Fleas are small brown wingless insects found on pets, wildlife, and humans as well as their environments. Fleas prefer warm humid climates for optimal survival. Ctenocephalides felis is the most common flea species found roaming the haircoat of dogs and cats. Its life consists of feeding and reproducing. Without proper prevention and treatment, fleas can be a health and financial nuisance.
What should I know about fleas?
Although the adult flea is what is first noticed moving around through the fur of pets, it is the least numerous of the flea life cycle. Approximately 5% of the flea life cycle is composed of the adult flea. The remaining 95% of the flea life cycle consists of immature stages found in the environment. In other words, for every adult flea there could be 10’s to 1000’s of immature flea stages lurking where the pet sleeps, where it naps while collecting the afternoon sunlight, or where the pet hides out in its favorite dirt hole under the shade tree.
Additionally, flea bites can cause what is known as a flea bite hypersensitivity (FBH) or flea allergic dermatitis (FAD). Signs of FBH or FAD include itching and scratching, hair loss, redness, and sometimes scabs typically localized to the lower back area close to the pet’s tail. This condition can be miserable for the pet and costly to treat. There are a number of bacterial diseases that are spread through the bite of a flea and the unsightly parasite, the tapeworm, develops after the ingestion of an infected flea.
What is the flea life cycle?
There are four basic stages in the flea life cycle: Egg, Larvae, Pupae, and Adult. The flea life cycle starts with an adult female and male flea taking a bloodmeal which ignites the need to reproduce. Within 24 hours after mating, the female flea will lay up to 50 eggs. The eggs will slide off the pet into the environment awaiting an appropriate time to hatch. Heat, humidity, and vibration will cause the larvae to hatch out of the egg over the next 2 to 5 days. The next stage, the maggot- like larvae stage, is the most vulnerable of the stages and moves toward the ground and away from light where it is better protected. The larvae feed on flea poop (digested blood from bloodmeal) fallen into the environment, pieces of egg shells, organic debris in its surroundings, and occasionally, other flea larvae. The larvae will go through two molts over the next 7 to 14 days. During the last molt, the larvae will vomit contents of its stomach creating a sticky covering to create a cocoon. This cocoon is extremely protective for the larvae and is known as the pupae stage. It is the hardiest stage of the flea life cycle. Therefore, not a single product is effective against this stage. The pupae stage is frustrating because the flea may lie dormant for days, weeks or months unless vibration, carbon dioxide, and heat trigger the now adult flea to emerge and find its first bloodmeal. The entire flea life cycle from egg to adult can be completed in as little as 2 weeks at the ideal temperature and humidity and the adult flea can live up to 3 months.
What can be used to treat fleas and prevent infestations?
Addressing the flea life cycle in its entirety is the most effective way to eliminate fleas and prevent any infestations from occurring. An adulticide will kill the adult flea and an insect growth regulatory or IGR will work against the egg and maggot-like larvae stages. Remember, there are no products effective against the pupae stage. There are products designed for pets incorporating either an adulticide, an IGR or both. Similarly, there are products designed to use in the environment that address the stages of the flea life cycle. All flea products should be used according to directions with extra attention paid to removing pets from the premises if sprays or foggers are used. Consult with your veterinarian for recommendations on flea product and treatment options.
To recap, fleas are tiny parasites that are found commonly roaming on pets and prefer warm humid climates. Their life cycle begins with an adult female laying eggs, the eggs hatch into maggot-like larvae found close to the ground, the larvae molts into the pupae stage which is the most difficult to destroy, and finally, an adult flea emerges from the pupae to find its first meal and mate. A comprehensive flea program is the best way to address the adult and immature stages of the flea. Talk with your veterinarian today about how to properly protect your pet and home from fleas.