The cat flea is the most common species of flea known to affect cats, dogs and humans. The very small, dark, wingless insect uses its sharp piercing-sucking mouth part to take blood from its host – preferably a cat. This predator hides in the fur of animals, but makes use of its long legs to jump to other hosts. Hungry fleas will attack humans in the absence of the pet. Fleas can carry and transmit various allergies and disease. These can be passed to humans and other animals when the fleas bite. Humans will usually experience two or three bites on the ankles and lower part of the legs by each flea. Each bite produces a small, hard, red spot with a noticeable puncture wound. In late summer when the temperature and humidity rise, flea populations usually reach their peak. These conditions are necessary for adult development. Fleas which bite rodents pose a real threat if they later bite humans and transmit diseases picked up from the rodents.
Fleas seem to be attracted to some people more than others. One reason for this selective attraction could be that not everyone has the same chemical makeup. Skin secretions and gas emissions such as carbon dioxide vary among individuals. Also, some people are allergic to the saliva secreted by fleas. A person with a moderate or severe allergic reaction would notice more bites than a person who is not allergic. The discomfort caused by flea bites can be reduced by applying an ice cube to the bite, or using menthol, camphor or calamine lotion.
The cycle of the flea consists of egg, larva, pupa and adult life stages. Although the female flea only mates once, several hundred eggs can be laid in a six month period. The very tiny, white eggs are deposited singly on the skin or fur of the host after the female has had a blood meal. The loosely laid eggs can easily fall from the host onto areas visited by the pet including bedding, resting areas or carpets and flooring. The egg, which is round and sticky, develops into a larva in approximately nine days. The larva, which resembles a small hairy worm, then pupates. The pupal stage is a resting stage where the legless larva becomes an adult in one to three weeks. Depending on the surrounding environmental conditions, it could take anywhere from one to seven months for the life cycle to be completed. When the adults emerge, they are very hungry and aggressive.
It is easy to monitor for fleas by watching your pet. If a pet seems to be scratching more often, chances are fleas are the culprit. One way to determine if fleas are infesting your house or pet is to lay a white sheet over your pet’s bedding and watch for jumping fleas. The fleas show up on white surfaces clearly. Another monitoring method is to use a pan of soapy water with a light nearby to attract fleas. The fleas will jump toward the light source, fall into the water and drown. To determine flea location and population size, try wearing a pair of white socks and light coloured pants while walking in a suspected area of infestation. Again, the fleas will be attracted to the white colour and will be seen jumping at the ankles and legs. This method will work best if the pet has been absent from the dwelling for a short time.
Unless you keep your pet inside and away from other animals, it may be next to impossible to prevent an infestation. Protect your pet from fleas by reducing flea breeding areas. Popular pet visiting places, especially bedding, can become infested easily. Limit the pet to specific areas and wash these areas often. Vacuuming removes eggs, larvae and adults, thereby reducing flea numbers. In order to avoid reinfestation, be sure to destroy the vacuum bag when finished. Steam cleaning carpets and furniture will also limit flea populations. Grooming pets is one of the easiest and safest ways to control fleas. Combing pets with a fine-toothed flea comb is very effective in removing flea eggs and adults. Concentrate on the areas around the head and neck of the pet because this is where a greater percentage of fleas gather. Fleas caught in the comb can be placed in soapy water.