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Fleas

From time immemorial, fleas have been known all over the world as an epidemic of plague which mankind needs to get rid of. In the United States today, especially in south western US, fleas are known to be parasitic on both humans and pets. There are different species of fleas, but Ctenocephalides felis, which plagues cats,is the most common species. Another species, which feeds on rodents, are vectors of murine typhus and other plagues. It is important to be well versed about the different kinds of flea, especially the cat flea, which is a potential threat to you and your pet. The information provided in this article will teach you how to prevent flea infestation, avoid being bitten and other details about flea control.

Does Cat Flea pose any Public Health Risk?

Although cat flea targets cats, when biting, they secrete saliva, which contains some chemical substances that stimulate an immune response in humans, the bitten cat and other animals. This immune response, called flea bite allergy is more severe in susceptible pets. If you notice that your pet has this ailment, quickly take it to a veterinary doctor for treatment, and seek advice on the best approach towards flea control.

Cat fleas are primarily harmful to both dogs and cats. They are carriers of Dipylidium caninum, also known as double pore dog tapeworm. This tapeworm can also affect children when they mistakenly ingest a cat flea which carries an immature strain of Dipylidium caninum. Although at immature stage, this tapeworm may not pose any serious health risk, but it may develop inside the intestine of the child, and become harmful in the future, hence it is necessary to consult a doctor whenever you see signs that the child may have ingested this tapeworm. The most common sign is the appearance of a whitish substance of about the shape of a pumpkin, called “proglottid” in the bowel of the child. At this proglottid stage, the tapeworm may cause undulating movements.

Other Species of Flea that Pose Public Health Risk

Xenopyslla cheopi, also known as Oriental rat flea poses more health risk to humans than any other species of flea. It primarily affects the Rattus genus of rodents, and attacks humans, affecting them with plague whenever it gets the opportunity to.

Another important flea, which poses threat to tourists travelling to subtropical and tropical regions, is the species Tunga penetrans, also called “chigoe flea.” It is also called the “sand flea,” because its larvae develop in in coastal beach sand and sandy soil that has been contaminated with pig faces.

The female T. penetrans clings on the tender skin of the toes and penetrates into the body, where it begins to feed on blood, lay its eggs and reproduce. Inside the skin, the 1mm long female flea grows up to 80-times bigger and begins to cause severe pain that could result in bacterial infection of the bite site. If the infestation is not properly treated on time, it may worsen to an extent that would require amputation of the affected leg. To be on the safe side, vacationers are advised to not go barefooted in endemic regions, even at the beach, especially those connected to the Caribbean Sea.

The different kinds of fleas

Several species of fleas live in different parts of the world. According to studies, there are about 2,500 species of fleas, and out of this number, 325 species are predominant in continental United States. 94% of these flea species are mammal parasites, while the other 6% are bird parasites.

In Indiana, over 30 species of fleas have been dictated, but the most threatening of them all is the cat fleas, which are parasitic humans, their pets and livestock.

Although it is called “cat flea,” Ctenocephalides felis mainly infests dogs, and unlike what many would think, the species of flea commonly called dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis) rarely affects pets in Indiana, although it exists in other parts of the world.

How to recognize a flea

A full-grown adult flea is a tiny, wingless, oval-shaped, reddish-brown insect of 1/8 inch length. Their body design makes it very easy for them to hide under furs and feather of animals without being detected. They have a slender and microscopically tiny proboscis used for feeding, which curves inwards between the legs when not feeding, and a large pair of hind legs for jumping. At the larvae and pupae stages, fleas can only be seen clearly through the aid of a microscope. Viewing them with the ordinary eyes, flea larvae appears like whitish worms, while their pupae may go totally unnoticed, as they are encased in a sticky cocoon stained with dust and other particles from their surroundings.

Life Cycle of the Cat Flea

After extensive studies, experts clearly explained the lifecycle of a cat flea, as described in the figure above. The cat flea, just like other fleas, undergoes complete metamorphosis, from egg, through three larval and one pupae stage before they get to reproductive adult stage. Fleas live almost all their adult life on the body of their host, using their blood as only source of nutrition. They however don’t live or feed on a host during the three larval stages.  

