Fleas are an animal's most common skin-dwelling parasite, and they are particularly common among domesticated cats and dogs. Fleas have a knack for keeping pet owners on their toes.
Cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) are the most common species found on cats and dogs, and the most commonly encountered species worldwide, mainly due to their adaptability and ability to live on a wide variety of different animals. There are various flea species found on dogs, including Dog fleas (Ctenocephalides canis), which are similar in appearance and behavior to Cat fleas, but less common, in general. A common, but less common, species you might encounter is the Human flea (Pulex irritans), which is oddly named, as Human fleas' first choice for a host animal is a pig.
Understanding these blood-sucking insects and their life cycle can help you effectively prevent and get rid of fleas when you need to.
Facts about Fleas
Adult fleas feed on blood whenever they can, at times consuming up to 15 times their body weight in blood daily. Ironically, fleas can go several months without a blood meal, though females need to feed on blood before they can lay eggs.
Fleas are brownish-red to dark brown in color, and measuring from 1/10" to 1/5". They have six legs, the two hind legs being much longer than the other four.
Ideal Flea Environment
Fleas can go for several months without blood to feed on, though females need a blood meal in order to reproduce and lay eggs.
Flea pupae are able to go into a sort of hibernation through winter in order to survive longer, but all stages of flea development (from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult) will be slowed by conditions in which they can't survive for long.
Adult fleas need moisture, warmth, and a relatively stable temperature, which explains why they crave the warm, furry areas of your pets (neck, back, belly, behind the ears, etc.). Fleas can hide anywhere on your pet, but they prefer areas where your pet cannot easily reach them with his or her claws or tongue.
Fleas can survive for over a week in nearly freezing temperatures, but they will become lethargic and unresponsive if they cannot find a warmer environment. Consistent temperatures above 95 degrees will usually kill off fleas at any stage of development.
When Fleas Attack
Every flea infestation starts with one or more fleas scouting out the territory. These first fleas can come from a yard or home environment or, less commonly, from another flea-ridden animal.
Fleas are always introduced into a home by a human or a pet bringing them indoors. No matter how clean your house is, if you have pets, you can still get fleas. And yes, even indoor pets, like cats can get fleas.
Outside, adult fleas live in long grass, bushes, dirt, or other foliated areas waiting for a host to pass by. When they have the opportunity, they use their long, strong hind legs to jump from their hiding places to latch on to their new host.
Pets can also get fleas from kennels, groomers, and even the veterinarian's office. as well as from stray animals (e.g., raccoons, deer, skunks, feral dogs/cats, opossums, etc.).
Fleas Laying Eggs
Fleas are common for pets, and getting just a few of them usually isn't problematic or noticeable for at least a week or two. It won't take long for just a few fleas to turn into a serious infestation and all the things that come with fleas (including itching, hair loss, bacteria, blood-borne contaminants, and parasites).
Adult fleas feed and reproduce on their host animal's body, and they can create more fleas very quickly. Female fleas can lay up to 50 eggs daily, and those eggs usually hatch within a week. Flea eggs are very tiny and are not usually noticeable to the naked eye. They are also round and smooth and commonly slide off a pet's body and into your carpet, furniture, or the pet's bedding.
Flea Development: Larvae and Pupae
Fleas can develop indoors or outdoors, as long as a food source and appropriate conditions exist.
Once fleas hatch from their eggs, young fleas develop through the larval and pupal stages and then later into adulthood. They hatch from their eggs as larvae (tiny whitish worms) and they begin to survive off of debris and adult flea droppings.
Young fleas cannot survive in hot, sunny areas, but they can thrive in shady areas, with 80 percent or higher humidity. The larvae continue to feed and survive for one to two weeks after hatching, and then they wrap themselves into a cocoon to move on to the pupal stage. The pupae can hide and survive inside their shells underneath the soil and in hidden areas indoors, such as carpet or furniture.
Adult fleas may come out of their shells as soon as one week from becoming pupae. From egg to adult, it can take less than two weeks in ideal conditions, and sometimes up to nearly a full year in less than favorable conditions. Fleas are savvy survivalists, which can make them difficult to eliminate, especially when they're in the pupal stage.
Adult fleas will usually start feeding off their host animal immediately, and females can lay their first eggs within 24 hours of a blood meal. You might notice your pet obsessively scratching and showing rashes, light bleeding, and hair loss (mange).
Signs of Fleas in Your Home
In addition to seeing your pet(s) obsessively scratching, there are some other telltale signs that you might have a flea problem in your home.
