Flea circus: Tips to keep your pet and home flea-free

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH

So, last week I talked about flea prevention, and this week I’m going to talk about some flea facts. This one is a little more lighthearted, unless you have fleas in your house currently. If that is the case, these flea facts should incentivize you!

Fleas have no wings, so when you see them flying through the air it is because they jumped. Fleas can jump 13 inches. This may not seem like much, but if they were the size of a human it would be very far. The current world record is under 10 feet for human long jumping. A flea as a human could jump about 980 feet! So those are some big jumps, and they might as well be flying. Fleas pick up on heat, carbon dioxide (breathing) and vibrations to figure out where to jump. The scary truth is that means a flea is just as likely to jump on you as it is a dog or cat.

So, you found some fleas, you treated them, and you are still seeing more. How is that possible? A couple of ways. First, a flea can live on its own without a host for up to 100 days. That’s a long time. They do have to eat first, and can only live a week or so before feeding. The good news is that they do need blood in order to live. A female requires a blood meal to lay her eggs, but once that is done the cycle starts all over. A female flea eats about 15 times her body weight in blood at a meal. For the average adult human that would be over ONE TON of food. At once. Efficiency has never been their issue. OK, so she lays a couple eggs, how bad can it be? A female flea can lay 2000 eggs. Assuming three quarters don’t hatch, that still leaves…..500. So a couple of fleas here and there can wreak complete havoc on your life for many months to come. And, assuming they don’t all die, the cycle continues.

Fleas lay eggs on their host (whoever they just bit) and these eggs then fall off and attach to whatever they fall on. Favorite sites are in rugs, on couches, and in bedding. Eggs are laid in batches of 20, so that they get maximum spreading around the house. Eggs hatch in two to 14 days to larvae. These larvae spin themselves into a cocoon and become pupae, which are the toughest part of the life cycle. Pupae hang out in their protective cocoons for months to years. They are impervious to temperature changes and moisture changes. That means that you may be able to deal with a flea infestation “completely” just to have the pupae hanging out until next year. They can then hatch and start the vicious cycle all over again.

What in the world is someone supposed to do to fight these monsters? The first is to make sure that all pets are on prevention. The purpose of this is to make sure that once the flea bites they die. So, any female that takes a blood meal in order to lay eggs will die before she has a chance to populate your house. This dramatically shortens the lifespan. The next step is cleaning. Wash all bedding in hot water and vacuum daily. Premises sprays can be very helpful to ensure that the fleas don’t flee (see what I did there?) before you vacuum them up. Empty the canister or throw away the bag after each vacuum, because pupae can live and hatch into your vacuum!

Often people won’t see fleas, but you may see flea “dirt.” This looks like specks of regular dirt but turns reddish orange on a paper towel with water. Why? It’s actually flea poop. It is digested blood from your pet, so looks black but will show its blood color when mixed with water. Cats are especially good at grooming fleas away, and sometimes get most of the dirt too. One of the biggest problems is that some animals are allergic to flea saliva, so one bite will set them off on a cycle of itching that is difficult to stop. The good news is that with proper prevention and vigilant cleaning flea problems can become a thing of the past. Make sure to speak to your veterinarian about solutions, when it comes to grocery store products, you often get exactly what you pay for. In the long run these end up costing more than just jumping right to a working solution from the start, even if it costs most up front.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL: petdocanna@gmail.com

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