Fleas are small parasitic insects that live off of their hosts. They do not have wings, so instead of flying from one place to the next, they jump. Their coloring is usually varied between almost as dark as black to brown. Generally, the length of fleas can be between 0.1 to 0.32 centimeters and they don’t grow larger than, say, the tip of a pen. They primarily feed on blood, specifically that of mammals and birds, by getting on their bodies and sometimes even living there. 

Adult flea

Fleas can be hard to get rid of and kill because of their exterior. They have a tough cuticle with bristles and combs of spines which are flat and wide. They are called ctenidia. While fleas have more than 2000 known species, they are still considered a small order as compared to other insects. That being mentioned, fleas are still one of the most widely spread insects throughout the world. They can be found in almost all sorts of weather conditions, whether they are tropical, temperate, or polar.

What do they look like? 

Different fleas and their physical adaptations:

The bodies of fleas have evolved to fit their lifestyle, function, and host. Their bodies are small which allows them to move easily and quickly through the feathers or hairs of the animal that serves as their host. The shape of their spine helps to keep them on the body of the host, anchored to the fur. Their mouths are shaped to maximize their ability to suck blood. Barbed stylets attached to the mouth help them to penetrate the host’s skin and, in certain species, to attach to it as well. An example of a species that uses this to stick onto the body of the host is the sticktight flea.

Generally speaking, following the trend of the body of the flea species being adapted to the host, this applies to the host’s lifestyle as well. For example, if the host stays active during the day the flea will probably have well-developed eyes. If its hosts are nocturnal or it stays underground, then the fleas are likely to have poor eyesight or no eyes at all.                   

Fleas have adapted to not having wings by having legs which are highly developed for jumping. Historically, many species of insects that are parasites have lost their wings during evolution. But they retain certain elements of the mechanism that used to help them fly. This can be seen by the fact that fleas have retained the protein resilin. This protein is actually formed in the body of flying insects on the hinge area where the wing is attached to the body. The tension and compression that is created by the wing strokes is absorbed by the resilin, stored, and then released with each successive stroke in an effect that might be described as being elastic recoil. This helps to start the next wing strokes.

Fleas, despite not having wings, have resilin in their bodies at the point where their legs are attached to the main body. And this resilin compresses when the fleas are crouching, then right before they jump, the resilin releases the energy that helps propel the fleas. 

People sometimes call fleas insects that fly with their legs. Why? Because they are capable of jumping a distance that is two hundred times their own body length, vertically as well as horizontally. 

There are some fleas that crawl instead of jumping. These types of fleas live in nests that are high above ground level or in some other unusual places.  

What are the different types of fleas and where do they live?

While there are 2500 plus species of fleas, only three particular species are major causes of distress to human beings and our pets. These include the cat flea, which also happens to affect dogs. The cat flea, scientifically called ‘Ctenocephalides felis’ is very common in both cats as well as dogs in pretty much every country in the world. The dog flea, ‘Ctenocephalides canis’, while also spread almost throughout the world, is not as widespread. These fleas are able to feed on cats, dogs, humans, and other wildlife as well, which allows them to spread in many places and makes them hard to get rid of.

Some common types of fleas and the animals they attack,  aside from the cat and dog fleas, are the sticktight flea, jigger flea, and even the European and Western chicken fleas. 

They make a home on the bodies of animals as well as other furry textured areas. These include carpets, pet bedding, human bedding, furniture, and even lawns and yards. Adult fleas live on the necks, underside areas, and back areas of cats and dogs. These areas are often furry and more protected than the rest of the body. While fleas are capable of surviving almost any kind of weather, they like shady areas that are moist and humid.

Are fleas dangerous for your animal?

A flea infestation can have adverse effects on the host’s health and life.  They cause severe itching as well as serious inflammation. Human beings, if exposed to fleas and attacked by them, can develop allergies. If an animal swallows a flea, they can get internal parasites known as tapeworms. They are dangerous and in such a case, veterinary help should be sought out. 

When animals get heavily infested by fleas, they can get severely affected and even die. This happens due to the loss of blood and bites from fleas. The constant itching can irritate the host’s skin a lot and give them cuts, which could get infected. 

Sometimes certain fleas can burrow into the skin of the host and form a cyst there when they are getting ready to reproduce. The cyst can enlarge and cause issues for the animal who is the host, and if it gets infected then it would cause serious problems. 

Can fleas live on humans? 

Do they bite humans and are they dangerous?

Yes, yes, and yes. 

