Is Their Bite Harmful?
In many species, fleas are generally a nuisance to their hosts. Most commonly, their bites cause itching sensations which in turn causes the host to attempt to remove the pest by scratching or biting.
Fleas are not simply a source of annoyance, however. Whilst their bites aren’t particularly harmful to humans, they can cause swelling and itching similar to a mosquito bite. Following this, the eczematous itchy skin disease (flea allergy dermatitis) is the most common disease in cats and dogs.
The bites can range in severity, some bites appear in clusters and can remain itchy and inflamed for up to several weeks.
Fleas can even lead to hair loss as a result of frequent scratching and biting by the host. If the host is allergic to the bites, this can result very badly and cause anaemia in serious cases.
Knowing the Difference Between Fleas & Ticks
Fleas are small, dark-coloured agile insects with two black mouth-parts adapted to feeding on the blood of their hosts. This, combined with their very quick reproductive cycle, make them a difficult challenge to eliminate from the pet and the environment. In order to thoroughly understand how to treat and prevent their infestations from occurring, it’s important to first understand the lifecycle of the flea.
The flea lifecycle begins with the adult female flea acquiring a blood-meal from the pet and laying her eggs usually on the skin or hair of the pet. Adult fleas must feed on blood before they become capable of reproduction. The flea can consume as much as 15 times its weight in blood each day! Female fleas are capable of laying up to 40-50 eggs per day, these eggs will then fall off the pet onto the carpet, sofa, or any location the pet visits. These eggs are very small white spheres that will hatch into larvae in 2-14 days depending on the conditions. Flea larvae emerge from the eggs to feed on any available organic material, including faeces of other fleas, known as flea dirt.
Flea larvae tend to avoid light and keep to dark places, such as cracks, crevices and bedding. If adequate supply of food is available, larvae will complete their development in 5-10 days and spin a silk-like cocoon in which they malt to the pupus stage. The final transformation to the adult flea occurs within the cocoon and the newly formed adult flea emerges when properly stimulated by heat, carbon dioxide and the environmental stimuli, all of which might indicate an available food source is in the area.
The entire cycle from egg to adult can take as little as two weeks, or as long as six months depending on environmental conditions. The adult flea is probably the only stage of the flea’s life cycle you’re likely to observe. The other stages are generally very difficult to see without magnification! Even spotting the adult flea requires a close and thorough examination of the skin. There are certain locations on the pet where fleas more commonly congregate. Focusing your search in these locations will increase your chance of finding fleas. The key locations on most dog and cats would be:
- The tail area
- Head and neck
These areas should always be evaluated when assessing the pet for the presence of fleas. The faeces of adult fleas, or flea dirt, is often the first clue that fleas are present on the pet. These reddish-brown faeces often possess a characteristic curled appearance, or may occur as dirt-like specs. Passing a flea comb, or simply a fine-toothed comb through the hair of your pet will often trap fleas and flea dirt. This is arguably the simplest method to search for fleas.
The reason the cycle is important for you to know, is that developing an effective flea control programme involves more than just killing the adult fleas. It also involves interrupting their reproductive cycle at various stages, to alleviate future generations of fleas.
Like fleas, ticks are bloodsucking parasites. They attach themselves to their host and remain attached for an extended period of time, often several days. During this time, the tick will become engorged with blood. This extending feeding period makes the tick an ideal carrier for various blood-borne diseases. Common diseases transmitted by ticks include rocky mounted spotted fever, Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis. Only a small number of ticks carry these disease-causing organisms. When present, these diseases occur more commonly in certain areas of the country.
It is important for you to identity the specific tick-transmitted diseases that are common in your area. It is also important to recognise that some of the diseases ticks carry can also be spread to humans. A tick-infested environment will not only puts pets at risk, but also their owners.
How do I Remove a Tick?
Removing a tick from an animal should be done with care, and without squeezing the body of the tick whilst pulling it off. Careful handling reduces the chances of infusing infectious debris and organisms into the animal from the tick.
Grasping near the head of the tick where it has attached itself to the animal, and creating gentle pressure, will often be sufficient to initiate its release.
Gently pulling the tick straight out away from the skin is usually adequate.
Once the tick has released, clean the area thoroughly with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide to help reduce the chances of infection.
Dispose the tick in a small jar of alcohol and save it if possible. This will help for identification of the tick to determine if infection has occurred.
You may sometimes notice two ticks attached to the skin and hair. These are mating ticks…The female ticks will become quite engorged with eggs and will often obscure the presence of the male ticks. As many as 8,000 eggs are contained in some engorged ticks. The female tick will detach herself from the dog or cat and return to her environment to lay her eggs. Most ticks infecting dogs or cats will need three hosts to complete their development.
