The relationship between our pets and fleas is a parasitic one. This means that it is a type of relationship between two organisms of different species in which one organism is helped and the other is harmed, but not killed. Parasites don’t usually kill their hosts because they need the host in order to survive.
Despite numerous technological advances, fleas continue to represent a potentially lethal plague upon our pets.
Fleas can cause a lot of damage. It is underestimated by most just how much trouble these tiny little pests can cause. Although a flea’s goal is not to kill its host, a plethora of fleas is lethal, especially to smaller or younger animals. Conditions brought on by flea infestation include but is not limited to; Flea Allergic Dermatitis (Allergic Reaction), Anemia, and tapeworm infection.
A common misconception is that we believe our pets cannot get fleas because they are completely indoors. This is simply not true and fleas thrive in the well-regulated temperature of our homes.
To understand how to best eliminate a flea infestation you need to understand their life cycle. Fleas pass through a four-stage life cycle consisting of egg, larva, pupa and adult. They undergo a metamorphosis just like caterpillars who turn into butterflies, although flea adults are much less attractive than butterflies and much more of a nuisance.
The time is takes to go from egg to adult varies from two weeks to eight months dependent on temperature, humidity, and the amount of food available. A typical flea population consists of 50% eggs, 35% larvae, 10% pupae and only 5% adults making it sometimes very difficult to spot. Only the adult fleas live on our pets. The rest are in the environment, therefore the number visible on your pet is only the tip of the iceberg.
Adult fleas are usually 1/16th – 1/8th of an inch long, red-brown in color, three pairs of legs, the last pair are larger and well adapted for jumping. Fleas are wingless, their bodies are flattened laterally and covered with a hard external coating – like a skeleton but on the outside. They are blood sucking parasites with mouth parts especially designed to pierce a host and suck out its blood. When they first hatch, adult fleas have one immediate priority – eating. They can survive up to 62 days without feeding if the conditions are conducive. Once they have has a sufficient meal of blood, they mate. They will not breed for at least the first 24-36 hours after emerging from their cocoon. Most females will breed and begin to lay eggs within the first week. Egg output peaks after 3-9 days. A female adult flea will lay on average 20-30 eggs per day. In just 30 days 10 female fleas – in ideal conditions- can multiply to more than a quarter million new fleas in different life stages.
Eggs are loosely laid in the hair coat of your pet. They are wet and sticky when first produced but dry out and usually drop from an animal within a few ours. They resemble tiny chicken eggs. They are oval shaped, shiny, and white in color. They are only 0.5mm x 0.3mm in size. Eggs can fall almost anywhere but particularly where the pet rests or sleeps, such as rugs, carpets, furniture, dog beds, kennels or under trees. The time taken to hatch is again dependent on environmental factors, with the ideal temperature being around 77 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity. Freezing conditions will kill eggs and therefore those laid outdoors in the fall probably won’t survive the winter.
Eggs hatch and turn into larvae and look like tiny spiny earthworms – about 0.25 in long with no legs and a big mouth. The start life a white color, but quickly turn brown after feeding on adult flea feces (digested blood from the host which drops off the host with the eggs). Lacking legs means that the larvae cannot move very far from the place where they emerged from the egg. They need a protected environment with moderate temperatures and high humidity. Larvae are attracted to dark places. They are normally found indoors in floor cracks and crevices, along baseboards, under rug edges, deep in carpet, and in furniture. Outdoors they develop in sandy earth where a pet may rest or sleep. Some 83% of fleas develop in carpets in the home. Exposure to full sunlight kills larvae while water can drown them. They must feed quickly in order to survive; unfed they die in approximately 3 days. On average, larvae take between 7-12 days to fully develop, molting through 3 larval stages.
Once the larvae are fully developed, they weave themselves a silk cocoon in which they pupate. Pupae are sticky and whitish in color. Pet hair, carpet fibers, dust, grass, and other debris stick to the pupae and help to camouflage them. There are 3 stages of metamorphosis within the cocoon, the last being a pre-emerged adult. Pupae are hardier than larvae but are still susceptible to drying out in low humidity, as well as to insecticides. Ideal climates are 80 degrees Fahrenheit with more than 50% humidity. Pupation takes between 5 and 14 days, however pre-emerged adult fleas may remain resting in the cocoon for a prolonged period until conditions are more appropriate. Pupae can survive a cold winter or very hot summer in a state similar to hibernation. They can remain in this stage for up to 6 months without feeding.
In conclusion fleas are pests. They are difficult to get rid of and it is best to have prevention for your pet so that they don’t pick up fleas and spread them around your house. If you have trouble with fleas or would like to purchase some flea prevention please call and make an appointment with your veterinarian ASAP!