In the world of pest control, perhaps the most common issue comes in the form of the tiny flea. There is a huge market for various collars, shampoos, and other weapons to combat this enemy. But why is there so much focus on fleas, why do they tend to reappear soon after an extermination, and what can you do to eliminate them on a more permanent basis from your home?
Where do These Fleas Keep Coming From?
Unlike many other types of parasite, the source of an infestation isn’t always obvious. Fleas have numerous ways to enter the home, much like other parasites. However, they are also capable of hibernating undetected in your home, waiting for the right moment to reappear. Exterminating the adults does not clear an infestation, making it vital to understand how fleas develop if you are planning to get rid of them on your own.
Fleas are known to hitch a ride on humans or pets, usually without being noticed. This is especially true if you have visited an infested building. They are also common in outdoor areas with tall grass or woods where wild animals are common. Fleas are attracted by the smell of blood and can squeeze through very small cracks in your home, making it difficult to avoid them during warm weather.
Signs of Fleas
You may have an infestation without even noticing it. Adult fleas are the most obvious sign, but as adults make up five percent or less of a flea population, spotting one means you’ve missed at least 19 more. Luckily, there are three other signs of flea activity which are easy to spot once you know what to look for.
- Flea bites are easy to identify, as they’re little round red spots on the skin. You may find them on your own skin or on pets while grooming them.
- Flea dirt is the common name for the solid waste left by fleas after a meal. These tiny granules are actually digested blood. Testing suspicious specks of dirt is easy. Simply place it on a damp paper towel, and if it’s blood, it will melt into a reddish spot.
- Flea eggs are the other giveaway. These little white objects are a little smaller than grains of salt or sand and tend to be found in clusters. Regularly grooming your pet will allow you to spot any eggs under their fur or caught by brushes.
Understanding the Flea Life Cycle
In many cases, a flea infestation may remain undetected for months or even years. Fleas have a four-phase life cycle that is based on food availability. Understanding this life cycle will help you prevent flea outbreaks caused by hidden fleas.
1. The Egg Stage
As long as they have a meal of blood to fuel reproduction, adult fleas will lay up to 40 eggs per day. These tiny white eggs are smaller than a grain of sand and are easily overlooked if you aren’t looking for them. Usually laid in groups of 20 in your pet’s fur, the eggs can be easily dislodged and land on the floor or other surfaces. Eggs can take as much as two weeks to hatch if the weather’s cold, but if the environment is hot and humid, they can hatch in as little as two days.
Exterminations most often fail because eggs aren’t affected by the extermination method. As they can make up as much as half of your home’s flea population, it is important to be ready for a resurgence.
2. The Larval Stage
Flea larvae eat organic debris, including flea dirt. This stage can last between five and 20 days, and the translucent white, half-inch larvae are relatively harmless but often difficult to spot.
3. The Pupal Stage
The biggest issue with extermination comes from the pupal stage. Flea pupae can hatch adults in as little as a few days. The cocoon’s coating allows it to stick to carpets and prevent chemicals from affecting the developing adult. If conditions are hostile; or a food source is not detected by heat, vibration, or CO2 levels; the developing adult may remain in hibernation for as long as two years.
4. The Adult Stage
Often the first sign of an infestation to be noticed, adult fleas feed off of blood and use their meals to reproduce. They are able to jump as high as one foot into the air and are difficult to kill by hand. Adults must feed within a few hours after hatching and breed soon afterwards. An adult female begins laying eggs within a few days, provided she’s eaten.
The Dangers of Fleas
Fleas are generally considered a nuisance to pet owners, causing itchy red spots and making your pets scratch themselves, often enough to break skin or pull out patches of fur. Yet fleas are capable of killing animals and even humans under the right conditions. They can also multiply quickly, making the risks higher every day an infestation remains.
An adult flea’s diet of blood makes them natural transmitters for a number of diseases, most famously the bacteria Yersinia pestis that causes bubonic plague. While not common, cases of bubonic plague are still occurring worldwide. Fleas may also produce allergic reactions, and large infestations have been known to result in infant deaths or complications to people who have weakened immune systems or anemia.
Adult fleas require a large amount of blood to survive, feeding multiple times per day. Larger infestations will swarm your pets, and can easily kill puppies, kittens, and older animals. Even a healthy adult dog can become anemic if there are a large number of fleas feeding off of it.
Methods of Removal
Just as there are many ways for an infestation to occur, there are numerous ways to combat fleas. Some are quick and inexpensive, some last for months, and others must be repeated over a period of time. Your home should always be treated before the pet, as most of the infestation can be found in carpets or crevasses. Which methods you choose will often be a matter of personal preference and budget.
