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What Are Fleas?

Pests That Want to Live on Your Pet

By Madeleine Burry. January 01, 2011 | See Comments

What Are Fleas?

Fleas are one of those pests that pet parents don't even want to think about. However, it is important to know about these pesky creatures and how to avoid an infestation of your pet, and potentially your home.

Fleas are supremely well designed to survive. For pet owners and pets, fleas are an aggravation that’s easy to acquire, and tricky to eradicate. Small and wingless, fleas are parasites that survive by ingesting the blood of warm-blooded hosts like cats, dogs, and humans.

A flea’s entire body is designed to maximize eater—the head is surrounded by sharp spikes, and mouths are adept at piercing through a host’s skin and sucking out blood. Although fleas are quite small—generally less than 1/8 of an inch in size—life is miserable for your cat or dog as a host to fleas.

Signs of Fleas

Given the tiny size of fleas, it can be a challenge to know if your pet has them. If you spot your cat or dog scratching, and suspect fleas, use a very fine-toothed comb through your pet’s fur, checking for small brown shapes moving about. Look especially closely for signs of fleas by the ears and tail of your cat or dog.

In addition to looking for live fleas, keep an eye out for what’s called “flea dirt”—the fecal matter that fleas deposit upon hosts. Flea dirt looks like tiny black specks on your pet’s skin and fur. When moistened on a tissue, flea dirt will turn the towel red, since it is primarily composed of ingested blood.

Fleas create an uncomfortable, itchy situation for your pets. In some cases, fleas can also lead to more dangerous problems and diseases.

How Did My Pet Get Fleas?

Fleas give birth abundantly, so much so that a single flea can begin an epidemic in your house. Fleas are capable of jumping nearly a foot in the air vertically, making it easy for dogs, outdoor cats, and you to carry fleas home. Because they are so easy to track inside, even indoor cats are susceptible to fleas. Fleas are most comfortable in warm temperatures with high humidity, so catching fleas is particularly easy in the summertime.

Meet Your Enemy—The Life Cycle of Fleas

Of the 2,500 species of fleas, your pet is mostly likely to be impacted by Ctenocephalides felis, or the cat flea. Fleas have four life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Understanding the progression of the stages can help you through the process of getting rid of fleas.

  1. Eggs: Female fleas can lay up to 20 eggs at a time, typically depositing the eggs upon a host or on a warm spot. Eggs can easily roll off the host; the area where pets sleep is particularly likely to be a breeding ground for eggs.
  1. Larva: After the eggs hatch, a process that can take between a couple of days and a week, fleas enter the larva stage. As larva, fleas ingest organic matter, such as dead skin and the feces of adult fleas.
  1. Pupa: In the pupa phase, fleas weave a silken cocoon. In its cocoon, a pupa can sense if a food source is available and will remain dormant until it senses a potential warm-blooded host nearby. Fleas can remain in this dormant pupa stage for several months. 
  1. Adults: Adulthood is the final stage of a flea’s life, and once this stage is reached, a flea will need to eat within a few weeks. After this first feeding, fleas can survive for a few months without a meal. Life for an adult flea is focused upon feeding and reproducing. Adult females typically lay eggs upon their host – many of these eggs will roll of your pet’s body. The area where pets sleep is particularly prone to being covered with eggs. A flea’s lifespan varies from a few weeks to several months depending on the hospitality of its environment. 

Having just one flea enter your house can be enough to start an epidemic. An adult female can give birth to as many as 500 eggs within her relatively short lifetime.

Getting Rid of Fleas

Removing fleas from your pet and home is difficult, mainly because of the flea’s life cycle. Eradicating adult fleas is relatively easy, but removing all of the eggs is essential to preventing the birth of a new generation. Tackling this project will require you to thoroughly clean and treat your pet and your home, and potentially use insecticide on the landscaping by your home as well.

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