Fleas are small, blood-sucking, insects that infest our pets and feed on their blood. They can be a real nuisance and can make your pet’s life miserable; causing symptoms ranging from minor irritation and scratching to hair loss and severe allergic reactions in our pets. This of course is made even worse if they start biting the humans in the household as well.
Fleas can be a huge problem for pet owners and once they are established in the home they can be quite difficult to get rid of, because of their complex life cycle. The adult fleas we see on our pets are only 5% of the problem and 95% of the flea life-cycle actually takes place in the carpets, floorboards and pet bedding in your home.
There are over 2000 species of fleas in the world, but thankfully only the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) and the dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis) are the main problems for our pets in the UK. We do however, tend to see more of the cat flea because despite the name, it is happy to infest dogs, ferrets and rabbits as well as cats.
The Flea Life Cycle
- The adult fleas live on and feed off the host animal – usually dogs and cats but we starting to see more rabbits and ferrets affected too.
- The female flea begins laying eggs within 36-48 hours of her first blood meal. She can lay around 20 eggs per day and up to 200 eggs in her lifetime of a few months. The flea eggs are not sticky so they drop off the animal into the home environment, such as carpets, bedding, floorboards and soil.
- The flea larvae emerge from the eggs after 2-14 days (depending on the environmental conditions), and begin to feed off adult flea faeces and other organic debris found in the home. Flea larvae have 3 stages of growth and depending on the amount of food present and environmental conditions this stage lasts around 7-14 days (longer in some cases).
- The larvae spin a silk cocoon and pupate; whilst in the cocoon the flea is at is most resilient and is resistant to insecticides.
- The adult flea can emerge from its cocoon as early as 3-5 days or it can stay in the cocoon for up to a year, just waiting for the right conditions. Warm temperatures, vibrations and carbon dioxide emitted from passing pets and people will trigger them to hatch. Once hatched, they use their well developed back legs to get around and jump onto passing animals.
Problems caused by fleas
- Scratching and biting. Fleas are irritating and cause most animals to scratch as they run through their coats (I bet you are feeling itchy right now, just reading this!)
- Hair loss. Caused by scratching or over grooming
- Skin infections. Caused by scratching or self trauma (biting)
- Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). Some animals are hypersensitive to flea saliva and suffer an allergic reaction when bitten. It can take only one flea bite to cause problems for these animals.
- Anaemia. Fleas feed on blood and a heavy infestation can have a big impact on young, elderly or ill animals
- Tapeworms. Flea larvae can become infected with tapeworm eggs. When pet’s groom themselves they can ingest infected fleas and become host to this parasite. If your pet has fleas you should also make sure your pet is treated for worms
- Myxomatosis. This is a serious disease in rabbits which can be spread by fleas.
- Fleas biting people. Although humans cannot be permanent hosts for cat and dog fleas, it will not stop them biting us if the opportunity presents itself.
How to identify fleas on your pet
- Adult fleas are only a 1.5-3mm in length and can be tricky to spot if there are only a couple causing problems on your pet. Gently part the hair of your pet’s coat to look for fleas.
- The best way to tell if your pet has fleas is by checking for flea dirt (flea poop). Wipe a damp piece of cotton wool through your pet’s coat, going against the direction of the hair. This will hopefully pick up some flea dirt if it is present. Because flea dirt consists mostly of blood, once it is transferred onto the moist cotton wool, it dissolves and turns a lighter shade of red.
- Alternatively use a flea or fine toothed comb to brush through your pet’s coat and then transfer the brushings onto a piece of damp kitchen paper.
If there are only a few adult fleas present you may not find any evidence of flea dirt in your pet’s coat.
Preventing fleas is easier than a curing an established flea infestation
The degree to which you need to control fleas will vary from pet to pet. You might think that a pet kept entirely indoors would be at no risk of catching fleas. But don’t forget that it only takes a visit from one untreated animal, or a flea or flea egg hitching a lift with you, to trigger an infestation in your home, so even housebound pets may require flea control. Pets that routinely go outdoors will likely come into contact with fleas from time to time, and require regular treatment.
1. Use a prescription flea product regularly on your pet.
- Most flea treatments should be given every 4-6 weeks, depending on the type.
- There are many different flea products available for your pet including spot-on liquids, tablets, injections and collars. Some products will kill fleas as they jump onto your pet, some after the fleas feed on your pet and others don’t actually kill the adult flea but act like contraceptives to prevent flea eggs from developing. Speak to a veterinary nurse who can advise you on which type of product will work best for your pet.
- Remember that the products that your veterinary practice can prescribe for your pet can be much more effective than the products you can buy over the counter in a pet shop, super market or online.
- Your pet should be weighed regularly to ensure the correct dose of treatment is being given.
- Flea treatments are also available for rabbits and ferrets, so please ask at your veterinary practice for advice on suitable products for these smaller pets.
- Always make sure the flea product is suitable for your pet i.e. it is for the species and weight of your pet. Read the data sheet carefully as not all products are suitable for all species of animal.
- NEVER use a flea product containing Permethrin on a cat
2. Use a veterinary recommended household flea spray.
- This will prevent the flea eggs from developing in the home environment.
- Some of these sprays will provide protection for up to a year.
- Don’t forget to spray the car if you have one.
- Household flea spray can be highly toxic to birds and fish, so make sure bird cages are removed and fish tanks are covered before you spray the room they are kept in.
- Never use it on your animals!
NEVER use a dog flea product containing Permethrin on a cat. Dog flea products are highly toxic to cats and can cause neurological damage, seizures and even death
If you would like any more information or advice regarding fleas or flea products please contact us on 01189 574488