It is strongly suggested that you vacuum thoroughly and frequently throughout the home during an infestation, discarding the bags or emptying canisters immediately to get rid of any eggs, larvae, or adults which were caught. Vacuums are not effective against pupae, which can adhere to surfaces.
Chemical DIY Methods
There are several types of chemical remedies out there, from spray to shampoos. Some work, while others don’t. Working with chemicals should always be accompanied by caution, as many of these will also poison your pet. Note that most of these remedies will only affect the fleas on your pet and will not eliminate those elsewhere in your home.
- Flea baths are a good way to kill all of the fleas on your pet and temporarily make them unattractive to other fleas. These baths can be poisonous if digested, and great care must be taken while dipping to prevent fleas from running to your pet’s face and entering the ears, eyes, and nose. Also make sure to work the shampoo or dip into the fur so it reaches the skin, as fleas are more likely to be found there.
- Flea bombs are one of the most effective weapons against an infestation. You will need to read the instructions on the package carefully, remove any food from the area, and make sure your two- and four-legged family members are all out of the house during the bombing process. Note that additional bombs must be used after a period of time to kill larvae or emerging adults.
- Flea collars are one of the most common methods of fighting fleas. Unfortunately, collars are rarely effective and should never be used on their own. This method is best used when outdoors to help deter fleas from hitching a ride on your pet.
- Flea drops are an excellent defense against fleas, but have a few important drawbacks. Applied at the ruff to keep pets from getting to the spot, the drops may take up to two days to fully absorb and must be reapplied monthly. Additionally, you must be careful not to disturb the area during this period. The good news is that flea drops instantly kill fleas as soon as they bite your pet and will also kill the eggs of fleas and other pests.
- Flea pills are available at different strengths and fed to your pet orally. These have a major advantage over topical solutions as they aren’t toxic to your pet.
- Flea powders are pesticides which kill any fleas in your pet’s fur for as long as it remains there. Unfortunately, this is a toxic substance and easily digested if your pet licks it off their fur.
- Flea spray is another option for house-wide extermination. Unlike flea bombs, the spray affects all stages of growth, making it less likely you will need to apply it multiple times.
- Flea traps are similar to other insect traps and work by luring both larvae and adults onto a sticky disposable sheet. While these have no effect on eggs or pupae, they can still help reduce the population throughout your home.
Natural Home Remedies
There are several natural treatments against fleas, some of which work only on humans, pets, or the home. They also take longer to work than chemicals, but may be preferable if you cannot remove everyone from your home long enough to use bombs.
- Boric acid has low toxicity and can kill fleas for up to a month once applied. Simply fill an empty spice container (make sure to label it!) and vacuum the room you wish to use it in. Remove any toys, shoes, or other objects, then sprinkle the boric acid onto the carpet. Once a thin layer is on the floor, work it in with a soft brush. After letting it sit for 24 to 48 hours, vacuum the room again. You can also use boric acid on furniture, but be sure to test it first, as it can discolor fabrics.
- Cleanliness can go a long way towards reducing an infestation and preventing new ones. Regular vacuuming, keeping your lawn short, and keeping linens clean all help. If you are currently dealing with an infestation, daily cleaning can have a major effect on the flea population.
- Flea combs have the ability to remove fleas from your pet’s fur, as well as eggs and flea dirt.
- Garlic is toxic to many pets, but can be safely digested by humans. Fleas are repelled by the smell of ingested garlic on your skin, making this a good way to avoid bites or picking up fleas when outdoors.
- Natural flea control sprays are a good alternative to chemical sprays, although they take longer to eliminate an infestation.
- Natural flea traps can be made by placing plates or bowls on the floor. Fill these with warm water and a bit of Dawn dish soap (which is non-toxic to pets). Then place a tea light candle in the middle and light it. The light and heat will attract fleas which then drown in the viscous water.
- Nematodes are tiny organisms that live in soil and devour a variety of pests, including fleas. Available in garden centers, you can spray nematodes into your yard to help prevent fleas from breeding outside.
- Planting basil, catnip, lemongrass, mint, rosemary or sage will repel fleas due to the natural oils they excrete.
Sometimes it’s best to leave the job up to a professional. This option tends to be more expensive, but a good exterminator will eliminate fleas of all life stages and help you plan a strategy for preventing future infestations. As a general rule, always shop around and check the reputations of your potential exterminators before hiring.