Without proper prevention and treatment, fleas can and will infest your pets and your home. Find out how to get rid of fleas to keep your pets comfortable and safe. Better yet, learn how to prevent fleas in the first place.
The Life Cycle of Fleas
Fleas are able to easily infest homes and pets due to their rapid reproduction rate and cleverly evolved life cycle. The flea life cycle has four stages: Adult, Egg, Larva, and Pupa.
Adult fleas live on their hosts and feed on their blood. They have flat bodies and strong back legs for jumping. Fleas defecate their blood meals, leaving tiny black particles of digested blood on the host until they fall off and remain in the environment. Adult fleas live for about four to six weeks. Females begin to lay eggs a day or two after feeding and can lay between 20-40 eggs each day. Adult fleas only make up about 5 percent of the total population of fleas.
Eggs are laid on the host and fall off, ending up in carpets, upholstery, floorboards, etc. They hatch about two days later. Eggs represent about half of the flea population present in the environment.
The worm-like larvae emerge from newly hatched eggs and feed upon flea feces in the environment. Over five to 15 days, larvae molt three times before spinning cocoons to enter the pupal stage. Larvae comprise about 35 percent of the flea population.
Inside the cocoon, the pupae begin to transform into fleas. The adult flea can emerge as soon a few days later. However, they can remain dormant for many months while waiting for a host. The cocooned flea senses motion, heat, and carbon dioxide and will only emerge when a host is detected. This explains why you can go from seeing no fleas to suddenly seeing tons of fleas. Pupae represent about 10 percent of the flea population.
Most Effective Flea Control Methods
It can feel overwhelming to have a flea infestation in your home. Fortunately, there are ways to fight fleas in your home and on your pets. It just takes some time and effort.
The most important thing to do is make sure all pets in your home are medicated with an effective flea treatment. Your veterinarian is the best source of this information. Pet flea control usually comes in oral or topical forms. Educate yourself about the many flea prevention products on the market. Then, talk to your vet about the best options for you and your pet.
Flea baths are temporary solutions and should not be used in lieu of proper flea control products. Although a flea bath will kill fleas on your pet, it will not prevent the fleas from quickly returning. In addition, the chemicals in flea baths can be harsh for pets.
To end an infestation, use an effective flea control treatment on your pets for at least three months in a row. For best results, keep your pets on a flea control product year round.
Once you have treated your pet with an effective flea control product, the next thing you'll need to do is clean your home thoroughly. Three out of four stages in the flea's life cycle are spent off of the host. Flea eggs, larvae, and pupae are in your carpets, hardwood floors, upholstery, and pet bedding. In order to prevent infestations (and especially re-infestations), it is important to treat the environment for fleas. This begins with cleaning.
Thoroughly vacuum the carpets and floors and immediately empty the dust bin, or discard the bag, outside of your home. Use attachments to vacuum all the nooks and crannies in your home, including behind furniture, floorboards, upholstery, and any hard-to-reach places. For better results, try sprinkling boric acid on floors, carpets, and upholstery. Let it sit for an hour or more, then thoroughly vacuum. Boric acid removes moisture from flea eggs, larva, and pupae, making it easier to vacuum them up.
Machine wash as many items as you can in hot water, using bleach when possible. This includes all bedding and any other washable materials. Repeat the vacuuming and washing every few days starting after you have treated your pets. Once you see some results, you can decrease vacuuming and washing to every week or so.
If you feel you need a boost to eradicate the fleas, you can try treating your home with a product designed to kill fleas. Make sure it is pet-safe and proven effective.
Flea bombs and household sprays are typically not necessary though some people prefer to use them for major infestations. Remember the host, your pet, is what allows the fleas to continue their life cycle. Treating your pet with effective flea prevention is the most important measure.
Some people choose to also treat the exteriors of their homes and yards for fleas. When doing so, please remember to use products that are safe for pets. Because of the flea life cycle, exterior treatment should be done once a week for four weeks, then monthly for maintenance. Note that you and your pet may still pick up the occasional flea.
Diatomaceous earth is a fine, soft powder made from the remains of diatoms, a type of algae. Diatomaceous earth particles have microscopic jagged edges that are made of silica. These sharp edges damage the exoskeletons of many insects, including fleas.
Be sure to purchase food-grade diatomaceous earth for use in and around your home. When using diatomaceous earth, it's best to wear gloves and a face mask as the tiny particles can irritate and dry up the airway and mucous membranes. In small amounts, this is not harmful to people or pets, especially once the dust settles.
Note that diatomaceous earth is not effective if wet. This makes it less effective in humid environments.
Black Pepper Spots on Pets
Have you ever noticed little black specks on your pet's fur that look like black pepper? Flea dirt is the fecal material of fleas and consists mainly of dried animal blood. On close examination, flea dirt will have a reddish-black appearance. To confirm it is actually flea dirt, try putting the debris on a white paper towel and wetting it slightly. You will see that it runs reddish-brown.
Flea dirt can be removed by using a flea comb or giving your pet a bath. However, flea dirt will reappear until to rid your home of fleas.
The only way to truly eradicate a flea problem is to have your pet treated with an effective flea control product. Cleaning and treating your home can minimize fleas and prevent major infestations, but this alone will not rid your pet of fleas.
Pet flea prevention comes in many forms, some better than others. Certain products work well together while others have the same ingredients that will result in adverse side effects and should not be used at the same time. Some are only available with a prescription while others come over-the-counter.
Many years ago, flea shampoos, dips, and sprays were standard treatments for fleas. Now, the most effective products come in the form of a pill, topical "spot-on' application, or collar. Older products are less effective than the newer treatment options. This is because of the flea's rapid life cycle, which allowed them to develop immunity to the less effective products over time.
Rather than relying on cheap products or unnecessary flea baths, choose a proven effective product based on your vet's recommendation. Use it regularly as recommended without fail. It usually takes at least three months of religiously applied effective flea control to eradicate a flea problem. Combine this with thorough cleaning and vacuuming of your home. If needed or desired, treat your home and yard with a pet-safe flea killing agent.
Check your pets daily for evidence of fleas. The best way to detect fleas is by using a flea comb. The teeth on these small combs are very close together and designed to travel through hair, picking up everything on the coat. Use the comb all over your pet's body, but pay close attention to the lower back around the tail, as this is a common "flea-zone." Your flea control is not effective if you are still seeing fleas and flea dirt within the first week of using pet flea control. Ask your vet for an alternative product.
Fleas can cause intense itching in pets, which is especially pronounced in pets with allergies to flea bites. Itchy pets scratch and bite their skin, leading to further irritation and hair loss. Pets are at risk for developing secondary skin infections that require medical intervention.
Don't assume that fleas are the primary cause of your pet's skin issues. Your pet may have a skin condition that is exacerbated by fleas. Or, your pet may be free of fleas and have a skin condition that is completely unrelated to fleas. Always consult your vet if you notice lingering skin issues with your pet.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats. Merck Veterinary Manual.