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Flea Infestations – Advice From the Pros

By Chris Williams on July 5, 2011.

Q. My cat is scratching like crazy, and sleeping on a dresser.  I think my cat has fleas.  What should I do?

A:   Fleas can make life miserable for both humans and pets!  Fleas not only cause irritation at the site of the bites, scratching the bites may lead to local infections and swelling.  Some pets and people may have allergic reactions to flea bites.  In some cases fleas may be agents of disease transmission.  Flea infestations have been linked to bubonic plague, murine typhus, and tape worms.

There are some 2,000 species of fleas known throughout the world.  All fleas are associated with warm-blooded hosts and feed on their blood.  The most common species infesting the home is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis.  Cat fleas have been found on humans, dogs, rats, raccoons, opossums, and foxes among others.  Other species such as the dog flea, chicken flea, mouse flea, oriental rat flea, northern rat flea, squirrel flea, rabbit flea, human flea, and the sticktight fleacan cause problems as well.  Many of the mentioned fleas are found on other hosts.  This means that a flea from a sick rat could find it’s way onto your dog and into your home.

dog-scratchingFleas have a complex, four stage life cycle: egg, larvae, pupae, and adult.  Females may lay more than 20 eggs a day, 3 to 18 at time after a blood meal.  Each female flea may lay more than 800 eggs in her lifetime.  The tiny pearly white eggs, which fall off the host, hatch within 12 days into legless larvae.  The eggs and larvae accumulate in areas where the pet sleeps and spends time.  As adults feed on the hosts’ blood, they produce feces made up largely of undigested blood.  Heavy accumulations of feces and eggs may resemble “salt and pepper”. The hairy, worm-like larvae (1.5mm-5mm in length) have a visible brown head, and can be seen with the naked eye.  Larval development goes through 3 stages, and may take as little as 8 days to as long as 200 days, depending on temperature and humidity.  Once larval development is complete, the larva spins a cocoon in which to pupate.  This cocoon is mixed with debris and stuck against the substrate.  The pupa is protected from chemical treatments inside the cocoon.

When conditions are favorable the pupal stage lasts one to two weeks.  If conditions are not favorable it may take up to a year.  Low temperatures, low humidity, and lack of hosts may lengthen pupation.  Once pupation is complete, emergence takes place.   Emergence in stimulated by vibrations, host warmth, and carbon dioxide.  Huge flea populations can develop when several generations of un-hatched fleas emerge simultaneously in response to the presence of a host.  This situation commonly arises when a house is left vacant after residents with pets have moved out or gone on vacation.  The first sign of a host triggers mass emergence and hundreds if not thousands of hungry, newly emerged fleas jumping everywhere.  Fleas can jump a relatively long distance compared to their size and move purposefully toward the host.  I have witnessed just such an event and can assure you, it is frightening.

After emergence takes place, male and females quickly seek a blood meal.  Initially the adults are very small and dark brown to black in color.  Once feeding on the host takes place, the adult fleas swell up and appear light reddish brown in color.  Without feeding on a host, newly emerged fleas can live one to two months.  If only one feeding takes place adults may live up to six to eight months.  If nothing is done to combat the flea populations they quickly build up to unacceptable levels.

Much can be done to prevent and control flea populations.   The first step is a positive identification of the problem as many insects may cause bites or welts on the body.  Once fleas have been identified control measures can be undertaken in short order.  Thorough cleaning and vacuuming of rugs, carpets, furniture, bedding, and any possible site where eggs, larvae and fecal matter may accumulate will physically remove this material.  The vibrations of the vacuum will not only stimulate adult emergence from the pupal cocoons, it will suck them up as well.  Discard vacuum bags after cleaning up fleas, they will live in the bag for some time.  Treatment of the pet with approved dips and baths (Contact your veterinarian for specific product recommendation or professional treatment of the pet!) is imperative. A Pest Control Professional from Colonial Pest Control is licensed to make safe and effective applications to control flea populations.  All three of these steps; thorough cleaning and vacuuming, treatment of the pet and Professional treatment are part of an Integrated Pest Management strategy for flea control.  Give us a call at Colonial Pest Control right away if  you think you  have a flea problem, I know we can help!

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