Fleas belong to the insect order Siphonaptera. They are common pests and may attack many mammals, including man. They can be a year round problem because they infest not only pets but also the home of the owner. Because of this, treatment of the pet alone may only temporarily solve a flea infestation.
Although many species of fleas feed primarily on one type of animal, the common cat and dog flea will readily take blood from a variety of animals, including man. Flea infestations of pets and their homes will most likely involve the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis and occasionally the dog flea, C. canis.
Fleas are small (2 to 4 mm in length), brownish to black insects which are characteristically flattened from side to side. Adults are wingless and capable of jumping relatively long distances. Adults feed exclusively on blood with their piercing-sucking mouthparts. When not actively feeding, adult fleas often hide in locations frequented by the host animal such as your dog bedding, sofas, or carpeted areas.
The common cat and dog fleas breed throughout the year. After feeding and mating, the female deposits her eggs, usually on the host. Several eggs are laid daily and up to several hundred over a lifetime. Eggs normally fall off the host into bedding material or similar areas and hatch within two weeks.
Flea eggs accumulate in areas where the host spends most of its time. In addition, adult fleas defecate small pellets of digested blood which also drop off into the environment. A flea comb will often gather this fecal matter at the base of the tines providing a good sign of flea infestation. The combination of white flea eggs and black dried blood specks may appear as a sprinkling of salt and pepper where an infested animal has slept.
Fleas undergo complete metamorphosis, that is, they pass through four developmental stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Immature fleas do not resemble adults at all.
Flea larvae are tiny, light colored, and, worm-like, without legs. They feed primarily on various debris and organic material including the droppings of the adults which contains digested blood. Flea larvae occur indoors and outdoors, wherever the eggs have fallen off the host. In houses, flea larvae live in carpeting, furniture, animal bedding and other protected areas with high humidity. Flea larvae also live outdoors in areas where animals spend time such as under porches in and around dog houses, etc.
Because flea larvae depend on the adult’s fecal pellets of dried blood as a food source, they cannot live in lawns or other outdoor areas unless the pet visits those areas enough to provide this food.
Depending on the species of flea and environmental conditions the larvae will pupate in one week to several months. The pupa is contained within a loose silken cocoon which is often covered by bits of debris. Under average conditions, the life cycle of the flea normally requires between 30 and 75 days but may take much longer. Adult fleas inside the cocoon, called pre-emerged fleas, will stay in that condition for weeks to months if no external cues from a host is available.
However, when disturbed by the presence of a host such as vibrations or carbon dioxide from exhaled breath, the fleas emerge simultaneously and attack the host. This is why it is possible to return to a house or apartment that has been empty for months and find it full of fleas.
When the normal host is available, fleas may feed several times a day but they are capable of surviving extended periods of starvation. In household situations, the normal host is a cat or dog. However, if the normal host is removed, starved fleas will readily seek other sources of blood and more often than not, man is the alternate host. In severe infestations, fleas will attack humans even though the normal host is present.
Certain species of fleas have been known to transmit such diseases as bubonic plague and murine typhus. These have never been a major problem. The major problems with fleas is as a nuisance pest of pets. The irritation and itching from flea bites results in scratching and potential secondary infection. Fleas may also transmit the double-pored dog tapeworm to dogs and cats.
Finally, persistent attacks from fleas can cause severe allergic responses in some people and pets. Once sensitized, a single flea bite may produce symptoms including hair loss, usually around the base of the tail, dermatitis, and intense itching. In worse cases, puppies and young kittens can also died from serious fleas infestations.
With proper flea management knowledge, flea problems will not be a big issue and can be battle and win over easily.