Fleas - know what you are dealing with
Fleas are one of the oldest pests known to man. Alongside rats they were blamed for causing the black death in Europe in the 14th century. That's when bubonic plague killed 6 out of every 10 people .
While we are nowhere near those proportions today, fleas are still transmitting the plague with at least 16 plague deaths reported in the USA in 2015.
Know your enemy
Plague carrying fleas are normally associated with wildlife hosts such as ground squirrels, prairie dogs and chipmunks. And thankfully contact with these fleas is rare.
The most commonly encountered flea species are: the cat flea, the dog flea, the human flea and the oriental rat flea.
These pests usually hitch a ride into your house on the back of the family pet but can also come from direct contact with wild animals such as birds or their nests.
Adult fleas spend the majority of their time living on the host and feeding on the host’s blood. After they have fed the female lays her eggs. Females can lay up to 25 eggs at a time and up to a 1000 in a lifetime.
Once laid the eggs tend to drop off the host and stay hidden in carpet and bedding until they hatch which usually takes 2 to 21 days.
The eggs hatch in to worm like larvae which stay hidden for up to several months.
Before finally becoming an adult the larvae will transform into a pupae. In poor conditions they can stay in the pupae form as preemerged adults for up to year. They will only emerge when they sense the presence of a host.
In extreme conditions the fleas can survive in position long after the original host has gone.
Problems they cause
Fleas feed on blood so they will bite their host. The bite will leave an itchy welt which will last for several hours. For most people, most of the time that is all they will suffer.
But some people are sensitive to flea bites and they can develop rashes and other symptoms that may last for a year or more.
By far the biggest problem with fleas is that they transmit diseases such as plague, murine, typhus and tularaemia from one host to another. The oriental rat flea is the biggest culprit but all fleas are capable of acting as a vector transmitting diseases from animals such as rats to humans.
What to look for
Regular combing of pets will help identify adult fleas. And combing over a white sheet helps to make the fleas stand out.
If you suspect you might have a flea infestation you can also try walking around in white socks (tuck your trousers in to prevent bites). Fleas are very good jumpers and any fleas hiding in the carpet will jump up and attach themselves to the sock. If you get more than 5 attaching within a minute you have a serious infestation.
They are much harder to spot in the egg, larvae and pupae stages. If you find adult fleas assume you there are also eggs, larvae and pupae present and treat for them as well.
How to deal with fleas
You can best help yourself by limiting the fleas opportunity to breed and hide. Do this by regular inspection, bathing and grooming of your pet.
Don’t rely on a flea collar as these have been shown to be ineffective.
Also regular vacuuming will lift the eggs and immature fleas out of the carpet and any cracks. Pay particular attention to where your pet spends much of their time and make sure you wash and clean their bedding frequently.
If you suspect a flea infestation it is vital that you treat the the egg, larvae and pupae stages as well as the adult fleas. If you just focus on the adults it’s likely that the fleas will return when the other stages mature.
You can treat the fleas with a specialized insecticide provided by your veterinarian but many insecticides have been found to be ineffective against preemerged adults.
If you are not confident in what to do or if the infestation comes back after you have treated the fleas. Then ask for help from a professional exterminator who can advise on the most effective treatments.
Learn more about local pests: