Flea Infestation: Truths You Need to Know
If You've Seen One - It is Only the Tip of the Iceberg
Fleas. That word is enough to make you feel itchy all over. They may be tiny but they present a tremendous challenge and a great deal of danger. If you have noticed them on your dog or cat, or are getting bites around your ankles, your flea infestation nightmare has just begun. This is especially true if you live in a place where it is warm and humid, because that is just what fleas love. Their favorite temperature is 70° with 70% humidity.
If it is summertime and you think the fleas have just come out, think again. They have been there all along, hibernating, and actually started emerging in March or April. In addition, for every flea you see, there are nearly a hundred immature fleas in various stages of development hidden somewhere nearby. They are practically indestructible and are vectors for diseases, including Murine Typhus and the Bubonic plague. They can also give animals and people tapeworms. Prevention is the best cure, even if you have no pets. Once the fleas have set up housekeeping, there are several things you need to do, and not just once, to get rid of them and keep them at bay.
In the Beginning
To understand what it will take to get your flea problem under control, you first need to understand the world of the flea. The flea starts out as an egg – one of up to 50 a female can lay in a day, and one of 600 she can lay in her lifetime of about 9 months. These eggs will develop over the next six weeks to eight months. They are usually laid in the hair of an animal and they drop out easily onto any area where the creature rests or scratches. A large number of animals can carry fleas, including squirrels, chickens, rabbits, mice, foxes, raccoons and domesticated pets. Eggs flourish in dark, moist, or hidden areas. This can include places like under bushes and furniture, in tall or tangled plant growth, and in crevices. Sand and gravel are especially suitable for flea development as well.
Flea Eggs, Larvae and Pupae
The eggs hatch out as early as two days later and as late as two weeks after being laid. Blind larvae emerge that avoid light and will go through three stages of growth in areas such as moist, sandy soil, crawlspaces under houses, flooring, under furniture, in carpet and in bedding. They feed on flea feces, which are made up of digested blood that the adult flea fed on. They also feed on any type of organic debris, including bits of hair and feathers or sloughed off dead skin. If tapeworm eggs are available, flea larvae will feed on them, as well. Because they are hard to see and stay out of the light, they are very hard to track down.
Once the larvae have gone through all of their growth stages, they weave a cocoon and turn into pupae. The cocoon is sticky and things like small fibers, hairs, yard clippings and even dust cling to it, camouflaging it. The pupa grows for anywhere from five to fourteen days and then becomes an adult flea ready to hatch out. They don’t always hatch out right away, however. They can stay in a stage of hibernation for many months, including the winter months.
All Grown Up
Adult fleas in cocoons are ready to pop out when the moment is just right. They wait until they detect vibrations, which occur when people or animals move around near them, or until there is pressure from an animal or person laying on them. They are also sensitive to heat and can easily detect carbon dioxide. These things signal to the flea that a blood meal is available and they will immediately hatch and seek their food. Even if they make a mistake and blood is not present, they can live for up to a week. They must have a blood meal to survive and reproduce but not having it does not always mean they will die right away. They can also go into a state of hibernation that can last for up to a year.
A hatched flea is a hungry and determined flea. They look for things that are moving and can jump up as high as 100 times their own body length. But jumping high isn’t really their forte. They can also jump as far as 200 times their own body length. They will land on animals or humans, including on the pant legs and shoes. They bite by making two or three punctures in the skin, suck the blood and leave red, itchy bumps on the skin. The bites itch because of the body’s allergic reaction to the flea’s saliva. Some people and animals have more severe reactions than others, and this is only the beginning of the threat that fleas present.
Fleas and Disease
Aside from skin irritation and the loss of hair due to excessive scratching, infection can also be the result. In domestic pets, the hair loss and skin irritation can be mistaken for other diseases. If, in the course of scratching and biting, an animal accidentally swallows a flea that has been feeding on tapeworm eggs, tapeworms will begin to grow in the animal’s gut. Children can accidentally ingest fleas as well, and can get tapeworms from handling infected animals or coming into contact with infected animal waste and putting their hands into their mouths.
Fleas can also transmit bacteria, such as Bacteria Rikettsia Typhi, Murine Typhus and the Bubonic plague. These are most commonly transmitted by the oriental rat flea and the cat flea and they come from the waste of the flea. When the host scratches, and breaks the skin, the bacteria enters the body. Symptoms of these illnesses include fever, swollen lymph nodes and headaches, so can often be mistaken for other, more common illnesses. These diseases must be treated with antibiotics and are usually curable, but can also be deadly.
