Fleas are the most common ectoparasite affecting dogs and cats. Fleas are bothersome for our pets, however importantly, they can transmit parasites and other pathogens that cause disease, lead to skin irritations and secondary infections. In severe cases, pets may develop anaemia secondary to severe flea infestations. Effective year-round flea control for dogs and cats is essential.
Read on to learn how to get rid of fleas and prevent your pet from them.
How to tell if your dog or cat has fleas
The most common flea affecting dogs and cats is Ctenocephalides felis.
Pets acquire fleas via contact with other dogs and cats, or through exposure to an infested area (inside the house or the outdoors!). By the time you notice fleas on your pet, it is likely that the immature stages have been present in the environment for at least 4 weeks.
Fleas on dogs and fleas on puppies are small and very quick moving, so it can be hard to spot them. To the human eye, fleas look like little dark red or brownish ovals. If you look closely, you can make out their legs underneath them. If you do spot a flea, be prepared for it to disappear suddenly as it crawls or jumps away.
Sometimes you may not see the fleas themselves, but you may see evidence of them in the form of ‘flea dirt’. Flea dirt is actually flea faeces, and it looks just like regular dirt. The way to tell the difference is to take some and put it on a wet tissue – flea dirt will stain the tissue red.
Preventing and treating fleas
All dogs and cats in the household should be on regular flea prevention.
There are numerous flea control options available on the market and these can be applied topically or orally. Depending on the product chosen the application or administration frequency will vary.
It is important to note that not all flea preparations are safe for cats, you should always check with your veterinarian about which flea prevention is best for your pet.
Signs of flea infestation
It may be possible to visualise the fleas on your pet.
Adult fleas spend the majority of their time living on dogs and cats. Within 24 hours of infesting a pet, a flea will begin to lay eggs which then fall off the hair coat of the pet and into the environment. Female fleas can lay 40-50 eggs per day!
Within 3-8 weeks, under the right environmental conditions, these eggs develop into adult fleas. Fleas thrive in mild weather and prefer temperatures between 20C and 30C.
As many pets have dense hair coats, or in the case of cats are fastidious groomers, it can be difficult to visualise fleas on pet. You may notice “flea dirt” which appears as black specks and is actually flea faeces!
Other signs of a flea infestation may include:
- Scratching, licking and chewing particularly around the rump and tail base. This can lead to hair loss, secondary bacterial and less commonly yeast infections. Pets may also be allergic to flea saliva and this may cause a condition called flea allergy dermatitis
- Anaemia: when fleas feed they ingest the pets blood, with severe infestations this can lead to anaemia. Clinically your pet may have pale gums or they may become lethargic. Prompt veterinary attention is required
- Transmission of other parasites: fleas are intermediate hosts for other parasites including Dipylidium caninum (tapeworm). Tapeworm segments can appear as small grains of rice in your pets stool.
- Disease transmission: fleas are capable of transmitting other organisms that may results in Murine Typhus or Cat Scratch Disease
Eliminate premises infestation
If your pet has fleas, you may wish to consider environmental decontamination, this process should be focused on where your pet spends most of their time (their bed, kennel etc). Some helpful hints include:
- Regular vacuuming- make sure you empty the vacuum cleaner cannister or bag – this will assist with discarding immature fleas
- Bedding- wash bedding weekly, preferably with hot water and after washing, the bedding should be dried in the dryer
- Carpets- steam cleaning will help to eliminate immature fleas
- Consider a pest control professional for the exterior of your property
The life cycle of a flea
On average, an individual adult flea only survives on a host for a few weeks, however as they start reproducing within days, flea numbers can rapidly build up resulting in a severe infestation.
The typical life cycle of a flea, or the time it takes for fleas to reproduce and develop, takes around a month, but may be as long as a year or more.
Understanding the flea life stages is integral to controlling them.
One of the main reasons why fleas are so hard to get rid of is the pupal stage. As pupae, fleas can lay dormant for many months. For this reason, these horrible parasites can suddenly appear in a house that has been clean and flea free for some time. The good news is that with proper flea control, it is possible to break the flea life cycle.
Adult female fleas lay their eggs on the skin or fur of their host animal after they have enjoyed a good feed of blood. The tiny, light-coloured, oval eggs fall from the dog's coat into the environment, where they take between two days and two weeks to hatch.
Larvae grow inside the eggs until they are ready to hatch. When they emerge, they are just a few millimetres in length and worm-like in appearance. They eat what organic matter they can find as they develop through a number of stages, the final of which produces a sticky cocoon called a pupa.
The sticky pupa attracts debris from the environment which helps to protect it. Inside, the pre-emerged flea can develop in less than 10 days. However, depending on environmental conditions, they can remain in this stage anywhere from 6-12 months before emerging. Pupae are normally found deep in carpets or underneath organic debris and so they can be difficult to find and get rid of.
Adult fleas are the biting parasites we are all familiar with. This stage emerges from the pupa when they detect a nearby host, due to temperature increases, vibrations or increased carbon dioxide levels. Newly emerged adult fleas are ready to begin feeding within minutes of finding a host, with new eggs produced within 1 or 2 days of feeding.
- “Dr Flea” Accessed on 25.11.20
- Purina, “Flea and tick prevention”, Accessed on 25.11.20
- DVM 360, “ How to conquer these blood-feeding, egg-laying machines” Accessed on 25.11.20
- Vet Derm, Allergy Ears and Skin Specialists, “Flea bite pet allergies, what to be aware of”, Accessed on 27.11.20
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