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How Fleas Invade Your Home

By Chris Williams on April 25, 2014.

Cat fleaKatlyn Graham:  Hello, I’m Katlyn Graham, here with Tim Chase, a pest‑control technician with Colonial Pest and an entomologist. Hello, Tim. Welcome.

Tim Chace:  Thank you.

Katlyn:  Thanks for joining us. Today, we are talking about fleas ‑‑ an area of your expertise, I hear.

Tim, what are fleas?

Tim:  Fleas are very small insects that normally feed on mammals. We’ve got several types of fleas that we deal with, the most common being the cat flea. The other fleas we see are the dog flea and the human flea, which is pretty rare. All the flea species feed on mammals and require blood from a warmblooded animal to survive. It’s an important part of their life cycle.

Katlyn:  What is the flea life cycle?

Tim:  Fleas have a complicated life cycle. It’s a four‑stage or complete metamorphosis, beginning with the egg, the larva, the pupa, and then the adult flea. The adult fleas feed on the host and lay a small, pearly egg, which falls off the host animal. The egg hatches in 2 to 12 days and then becomes a small, worm‑like larva that goes through three life stages, and then forms the very important part of the life cycle, a little pupa that protects the developing larva until it becomes an adult. That pupal stage can take from 7 to 14 days and, in fact, lasts up to a year before they actually hatch out if there’s no stimulus. It can be a prolonged life cycle.

Katlyn:  Wow, a year as just an egg before it would hatch. Nobody wants fleas in their home. What factors influence flea infestation?

Tim:  There’s a number of things that affect flea infestations. The chief one is temperature. Temperature seems to be one of the most critical factors, temperature and humidity. Warm, damp summers seem to provide the ideal condition for a flea infestation, and several things go into the mix. If you have a pet and a flea infestation, that can be part of the situation. There are cases where the flea infestation is involving wildlife.

Let’s say you have a rodent infestation in your house, and there’s that many fleas involved with that, or perhaps wildlife living under a floor and then the flea infestation is involved with that. There can be many factors that go into what we would call a flea infestation, but it typically starts with your own pet.

Katlyn:  With the pet, yes. That’s why it’s so important to treat the pet for flea and ticks.

What can I do? It sounds like there are a lot of factors that can contribute to this flea infestation, but there must be some basics of things I can do to prevent fleas from ending up in my house. Treating the dog might be one. [laughs]

Tim:  Absolutely. Doing a thorough vacuuming job around the house, especially focusing on areas where the pets spend a lot of time. You can definitely clean up a lot of the flea eggs that fall off the pet. Also, cleaning up the larvae, too. The larvae actually feed on debris and detritus ‑‑ chiefly, the poop from the adult fleas, which also falls off the pet there, largely undigested blood.

Wherever the pet is spending a lot of time, you’ve got the eggs and a perfect food source for it. Also, in that same location, the pupae can hatch out and get directly onto the pet, so it’s a win‑win situation for the flea.

Doing a thorough vacuuming job around the house. Having the pet professionally treated. Dogs are a lot more easily treated. You can take your little dog, or even a big dog, and stick him right in the shower and soap him down with some good flea‑and‑tick dip. Cats are a much more difficult situation. They really don’t like the water. Sometimes even sedation is necessary to give a cat a bath. They don’t prefer it. The majority of our flea problems actually do revolve around cats, as it turns out.

Katlyn:  Around cats. Some people have indoor cats. How do those cats pick up the fleas?

Tim:  That is also an excellent question. As a rule, we recommend that if you have a cat, you want to keep it inside. You have a much, much higher probability of getting a flea infestation if your cat travels in and out of the house. Fleas are infesting wildlife, like squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, possums, woodchucks. Wherever those animals go, they’re also dropping off the flea eggs, so it’s a high probability, if the cat goes outside, that he’s going to pick up a flea.

Fleas are also excellent jumpers and seek out a host. Let’s say, for example, your cat goes out on a screen porch, and there’s a chipmunk that lives under the porch, and those fleas hatch and seek out a host. It could certainly make its way up onto your screen porch and get onto your pet that way.

Fleas can also be spread by jumping onto you and being brought back into your house. It’s not inconceivable that you’ve walked by an area where your neighbor’s dog has dropped off a flea egg and this flea now has hatched and found you and somehow gotten into your house.

Another common scenario is, my brother brought his dog over. There he is, Scruffy, sitting on the couch, scratching. You didn’t have fleas ‑‑ now you’ve got fleas. It’s a pretty common scenario. If you do some pet‑sitting or something like that, you can certainly have fleas brought into your house that way.

Katlyn:  They really can latch onto you, it sounds like, jump up and latch onto you.

Tim:  Fleas are actually fairly incredible little animals. They’re designed to move freely through the host’s hair. They like a hairy environment ‑‑ at least the cat and dog flea prefer that. Their body is designed with spines that all go in the same direction, so they’re able to move through the hair, but they can actually latch onto the hairs with their physical body spines, and they have very, very strong gripping claws. That helps them hold onto the host and be successful in that manner.

In the same fashion, as the flea is jumping from one spot to another, once the flea hatches, it needs to find a host rather quickly. This jumping action is able to allow the flea to get onto the host, and then his body characteristics let him stick right onto you as much as possible so that he can get that blood meal that he needs.

Katlyn:  Wow, OK. Thank you so much for explaining all this about fleas, Tim. You’ve been so informative.

Tim:  You’re welcome.

Photo credit: Armed Forces Pest Management Board / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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