When it comes to the question of whether fleas can attack human beings, it should be known that they might not immediately go for us as their primary choice of host. However, some rodent or bird fleas can attack people when their primary hosts are dying out. This can happen, for example, when they are carrying the bubonic plague and are very hungry. The rats would be dying out and the fleas would thus get very hungry, so they would get affected by plague bacilli and seek any sort of food. In such cases, the fleas would transfer the disease to the host human beings. In fact, they were one of the primary factors that led to the deaths of millions of people during the late middle ages. In present times, there are 100 plus known species of fleas that are known to be prey to this plague, and some others that can carry urban plague as well. 

Fleas and diseases: 

What diseases do fleas carry? 

Do fleas carry the plague?

As mentioned before, fleas do carry the plague. Some other diseases that fleas are known to carry are murine typhus, carried by Xenopsylla cheopis, which is taken from rats. They also carry certain rabbit viruses. Fleas are also potential carriers of tapeworm and a filarial worm that affect dogs, cats, and sometimes children as well.

Why and how do animals get fleas?

Fleas are unfortunately a common pest that can spread and cause a full-blown infestation very quickly. Whether your animal stays at home or goes outside, there’s a chance that they can be exposed to fleas and catch them. Here are some of the ways in which you or your animal might get fleas:

Other animals

When an animal goes outside and comes into contact with other creatures, for example, a squirrel, other pets like your neighbor’s, or even at the pet store or facility, they might be exposed to fleas. Wild animals might carry fleas. Other people’s pets might carry fleas without their knowledge, which would then be transferred to your pet.

Visitors

Whether the visitor is a friend, a feral animal, or someone’s pet, they can carry fleas with them and transfer them to your pet. Human beings can also carry fleas, which get attached to their clothing or body. 

Outdoor Activities

When going out into the world you obviously can not ensure that you are in a completely sterile environment. Nature just doesn’t work that way. So you or your pet dog, cat, or another animal can catch fleas from your yard, a walk in the woods, or a hiking activity as well. Cats like sitting on windowsills and even boundary walls, from where they can also catch fleas. 

How to tell if an animal has fleas?

Generally, it is not difficult to discern whether an animal has fleas or not. The most obvious sign is that the animal is scratching themselves a lot. But there could be reasons other than fleas for this. So you have to look out for other signs as well. 

Irritated skin

Your pet might be itching their skin so much that there are scabs on it or redness. 

Patches of hair loss

These signs are the most obvious ones, but if you aren’t sure, here are some other ways to find out whether they have a flea infestation or not. 

Inspect their skin 

Run your hand through their fur and try to see the skin beneath it. If there are fleas you might see them in the form of tiny dark dot-like insects. They would be even tinier than an ant.you might also spot their babies that have hatched or cocooned larvae. Be sure to look out for fleas in the animal’s protected areas such as their undersides and the pit of their limbs. If there are fleas, the skin would look red and bumpy. There might be flea dirt in the animal’s fur. This would be like black pepper powder dispersed through the fur. It is actually flea excrement and a sign of an infestation. To be sure that it is flea dirt and not just some soil or other dirt, collect some of it on tissue paper and spray with water. Flea dirt will turn a dark reddish-brown. 

In order to check for fleas or try to take some out manually, use a flea comb, and run it through your pet’s hair/fur. The comb should catch the fleas, which you should then put into a container of soapy water so that they die.

How to get rid of fleas

Fleas are a parasite that should not be taken lightly. Get them treated and remove them from all areas of your house as soon as possible. 

Treat your pets (and yourself!)

If your pet has fleas, there are several things you can do. Try a flea shampoo for a quick treatment. Lather up the animal and then let them remain like that for five minutes. During this time the agents in the shampoo should do their trick and kill the fleas. Rinse it off, and you will see that fleas have fallen off your pet as well. Continue using it on them for a few weeks to make sure they all fall off. A popular choice is the Tropiclean natural flea and tick shampoo for dogs. 

Aside from shampoos, there are other methods that you can use to remove the fleas from the body. These include pills, collars, oral medicines, and topicals. While collars and topicals can be a bit pricey, they are worth the investment in the long run.  Before using any of the products have a consultation with a vet to make the right choice. Once you have bought the product, read the instructions carefully, and follow them to a T. Never use a product that is not recommended for your specific pet. For example, don’t administer any medication to your animal that is under the weight parameter the medicine claims to be for. There could be serious consequences for your pets.

Do call an exterminator if you are unsuccessful in keeping your home or yard free of fleas and ticks. Professional help will be quick and efficient. 

