Fix those Fleas: Understanding fleas can greatly improve
flea control, flea prevention, and extermination.
What you will find in this article:
1- Flea Life Cycle- why understanding the life cycle of a flea greatly improves your prevention and extermination plan
2- Flea Prevention, Extermination methods and Remedies
3- Review of different flea medications, products, and techniques and the best combination of methods to use for your flea problems
4- How and what to discuss with your veterinarian about flea prevention, flea control and flea extermination
First: Know your enemy well!
To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military genius: if you do not know your enemy and do not know yourself, every battle will be lost. So to conquer any enemy is to first understand your enemy. This is no different for those perilous and often misunderstood fleas that attack and infest so many homes of unsuspecting pet owners. To defeat your flea enemy, you must first understand him. In fact, to prevent fleas is far better than to deal with an infestation.
So . . . what is the flea?
The flea is the common name for an insect that belongs to the order Siphonaptera and is an external parasite (or ectoparasite) to pets, birds, humans, and other warm-blooded hosts. It is a wingless tiny insect (approximately 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch long) with a flattened or laterally-compressed body (when looking head-on). It has 6 legs with 2 hind legs built for jumping, and mouthparts designed with stylets for piercing the skin of a host and eating blood (hematophagy), which is their main source of food as an adult. They have a hard, smooth outer exoskeleton with many backward-facing bristles that help them easily navigate through hair or feathers of their host. Although there about 2000 known varieties, the cat flea is the most common in the United States affecting cats, dogs, humans, birds and other warm blooded animals. Because they prefer and thrive in warm, moist environments, the pet owner’s home can be vulnerable to infestations.
Which came first, the Flea or the Egg? (The Flea Life Cycle)
There are 4 main stages in the life cycle of the flea: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Understanding the characteristics of each stage can help one to have an adequate plan for flea control, flea prevention, or if needed, extermination.
Stage 1 and 4: the Adult Flea and Egg:
Female adult fleas can lay from 40 to 50 eggs per day – and have a total capacity of up to 600 eggs over several months.- however- the adult female flea must feed on blood from a host before it is capable of laying batches of eggs. Once it feeds on the host’s blood, it will usually lay eggs on the host itself, unless it moves to another host or location. Typically, eggs are laid on the host.
Because flea Eggs do not stick to hosts, many can fall off into the surrounding environment. Environmental conditions affect the hatching time of flea eggs. The incubation period can last from a couple of days up to a few weeks. When the larva is ready to emerge from the egg- it uses a chitin based tooth (which is formed as a spine on top of its head to help it break through the egg). As it matures, it loses this chitin spine.
Stage 2- the Larva:
Once the flea larva hatches from the egg – it can take from 1 week to several months to develop and reach the pupa stage. Flea larvae are characterized as tube-like in shape. They have no sight, and avoid light. Appropriately, they tend to develop in damp, dark places, including but not limited to host nest areas, cracks and crevices, behind baseboards in homes, in rugs, furniture and other dark places within the home. There are virtually unlimited places for fleas to develop outside as well, including soil, sand, gravel, under porches and crawl spaces, shrubbery, and just about any other location where the environmental conditions are favorable to dampness, darkness and warmer temperatures. Flea larvae feed on things like the digested blood from adult fleas in the form of feces, dead skin from hosts, hair, down or feathers, and other previously living or organic material. Flea larvae, while able to chew, are unable to feed on blood as they have not developed the adult apparatus to bite and retrieve blood from hosts.
Stage 3 to 4: the Pupa to Adult
Larvae enter into the pupa stage when they weave a silken cocoon. In the pupa stage, fleas are in the process of maturing into an adult flea. Under ideal conditions, the pupa can develop into an adult flea within the cocoon in about 1 to 2 weeks. Under less favorable conditions, the flea can remain in the pupa stage until environmental conditions trigger the emergence of the adult flea. Conditions that trigger this emergence are: vibration from an animal or human, pressure, CO2 (carbon-dioxide) and other things that would signal the presence of a host (hence a source of food and favorable habitat). If conditions are not favorable for emergence, adult fleas can remain inside the pupa for several months. Once they do emerge, however, they can only last as an adult flea for about 1 week without a blood meal.
