Fleas really are interesting little insects, but they can make our pets (and us) miserable with every bite. Learning more about these creatures can aid us in our quest to rid our animals of fleas.
There are a few different species of flea which can affect our animals, but the most common type which feeds on both dogs and cats is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides cati. Like other insects, fleas have a hard exoskeleton (shell), but unlike most insects, they can jump up to ten inches high! This is amazing, considering fleas only reach the size of 1 millimeter long. Fleas are happiest on our pets or other wild animals. Using their adaptive mouthparts, fleas drink blood to nourish themselves. When they defecate, this excrement is left on the animal, often known as 'flea dirt'. This 'flea dirt' looks like curly pepper has been sprinkled on your pet, close to the skin. The best place to find this debris would be looking at the base of the neck or base of the tail. When this debris is seen on a wet paper towel and a few water droplets applied, it turns a red or brownish colour because it is actually digested blood!
The flea life cycle takes about 4 weeks for the flea to develop through the stages of egg, pupae, larvae, and finally into an adult flea. The adult flea jumps on our dogs or cats either from being exposed to other animals who have fleas, or from being exposed to premises infested with pupae. For example, stray dogs or cats, opossums and raccoons often have fleas, which can jump off the animal and lay eggs on the ground outside. Personally, my sister worked at a second-hand store and had four indoor-only cats at home. This store was a high risk environment for obtaining fleas, which hitched a ride on her in order to infest her pets at home. Sneaky little things.
Often, flea infestations are compared to icebergs. The number of adult fleas seen on the animal only represents about 5% of the flea life cycle in the environment, the tip of the iceberg. That means, 95% of the life cycle is made up of immature stages which will contribute to thousands of new adults in a few short weeks.
Flea bites are extremely itchy, especially if your dog or cat has an allergy to the saliva in flea bites! Dogs use their hind legs to scratch at their neck, and use their mouth to bite at themselves. Cats can be more difficult to find fleas on since they are professional groomers, they tend to lick and bite at the itchy areas and eat the fleas. By this point, the fleas have laid eggs on the animal, so grooming will not get rid of the flea infestation. Interestingly, fleas can contain tapeworm eggs in their own intestinal tract. When the fleas are eaten by cats, dogs, (or humans!), the tapeworm eggs can hatch and form tapeworms in the dog or cat's intestinal tract.
Often, the vet will recommend to bring in a fresh fecal sample (less than 24 hours old) to send away for testing to see if your animal has picked up tapeworms and needs deworming medication. At home, owners may notice "rice" like segments on the fur around the pets bum and base of tail. These are a small egg filled portion, or segment, of the tapeworm in the intestines.
Since fleas drink blood, with each flea a certain amount of blood is ingested. Increase the number of fleas, we increase the amount of blood being removed from your dog or cat each day they are infested. In severe infestations, we have seen animals become anemic (have low numbers of red blood cells) because of the fleas. Anemia can progress to other life threatening conditions as well.
So, what can we do about fleas?
There are two ways to target fleas, using a monthly preventative medication, or treating the infestations as the animal get the fleas. It is easier to prevent than to treat, but of course it all depends on the risk of picking up the parasite, and the owners concerns as well.umber of fleas, we increase the amount of blood being removed from your dog or cat each day they are infested. In severe infestations, we have seen animals become anemic (have low numbers of red blood cells) because of the fleas. Anemia can progress to other life threatening conditions as well.
There are a few different forms of flea medications on the market, which target a specific point of the life cycle. In general terms, there are medications which target and kill the adult flea (adulticides), or medication which targets the immature stages by inhibiting the eggs from hatching or pupae/larvae from fully developing and becoming adults. The majority of the flea medications at your veterinarian will contain adulticides, which will stop the flea life cycle by killing the adult form which produces the eggs. Due to the duration of the flea life cycle, most animals will require monthly doses for at least three months to rid of the infestation, on every cat, dog, rabbit and ferret in the house. After this point, if they are no longer on flea prevention, they can always acquire a new flea infestation in the same manner as before.
Medications which inhibit development of immature stages are useful for preventing the worsening of infestations, without killing the adult fleas. These can be effective as a preventative, but the possibility of seeing adult fleas is common. These medications would need to be combined with an adulticide to fully rid of a current flea infestation.
Also, if the animal has a large number of fleas,your house likely also has a large number of immature stages in areas your animal frequents. Washing bedding in hot water and vacuuming carpets and floors weekly will help to reduce the number of immature forms available. If you have a canister-type vacuum, wash the canister out with warm soapy water and let dry. If you have vacuum which collects debris in a bag, take the bag outside after vacuuming. These procedures will help ensure no fleas will be hatching in the vacuum and emerging later. There are room sprays available at your veterinarian which will also aid in killing the immature forms in your home. If you are using a topical product like Advantage or Revolution, it is not recommended to do "super cleans" every day.
If you have questions about fleas, as always you can give our clinic a call and we can guide you further. During day to day life, our pets, like us, lose skin cells. These skin cells will contain the drug from the Advantage or Revolution. Skin cells are what developing larva in the house will feed on. The medicated skin cells will cause the larva to die therefore "attacking" the infestation from multiple angles.
If you have questions about fleas, as always you can give our clinic a call and we can guide you further.