Be consistent and check for fleas vigilantly

In order to remove the fleas permanently, you need to be consistent with the products you are using over a period of time. Once your animal has been thoroughly free of fleas, you have to make sure you can identify the place where these fleas came from and treat it. To do that, follow these simple instructions:

In the morning, check all over your pets’ body for any new fleas. If you find them, that means the place where they have spent the night is a source of fleas. 

If you are taking them outdoors, keep checking their body every 15 to 20 minutes for fleas. If you find them, you will also find the hotspot area of fleas and can now work on a plan of action to rid that space of these pests for good. 

Rid your home of fleas

It is not enough to only treat your pets or yourself. If there were fleas on the living beings inside a home, it is likely that they have spread to your living spaces as well. So you must treat these areas thoroughly as well. Not just the inside of your home, but the outside needs to be cleared of fleas too. This especially includes the yard. You can get a spray that will kill fleas in your garden and protect it. You should use it regularly, such as on a monthly basis, as a preventative measure against future infestations. If you think that other animals such as squirrels, or pests like opossums are the ones bringing in the fleas, you should ensure they can’t get in anymore. To do this you can opt for measures like barbed wire fences, weed your lawn thoroughly, or just plant those plants around the lawn’s borders which these animals don’t like…but rarely is that practical.

Treating The Inside Of Your Home For Fleas

To get rid of fleas indoors, you can opt for foggers, sprays, or powders. But if you do not use the right thing, you will drive yourself crazy. It is important to treat fuzzy areas especially, like carpets, furniture, and your pets’ beds, etc. they tend to be preferred by fleas due to their ability to act as good hiding grounds, plus their proximity to living beings that can act as hosts. If you think there are fleas in areas of your house such as the carpet or furniture, you can check for them by setting up a DIY trap. Set up a small container of soapy water on the floor and turn on a night light above it. The fleas will get attracted to the light and in the process of trying to get near it, they will fall into the water and die. Another product that can be used is an insect growth regulator (IGR), which inhibits the growth of pests by targeting their young. 

As a pest control professional (exterminator) we rely on PT Alpine Flea & Bed Bug spray. When when used according to the label, Alpine quickly and effectively kills fleas.

PT Alpine Flea and Bed Bug Aerosol previously known as Alpine Flea Insecticide Aerosol with IGR is the newest flea control from the Alpine line of products. PT Alpine is made with dinotefuran which was granted a reduced risk status from the EPA. This means that PT Alpine Flea Insecticide with IGR is one of the safest products you can have in your home for flea control. The powerful ingredient in PT Alpine flea insecticide, dinotefuran, provides 30 days of control for adults fleas, and since Alpine flea insecticide contains an IGR, it also provides up to 7 months of control on hatching eggs. When treating a flea infestation in the home, vacuuming is a crucial part of treatment. All flooring should be thoroughly vacuumed before treatment as well as the days following your first application. A second treatment and more vacuuming should be done exactly 14 days after the first treatment for best results. For bad flea infestations, treatment may need to extend to 4 or more treatments. All pets and outdoor areas should be treated as well.

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How to get rid of fleas on dogs?

Unlike cats, dogs can be more energetic and active. They get excited easily and like to go outside on walks and runs, so you might find it a bit more difficult to get rid of fleas should they infest your dog. But fear not. In any case, simply follow the given steps to the best of your ability and make sure to keep checking up regularly. After the fleas seem to be gone, keep checking your dogs’ fur and taking preventative measures. If you find the entire process of removing them using shampoos or topicals too time-consuming, you can opt for special tablets for dogs which ensure that fleas can not infest them and die. Or you could try a special dog collar as well. In any case, choose whatever suits your pet and your situation best. Try to keep them away from the outdoors for a little while, until your dog is free of fleas and the infested outdoor area has been identified,  then take your dog on walks away from that area.

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Dusty Showers has been in the urban nuisance wildlife and pest control field since 1993. Taught by Garon Fyffe, a pioneer in humane nuisance wildlife management, Dusty has a passion for finding humane solutions to human & wildlife conflicts. Dusty was the only individual invited by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in the lat 1990's to help write legislation for legal protection of Florida bats. With an instinct for solving wildlife, Dusty found pest control to be an easy "add-on interest". Dusty started his first business "Animal Instincts Wildlife & Pest Management" in the Tampa Bay, Florida area in 1995. Eventually selling Animal Instincts in 2002, Dusty went on to start Creepy Creatures Termite and Pest Control in 2009, which he still owns and operates today in Palm Harbor, Florida.

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