Why flea control can be so difficult
Fleas are small, and capable of proliferating in a very short period of time. Additionally, in the right conditions it only takes about a month for female adult fleas to feed, lay eggs, and exponentially grow their population from 10 adult females to over 250,000 fleas in various life stages (which are able to exist in differing conditions). Because they can exist in different conditions during different life stages, have short life-spans, high egg count per batch, and are fairly small, they can impose several challenges when an infestation occurs. Since the home offers hosts, dark and moist places, and is kept near their optimal living temperatures (70 to 85 degrees F), it is a ripe place for infestation if the right preventive measures are not practiced.
In addition to the annoyance of flea infestation, fleas can pose other problems to humans and animal. Fleas are capable of carrying zoonotic diseases or pathogens that can affect both animal hosts and human beings. Some of these pathogens, and/ or parasites include: kinds of bacteria that have caused plagues, viruses, tapeworms, or other organisms such as protozoa. Because many fleas favor mammals as hosts, humans are not exempt from being affected by fleas and the potentially harmful pathogens and organisms they can carry. When a flea or other organism acts as a carrier for another pathogen or parasite, it is known as a vector. Fleas were the vector that carried the bacteria "Yersina pestis” that was responsible for the “black death” or bubonic plague that wiped out so many Europeans (about 75 million people) during the middle-ages (14th century). Although that kind of mass plague is unlikely in developed countries today, humans are still affected by this kind of bacteria and other pathogens transferred by flea bites.
An ounce of flea prevention is better than a ton of flea remedies!
In all cases, it is best to do all that is possible to prevent infestations, as a solid prevention regimen is much easier than trying to rid one’s home after an infestation. Additionally, there are added potential health benefits for humans and their beloved pets if prevention is done adequately and consistently, including diseases and ailments that can occur from flea bites.
What are the best preventative measures for flea control?
Remembering the characteristics of the 4 stages of a flea’s life cycle can help one in carrying out a proactive plan to prevent their infestation. Additionally, a proper plan should always be done in consultation with one’s veterinarian as he or she knows the individual health of your pet and can help you plan the best preventive measures suitable to your specific pet. Carrying out a plan of attack using medicines, collars, drops, shampoos, etc. can actually be harmful if the correct doses or medicines are not done in conjunction with a growing veterinarian relationship where they are familiar with your pet’s breed, potential health issues, and your personal pet-care habits. Additionally, a preventive maintenance plan that uses a balanced approach should consider the life-cycle of the flea, the indoor and outdoor habitats and needs of all 4 stages, and the different forms of internal medications and external applications in order to be an adequate plan. Remember, consistent and informed prevention planned with your vet is always better than having to deal with a flea infestation. Also, an over-concerned pet owner can run the risk of using too many applications that can ultimately have adverse health effects for both the pet and home owner.
Before building a plan with a veterinarian, it is good to be somewhat educated on flea control and prevention. When creating a plan, be prepared to discuss all of the following concepts to determine which are right for your pet, your climate, the availability of products, and your pet’s habitats, and be willing to allow the veterinarian to help you understand what is beneficial and balanced:
- Flea Shampoos
- Flea and Tick Dips
- Flea Collars
- Flea Powders
- Flea Sprays
- Flea Bombs and Foggers
- Spot treatments for Fleas
- Oral flea treatments and medications
- Internal house cleaning areas, frequencies and habits
- Controlling flea life stages in your yard and around the house
- Vacuum types, filters and schedules
- Your habits and your pet’s habits
I have a flea infestation: Now what?