As the flea feeds, it quickly digests and produces waste. This waste is called flea dirt. It is hard and grainy and when there is enough of it around, it can be seen with the naked eye. If you think your pet has fleas, check for flea dirt around the crotch area and underneath the tail. If you experience a flea infestation and do get it under control, check your hair and the hair of your small children carefully for flea dirt and residual fleas. Remember that flea larvae feed on flea dirt, and this is how the cycle of the flea’s life can begin again. Remember, however, that the adult flea population is only the tip of the iceberg. The real threat comes from the remaining 95% that are in various stages of immaturity. And one female flea that survives can, over the course of her lifetime, spawn approximately one trillion offspring.
Confronting and Controlling Inside and Outside
Don’t lose heart now that you understand the magnitude of the problem. Relief from a flea infestation in your house is possible. Of course, you will have to take drastic measures, and work at it for a long time, but it will be worth it in the end.
You may be wondering, “Where do I start?” Believe it or not, it starts outdoors. Since fleas live on wild animals and stray animals, and can be lying around the yard in their various stages of life, measures should be taken to reduce and control the flea population outside. This includes keeping the grass neatly mowed and raking up any organic debris regularly. It also means you need to get rid of any tangles of brush where animals can hide, and any food or shelter sources for wild animals and strays. Chemical or organic pest control and repellent products should be used regularly in the yard and especially around the exterior of the house. These preventative measures should begin in March and go on until the temperatures drop significantly. If you have never done this, and you already have a flea problem in the house, you will need to deal with it swiftly.
Flea population control indoors also starts with prevention and the very first step in keeping fleas away is cleanliness. Regular vacuuming, sweeping and carpet steam-cleaning, especially under furniture, are a must, even if you do not have pets. Some people swear by Borax for flea control, but the makers of Borax do not specifically say that it can be used for that. Investigate before trying it, to make sure it will not harm pets or children. Flea powder can be shaken onto the carpet, allowed to sit for a period of time, and then thoroughly vacuumed up. All bedding, pet and human should be removed, washed and dried. Foggers can be used but using them is a process in itself, be sure to read and follow all directions carefully. Every dish and utensil, all your food and all of your clean linens would need to be bagged up, fish tanks removed, and so on. Then afterward, all surfaces would have to be washed down. Still, a fogger will not necessarily eliminate or kill fleas under furniture or in crevices in hard-to-reach places. For carpet flea control, if you are careful with it, you can put a very small amount of Dawn dish liquid in your carpet cleaning machine instead of the carpet cleaning soap. Dawn is great for killing fleas in all stages of development.
Controlling Fleas on your Pets
Even after you have thoroughly powdered, cleaned, sprayed, fogged or whatever you choose to do, remember that some eggs, larvae and pupae will survive and eventually hatch out. Keep vacuuming, cleaning, spraying or powdering regularly, and you will at least keep the flea population to a minimum. If you have pets, you will need to take steps to control fleas on them as well.
Flea powder can be used on animals but there are dangers with this, so read all directions and do your homework before you decide to use it. Flea and tick shampoos can provide immediate relief, but may not get the immature fleas. They can also be harsh and need to be followed up with a moisturizer. Dawn dish liquid can be used to wash animals and works will kill fleas like crazy. It is used on wildlife for a number of things and is relatively safe. It does, however, remove the natural oils from the skin, so you would need to follow up with a moisturizer.
Next, take preventative measures. Wait about a day or two for the animal’s natural oils to build back up and then apply a spot treatment like Frontline or Advantage. Flea collars can be useful too, but be sure to read all directions and again, shop around, some are better than others, some are safer. You might also want to mist on some kind of natural repellant when the animal is going outside. Eucalyptus, cedar oil, lemongrass and lavender are all good for this. Use caution with any products you put on your animals, as they could be sensitive to any one of them.
And they Lived Happily Ever After
After you have completed your aggressive flea eradication campaign, do not rest on your laurels. Some stragglers will undoubtedly be lurking in some dark corner. Maintain your yard, sweep, vacuum and clean carpets religiously. Remember to get under furniture and rugs inside and underneath hedges outside. Give your pets baths weekly and use safe and effective flea prevention products. As a final preventative measure, you can make a homemade flea trap to monitor your progress. This is simply a shallow dish of Dawn dish liquid and water placed under a nightlight overnight. Fleas will jump in and drown. In the end, you and your animals will have a happier, safer summer and all of your efforts will pay off as you enjoy a flea-free house and yard.