- Pale Gums. If your pets have pale, discolored gums, that may be another sign there is a flea issue. This is a sign of anemia, is often prevalent in young kittens and pups, and may be a sign you need to take your pet to the veterinarian.
- Flea Dirt. Flea remains (also known as "flea dirt") is another sign of fleas at home. This is dried flea feces (which many times contain a lot of dried blood), and it kind of looks like pepper flakes. You might see these remains on your pet's skin, on their bedding, on the carpet, curtains/drapes, on furniture, etc.
- Fleas on Your Pet. If you suspect flea activity, also carefully check your pet's ears, neck, and back for signs of scratching, redness, blood, or dirt. If fleas are present, you might see fleas on your pet's skin.
- Flea Activity. You may also notice tiny insects hopping around on your drapes, carpet, furniture, pets, and in your pets' bedding. Fleas are distinguishable by the way they quickly vanish from sight.
- Irritated Skin. You might also notice itchy, red, swollen rashes on your own skin or on a family member's skin where fleas have bitten.
Contrary to some popular beliefs, adult fleas spend most of their time on your dogs and cats, and not in the carpet. This is why treating your pet in conjunction with treating pet areas where fleas are active, and where their eggs can be found, are essential steps to preventing and getting rid of fleas in your home.
What do Flea Bites Look Like?
Flea saliva makes their bites unnoticeable at first, but you will definitely notice signs of the bite later. Bites look like swollen, red, and itchy bumps sometimes lined up in a row, and sometimes in a cluster. A red “halo” is often visible around the center of the bite.
Fleas most frequently like to infest your cat's or dog's neck, ears, back, belly, and base of the tail. The most common places fleas will bite you or your family members include your legs, ankles, and folds of your knees. You may also see flea bites around your waist, armpits, groin, and in the folds of your elbows.
If you or your pet have a serious enough allergy to flea bites, you may need to seek medical attention.
How to Get Rid of Fleas in Your Yard
Speaking of eliminating ideal flea conditions, the best way to win against fleas (along with ticks and other pests) is to practice prevention in your yard.
Keep your lawn mowed and shrubbery well-trimmed. Trim foliage and trees back from your home. Pay careful attention to areas of your yard where your pets like to frequent. Seal off any openings to crawl spaces, garages, sheds, under decks, etc. Clean up trash from your yard that flea-infested deer, raccoons, etc. might come to feed on. Don't leave pet food outside overnight.
Keep Your Pets Treated. Treat your pets frequently with products labeled for fleas and ticks. Brush or comb your pets thoroughly before letting them back in the house. Keep your pets well-groomed and trimmed, especially in the summertime. If you don’t treat both your pet(s) and your home (indoors and out) you won't get rid of all the fleas and they'll make a comeback.
How to Prevent Fleas Indoors
Keep your home clean and tidy. Even if you do have fleas at home, it doesn't mean you are a bad housekeeper. Clean floors and well-vacuumed carpets and rugs are definitely focus areas in your fight against fleas.
Thoroughly sweep your wood and tile floors, and vacuum carpets, rugs, pet bedding, and furniture to remove flea eggs, larvae, and pupae that may be present. Seal the vacuum cleaner bag in a plastic trash bag and dispose of it in the trash, preferably outdoors.
Indoors, fleas can be killed directly by spraying with an effective indoor plant-powered flea spray like Maggie's Farm Bed Bug & Flea Killer or Maggie’s Farm Home Bug Spray. Maggie’s Farm Spider & Insect Dust or Maggie’s Farm Bed Bug Killer are longer-lasting treatments for the edges of carpets, under and around pet bedding and rest areas, and underneath furniture cushions.
An effective yard spray can also be a good longer-term strategy and can cover larger areas outdoors.
Pay particular attention to your pets' favorite areas and treat them thoroughly, but don’t treat pets directly with Maggie's Farm products. It can be difficult for insecticides to penetrate pupae, so you should plan to do a couple of treatments a few weeks apart to get the fleas that emerge out of their protective life cycle stages.
Be sure to always follow directions for any pest control products you use.
For more information on preventing and how to get rid of fleas, check out:
What are your go-to strategies to get rid of fleas at home? Post a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
For scientifically-tested, effective flea control in your home and yard that is friendly to the environment, try Maggie’s Farm pest control products. Our promise is that our plant and mineral-based products are developed by scientists and seasoned pest control professionals to be the most effective.