Although pet owners may take some measures, flea infestations can occur if and when preventive measures are not adequate or done consistently or correctly. Sometimes, pet owners do not take preventive measures year round, and end up in a bigger battle: flea infestation. If it is too late to prevent fleas, you can still form a solid plan of safe extermination with your veterinarian, and then work to have a better flea prevention plan for the future.
What to do to regain your territory after your dog or cat brought a flea infestation into your home.
Now that the fleas have invaded your territory, there is a layered, strategic approach you will need to carry out in order to get rid of fleas in all 4 stages of their life cycle from the areas where they thrive. Getting rid of fleas is not an easy task, and one must consider the flea life cycle populations as well when developing a plan: At any location where fleas exist, one can expect about 50% of the population to be eggs, around 30 to 35% to be larvae, 10-15% to be pupae and about 5% to be adults. Additionally, only about 5-10% of the population in your infested area are on the pet - the other 90-95 % exist in the habitat area where the pet lives, as well as areas surrounding the home. Therefore, an adequate flea extermination plan will now need to cover several layers of cleaning, spraying, washing, vacuuming, and potentially using pesticides both inside and outside of the house to regain a clean home and habitat for your beloved pet. Your plan should consider all of the following areas that are applicable. Discussing an appropriate plan should again involve the expertise of your veterinarian as a “more is better” approach is not necessarily true, and in some cases can be harmful to the pet and/or owner and other family members.
Internal flea medications are used to break the flea life cycle between the egg and larva. When adult fleas bite an animal with this kind of medication, the adult fleas lay eggs that are unable to become larvae. However, the adult fleas are not killed by this kind of medication, and are only hindered from producing eggs that can develop in to other reproductive adult fleas.
Topical Spot flea treatments are typically applied externally between the shoulder blades of pets. These are effective on adult fleas, and usually work for a few weeks to a month. They can also effectively help hinder larva from emerging from eggs and overall larva development.
Flea collars are typically effective in helping get rid of adult fleas. Used alone, they are not the best at a complete flea prevention plan and are not adequate to remedy a flea infestation. Some flea collars emit a gas that is toxic to adult fleas, and can also be used in the vacuum bag to help eradicate fleas that are swept up.
Flea spray and flea powder have a shorter effective life per application than spot treatments and oral medications combined. Although they are somewhat effective at helping control fleas at different stages of the life cycle, flea sprays and flea powders are not as widely used as spot treatments nor are they as effective or popular because of the brevity of their effectiveness and because of the frequent need for re-application.
Vacuuming all of the infected areas must be done on a daily basis after infestation along with frequent disposal of the vacuum bags. If a flea collar or other treatment is not kept in the vacuum bags, they can become another great place for fleas to thrive and perpetuate the flea life cycle. Although nearly 96% of adult fleas can be vacuumed with a thorough treatment, used alone, it is not adequate for eradicating and infestation.
Washing will most likely be necessary for all infected and exposed areas where the pet resides, and where the flea infestation has occurred. Beddings, upholsteries, sheets, and other fabrics and carpets where the different stages of fleas can fall or sustain must be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis.
Fumigating and spraying may be necessary inside and outside to eradicate all stages of the existing fleas. Special precautions must be taken while using these kinds of insecticides as they can be harmful to pets, adults, and children. Veterinarian expertise should be sought out before using these kinds of strategies, but in treating and infestation, it is very likely that professional insecticides will be necessary, and in some cases, a professional exterminator might be necessary.
Humidity and temperature control can help reduce populations and interrupt the life cycles of fleas for better flea control and prevention. Reducing humidity by using air conditioning and dehumidifiers can help greatly reduce the amount of eggs, larvae, and pupae from reaching the adult stage. Reducing humidity can reduce the number of eggs reaching adulthood by up to 75%. Lowering temperatures below 70 degrees F can interrupt or slow the entire flea life cycle.
In conjunction with the other treatments, controlling humidity and temperature can help reduce the amount and duration of chemical pesticides and other treatments needed to return things to normal.
For best results the entire regimen should be planned and administered as per veterinarian recommendations.