There are nearly 2,000 species and subspecies of fleas, but the one commonly found on dogs and cats is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis). You have probably seen these little dark brown or black 1 to 3 millimeters long critters.
A flea is tiny. However, it has three pairs of legs that allow it to jump up to two feet in a single bound. Plus, fleas can jump 10,000 times in a row. That is the length of three football fields! It is no problem for a flea to leap onto your dog as he passes tall grass, a bush, or another dog that is harboring the little pest.
Flea Life Cycle
The life cycle of a flea can be as short as 14 days or as long as 21 months. Eggs hatch and grow to adulthood quickly if environmental conditions are right. If circumstances are not suitable, eggs can stay on your pet or fall onto carpeting, bedding, furniture, or outdoors where they hatch into larvae. These tiny worm-like creatures form a cocoon and bide their time for weeks or months until environmental conditions are favorable.
Once hatched, a female can begin laying eggs within two days of her first blood meal. She can produce up to 2,000 eggs that will mature into more breeding adults. One female flea on your dog or cat can multiply to 100,000 fleas in 30 days!
Once settled on a dog, fleas feed once or twice every day or two. They tend to just hang out on your friend between meals. You will probably see a flea hopping here and there on your dog if some have chosen your pet as a host. There are other signs that fleas have decided to call your pet home.
A pet that repeatedly scratches and chews at themselves is sending a signal to check for fleas. You can confirm the presence of fleas on your dog by standing them on white paper and brushing their coat opposite to the way it grows.
Tiny black specks that fall on the paper are probably flea dirt or flea feces. Place a wet paper towel on the specks. Flea feces contain some of the blood ingested by the little beasties, and the dirt will turn red. No color change indicates plain dirt. Your friend may just need a bath.
Fleas on your pet means fleas in your home. As a first line of defense, vacuum regularly, paying special attention to rugs, corners, under furniture, and under cushions on furniture. Vacuuming picks fleas up but does not kill them. They can live in the vacuum bag, so place it in a sealed plastic bag before tossing it. Launder pet bedding at least once a week. You have just begun the battle.
Americans spend about $9 billion a year on products to control fleas that infest their pets, homes, and yards. If your pet has fleas, you will probably join this crew. Your veterinarian is your best advisor. They can prescribe a product best suited for your pet. Some products tackle adult fleas only, while some kill adults and/or their eggs.
Products that prevent eggs from hatching break the life cycle of the flea. These are not a good choice for animals that are sensitive to flea saliva since the adult fleas are not affected and are still able to bite the pet.
You will want to treat your home and yard. In severe cases, infestation of fleas may necessitate the use of insecticide sprays or foggers that require temporary evacuation of the house. Treating the yard may be done with insecticide sprays or the use of nematodes, which are nontoxic microscopic worms that feed on flea larvae.
Hopefully, regular application of veterinary prescribed flea prevention products will safeguard you against a flea infestation on your pet and in your home. Take immediate action if you find fleas on your pet. Contact your vet and follow their advice. It’s you against the fleas. Good luck and happy flea control!
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C. Sue Furman, Ph.D. spent 40 years at several major universities including the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences teaching future physicians and veterinarians and conducting research involving nerve and muscle. Learn more about Dr. C. Sue Furman here.