Upon hatching, the young seed ticks will search for a source, such as a rodent for their first meal. The seed ticks will feed on their host for a few days and then drop off to malt into the nymph. After several weeks or months, the nymph will often climb to the tops of the grass or weeds and wait for a passing animal to hop onto. Once they have clenched onto an animal, they quickly set out to get their meal. They will feed for a few days or a week and then drop off again to malt to the adult stage.
The adult stage will then seek out a host on which to feed, because of the large number of eggs they lay in their environment, it becomes extremely important to control ticks. Not only on your pets, but also in the environment.
The Flea Lifecycle Explained
It is imperative that you understand the lifecycle of the flea to know how to effectively dispose of them and at what time to do so.
There are four main stages of the flea lifecycle:
Depending on the temperature of the areas in which the fleas are living, their lifecycle can take anywhere from a few weeks to months. The flea’s favoured temperatures lie between 20-30 degrees and 70% humidity.
Their lives begin when the adult female flea lays eggs after she’s drained all the blood she can from her host (your pet, for example). Blood is essential in order for the female to reproduce. These eggs are small, white objects, in fact they’re even smaller than a grain of sand! They reside in your pet’s fur in clusters of around 20.
The eggs will then fall off your pet as they traverse around the house/garden/park/beach etc. This is dangerous as it means the flees can drop off anywhere.
Eggs take anywhere from a few days to two weeks to develop and hatch when the environmental conditions are just right. If the temperature is too low and dry the eggs will take longer.
The emerging larvae are blind and will therefore avoid light at all costs. They grow and develop over several weeks by eating flea dirt that the adults have left behind. They also eat other organic debris they find in the environment.
This is essentially the cocoon stage. This is the last development stage before it evolves into an adult. The cocoon protects the pupae for several weeks before the adult flea emerges.
FUN FACT: If the environmental conditions are not right for the pupae to emerge, the cocoon is capable of protecting the pupae for months and in some cases, years.
The cocoons have a protective outer layer than helps them hide and protect themselves deep within carpets and sofas. Vacuuming will not be effective against these cocoons. The cocoons are also very resilient to chemicals!
The adult flea will not emerge until it’s 100% sure there is a host that it can jump onto. They detect this via vibrations, rising levels of carbon dioxide and temperature (body heat). There are many ways this is triggered, your pet walking by and people moving in the house will alert the flea to emerge from its cocoon and feed.
Once the flea has emerged from its cocoon, it will be looking for a food source, and soon. Once it has found its first host and gorged on it, it will then breed and begin laying eggs in the following few days. Females, however, cannot lay eggs until they have sourced a blood-meal.
How Fleas Affect Your Pets
Every year, flea and tick problems with pets rank amount the highest issues in veterinary hospitals.
Both fleas and ticks are considered parasites that feed on the blood of their host and transmit a number of serious diseases. A parasite is any organism that lives on, or in an organism of another species. From the body of which it obtains nutriment without contributing to the well-being of that organism. Parasites can be grouped in two categories:
Internal parasites generally live within the host animal, one of the most commonly thought of internal parasites would be intestinal worms.
External parasites live and feed outside of the host, or in this case, the pet. It’s the job of the animal care-professional to understand these most common parasites. Learn how they’re diagnosed and help to rid the host animals of them whenever possible. As an animal care professional, it is also their job to educate the clients on the risks of these parasites, and what they can do at home to prevent their infestation.
Let’s begin with discussing the two most common external parasites.
How Does This Affect My Pet?
Due to the advances in pest control and the effectiveness of modern pesticides, treatment for your pet is usually all that is needed!
Here are some of your options:
PRODUCTS TO PROTECT YOUR PETS:
Spot on Treatments – this is arguably the simplest and most effective treatment on the market. Apply it once a month in order for it to take full effect. Some products do include worming/heartworm treatment as well as flea treatment.
Flea Shampoo – It kills fleas on your pet at the time of the bath. Though once rinse-off has no lasting effect on fleas.
Rinse and Sprays – Vary in effectiveness, many need to be used weekly, some more often if severe flea problems are present. Rinses must be applied to a clean, mainly dry coat at the correct concentration to fully effective.
Collars & Powders – These are helpful, though there are certainly more efficient treatments on the market!
REMEMBER! – Preventing new eggs is also vital to stopping them from recolonising. What many of the products on the market do is stop the female flea from breeding by essentially making them sterile.
The Environment Must Also Be Treated
This is probably the simplest way of making sure fleas do not colonise in your home. Simple tasks such as vacuuming (removing eggs and fleas) washing your pet’s bed/blanket (the higher temperature the better) and spraying your house, your pet’s kennels/sleeping area and garden with flea killer.