Understanding And Coping With Fleas

By Dan Becker


We have all seen them and felt them. We have watched our pets suffer from them. WeÕve cursed them. We have spent tons of money to get professionals to fumigate our homes and weÕve even threatened to burn down our homes to get rid of them, and in the end all anyone can do is stand back and say ÒWhen I die the first question IÕm going to ask God is "What good are fleas?"Ó

Well, IÕm not God, and I have yet to find out what good fleas do in the universe, but maybe this article will help you to understand fleas, and through that understanding be able to cope with them better.

There are more than 2,000 known species of fleas, but for the purpose of this discussion I will limit myself to the Dog Flea (Ctenocephalides canis) and the Cat Flea (Ctenocephalides felis).

These names are misleading: cat fleas live on dogs, too, and in fact, the dog flea is actually less of a problem in the US than the cat flea. The dog flea occurs in the moist climates and is problem to dogs and rabbits in these areas but is rarely found on cats.

The cat flea, on the other hand, can live on cats and dogs all year long, but is most prevalent during the hot summer months. Other host animals include opossums, foxes, mongooses, and rats. As many of us know they also eagerly attack and feed on humans.

During the last twenty years fleas have become more of a problem. The most notable reasons for this are that we no longer use Chlordane as a general-use lawn pesticide, and with the use of man-made fibers for carpeting, the use of hydrocarbons for mothproofing has all but ceased. Hydrocarbons were long-lasting and kept pests of all kinds in control.


Fleas go through a complete metamorphosis, which means they go through four stages of life.

Egg Stage: The adult female lays a single, oval egg on your pet. Since the egg is not fastened, it can fall off, usually, but not always, in the petÕs sleeping area. You may find eggs on the petÕs bedding, in floor crevices, and around the edge of carpeting where dirt and lint collect. An egg is about the size of a pin head. A warm, humid place provides the most favorable conditions for hatching.

Larval Stage: If the relative humidity is 50%, the egg will hatch in about 10 days. If the humidity is as high as 90%, it will hatch in about 5 days. The small, white, eyeless, legless, maggot-like larvae can wriggle and move around. The larvae, which are slightly smaller than a grain of rice, live on the organic matter in their environment, the stuff we leave when we clean and vacuum our homes and our pets' bedding. The larval stage usually lasts 7-15 days, but can last for several months if the environmental conditions are not right for further development to occur.

Pupa Stage: towards the end of the Larval stage the larva wraps itself in a cocoon of small pieces of debris and organic sediment. This will hide the cocoon in its natural surroundings. This stage typically lasts 7-10 days, but can last as long as 20 weeks, again depending on conditions, after which the adult flea emerges.

Adult Stage: The adult flea has substantial body reserves and can live for months without feeding if there are no hosts available. But once a host becomes available the flea will start feeding immediately. And flea bits itch. Most people with pets have seen the constant chewing and scratching that, in the worst cases, results in large, raw, bleeding areas on the side or underside of the pet. Adult fleas live anywhere from a few days to several months. As we all know from experience, they are most prevalent in late summer into fall.


In the Middle Ages Bubonic Plague--spread by rats infected by fleas--killed tens of millions of people. It is now estimated that 10 million people have died of plague in the last 100 years. Most of these deaths have occurred in Asia, but a few still occur in the US. More common, though, in the United States, is Murine Typhus, which is also spread to humans by way of rodents infected by fleas. This disease is most common to the Gulf states and the southwest but is said to be spreading northward.


There are no guaranteed methods of ridding your home and pets of fleas. There are ways, however, to make your life and your petÕs life more bearable.

Vacuuming is the first and most important step to flea control. Vacuum all carpeted areas and all upholstered furniture. DonÕt forget to remove all pillows and cushions and vacuum them also. As you vacuum pay very close attention to the areas around your baseboards, the corners, and around and under all furniture. Once you have done this, remove the vacuum bag immediately and get it out of the house. Then vacuum again, and again remove the bag. In some cases the vacuum bag can provide a breeding ground, and fleas can escape back through the hose and back into your house.

The next step is to scrub all non-carpeted areas where your pet may rest. This includes window sills, head boards, tiled floors, appliance tops and cement floors and patios. A hot, soapy water solution is best. You may also add some bleach to this solution. DO NOT MIX BLEACH AND AMMONIA.

While you are destroying your home you should take your pet to your veterinarian or groomer to be flea-dipped. If you donÕt do this at the same time all of your time and money will be wasted.

Remember that doing this once will probably not be enough. You should follow this routine at least monthly during severe infestations. There is no cure-all, but through regular maintenance your life, and the life of your pet will be much more enjoyable and healthy.

If your problem is out of control even after all of these efforts--and that perception is different with everybody--then you need the help of a reliable, professional pest control company. Follow their advice to the letter.

In addition to the above you can treat your pet medically. One treatment involves giving your pet a pill once a month. When your pet is bitten by a female flea the active ingredient is ingested and passed into the eggs which are then killed, thus breaking the life cycle of the flea. An alternative treatment involves rubbing a liquid into your petÕs fur and down to the skin level. The active ingredient causes the nervous system of the flea to fail thus causing the flea to die. In either case it is necessary to consult your veterinarian and he or she can help you decide which system is best for you and your pet.

I hope that this article is informative and helpful. It is not my intent to endorse one method or product over another but to present all methods and let you, the pet owner, decide which works best for you and your pet. Always talk with your veterinarian and let him help you decide which combinations will work for you.


I have tried to format this article so that it can be reprinted in whole or in part for newsletters, pamphlets and any other method that will help. No permission is needed to reprint any portion of this article although I would appreciate being notified if you use this anywhere just to satisfy my own curiosity . You can e-mail me at pturtle@earthlink.net. Feel free to e-mail any questions or comments.

I would like to thank Harry Connoyer of Veatch Chemical Co. of St. Louis for helping me gather the information needed for this article. Also, a special thank you to Sue Ruff for volunteering to help me put this on paper so that it made sense.

Dan Becker

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