The Flea Life Cycle Breaking Down The Stages of a Flea's Life

The Flea Life Cycle

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The life cycle of fleas consists of four stages: eggs, larvae, pupae and adult. Controlling each is the key to avoiding a flea problem.

The life cycle of fleas consists of four stages: eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult. While adult fleas account for the clinical problems fleas create, they represent the smallest percentage of a given flea population, with the pupae representing the next smallest percentage of the population. The majority of the flea population (more than half) in a given infestation consists of flea larvae, while flea eggs account for roughly one-third of the total population.

Adults Only

While they represent the smallest percentage of the total flea population, theyโ€™re the main offenders. They are the ones doing the biting, mating, and laying the eggs. Adult fleas emerge from their cocoons once they detect a host. Detection of a host is triggered by vibrations, body heat, and even the carbon dioxide of an exhalation. Once a flea jumps onto a host, adult fleas feed, mate, lay eggs and start a new generation.

Donโ€™t Egg Them On

Up to about 50 eggs can be laid each day by an adult female flea. The eggs, which have a pearly luster, are smooth and oval, comparable in size to a grain of sand, and are laid on the host's body (usually your petโ€™s back). The eggs are not sticky, so theyโ€™ll typically fall off of the hostโ€™s body, meaning that most of the eggs could end up in the locations the host spends the most time. Usually, in as little as 1 or 2 days or as much as 5 or 6 days, these eggs hatch into the larval stage.

Lovely Larvae

The legless, whitish larvae use a spine atop their head to hatch. This spine is gone after the first larval molt. The newly hatched larvae travel away from light, which is why they might be found closer to your petโ€™s skin, beneath their hair, or in small crevices around the house. They survive by eating the feces of the adults. The blood meal that adults expel is commonly referred to as โ€œflea dirt,โ€ which feeds the larvae. Larvae donโ€™t travel far from where theyโ€™ve hatched, and after their second molt, they spin their cocoons (usually over the course of several days), from which they grow into pupae.  

You Say Pupa, I say Pupae

The pupal stage is one in which the larvae, encapsulated in cocoons, transform into adult fleas. Many cocoons will protect the transforming fleas within from pesticides and other chemicals. Although the pupal stage commonly averages from about 1 to 2 weeks, fleas can remain dormant in this stage for 12 months. The great disparity in determining the amount of time spent in the pupal stage is most often due to external conditions. If the temperature and humidity arenโ€™t conducive to emerging for a meal, theyโ€™ll wait it out. When body heat or vibrations trigger the presence of a nearby host, theyโ€™ll emerge, marking the start of a new cycle.
As you can see, killing adult fleas only takes care of part of the problem. Controlling fleas in all life cycles is the key to avoiding a flea infestation in your home, yard, or on your pet.

What Do Fleas Look Like?

Fleas are quite small--they range between 1/16 and 1/8 of an inch in length--which can make them very difficult to spot. Nearly every aspect of a fleaโ€™s appearance is designed to maximize survival: A hard, flat, and shiny exterior shell shields fleas from injuries after falls and bumps. This exterior also helps make fleas resistant to being squished between fingers or against the skin. Their color ranges from light to dark brown, helping fleas to stay hidden in the fur.

At the end of a fleaโ€™s eight legs are claws. Even though fleas are amazing jumpers, capable of jumping a foot or more in the air, they do not have any wings--itโ€™s their legs that propel them upward. A fleaโ€™s mouth is shaped like a tube which helps to maximize feeding.

Fleaโ€™s eggs
--which females lay on hosts in copious quantities--are oval and white. In the larval form, fleas look like white worms, with a sticky, hairy exterior. In the pupa phase, the larva is encased in a cocoon formed from organic detritus (such as hairs, dust, and skin flakes).

If you are trying to determine if you have fleas or another pest, it is important for you to be able to identify flea dirt. What's flea dirt? It's a more "dignified" name for a flea's dried-up feces. Flea dirt looks like small, dark specks--almost like a sprinkling of black pepper over your petโ€™s fur. The dark color is actually a deep red; because fleas ingest blood, feces are also mainly comprised of blood. If you moisten flea dirt and put it against a white tissue or piece of paper, you can watch it turn red as the dried-up blood dissolves. Fun!

Not so fun is a flea infestation. There are plenty of ways to avoid a flea problem in your home, yard, and pet. Comparing popular products is a good place to start.

More on Fleas

What is Flea Dirt?
How to Use a Flea Comb?
Flea and Tick Season: When to Use What Treatment
What Diseases Do Fleas Cause?
What Does a Flea Bite Look Like?

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