As long as the female takes blood meals, it continues to develop and lay eggs, a single female being capable of laying 25-40 eggs daily, and a total of up to 2,000 eggs throughout the course of its lifetime. They lay their tiny oval eggs on the hosts body, and due to the fact that the eggs are not sticky, they quickly fall of from the host body and if they fall on a suitable place, under warm temperature and relatively high humidity, the eggs will hatch within 2 to 5 days.

After hatching, the young cat flea goes through three larval stages which take 7 to 14 days, depending on the availability of food, adequate temperature and humidity. Cat flea larva feeds on organic matter within its surrounding- typically around the dwelling place of the pet- and although it may survive for a few days without food, it requires food to metamorphose into the pupae stage. The pupae stage lasts for about 1 to 2 weeks with adequate supply of meal. However, they can stay encapsulated and survive without food for several months. The encapsulated pupae emerge into adult when they’re stimulated by vibrations caused by the movement of humans or pets near them. Cat fleas can survive for weeks without feeding, but the females will not be able to lay eggs if they don’t have a blood meal. Cat fleas complete their life cycle within 21 to 28 days; they reproduce rapidly almost every season, however, in Indiana, cat fleas do not reproduce during winter.  

Where can I find Cat Flea Larvae and Pupae in my Surroundings?

The most common place to find cat flea larvae and pupae is around places where pets sleep. You can also find them under thick carpets, in the folds of upholstered furniture, sleeping mates, bed covers or your mattress if the pet has access to your bed, or any other place the pet stays inside the house. Outdoors, cat flea larvae and pupae can be found in warm and humid places, where environmental conditions are favorable for their metabolism and metamorphosis. Some common places include beneath shrubs and in small heaps of sand around concrete walks and porches.

A Brief Look at the Feeding Habits of Cat Fleas

Adult cat fleas depend totally on blood meals. They feed on pets, humans and other warm-blooded animals, taking 10 to 15 blood meals per day. On humans, they target mainly the calves and ankles. A single cat flea can leave clusters of bite marks on humans. Hence, seeing lots of bite marks is not a clear indication of infestation, as they could all be as a result of repeated feeding from a single cat flea. Just like bed bugs, fleas are attracted to the carbon dioxide emitted by humans and other warm-blooded animals. They are also sensitive to vibrations caused by approaching humans or pets. According to studies, these vibrations may cause them to jump up to a height of 12 inches, increasing their chances of landing on a host.

While adult cat fleas have proboscis for sucking blood, their larvae have specialized mouthparts adapted for feeding on particulate matter, which includes particles from pet feces and even excreta of adult flea, which is fortified with nutritious remnants of their undigested blood meals.

How Does Cat Flea Infestation Begin, and How do Humans get Bitten?

Ideally, cat fleas live and feed on a single cat or dog. When an infected pet plays or sleeps together with an uninfected pet, the cat flea may transfer to the uninfected one. Cat flea hardly moves from infested pets to the owner. In fact, the most common way cat flea bites humans is when a hungry flea metamorphosis from the pupae stage where it was cocooned in an encasement, to the adult stage. Reacting to vibrations, the hungry cat flea may jump upon the body of the human, and take a quick blood meal. Seeing a flea bite on humans is an indication that the environment favors the breeding of cat fleas, hence the pets are at severe risk.

Apart from pets, cat fleas can also feed on other warm blooded animals, including livestock, pigs, calves, etc. Practices associated with rearing livestock are oftentimes favorable to the reproduction, growth and survival of fleas, especially at larval stage. Therefore, livestock barn can be a readily available breeding place for cat fleas, and from there they infest dogs, cats and other animals which come in contact with them.

How does Winter Affect Cat Fleas?

Winter is a very critical period that isn’t very favorable to cat fleas. Only adult cat fleas may resist the cold weather and survive winter, but cat flea eggs, larvae and pupae may not survive winter unless if they’re indoors where the temperature may be favorable to them.

Do Humans Promote the Growth of Cat Fleas?

The failure of pet owners to continually check their pets for cat fleas, and their inability to maintain proper sanitation of their premises, may contribute to the successful spread of cat fleas in their environment. To avoid infestation, pet owners must always sanitize areas where their pets have access to, to discourage the development of flea larvae. It is also necessary to wash pet bed spreads and sleeping mats and any other area of the house the pet sleeps.

Effective ways to Control Cat Fleas

Flea infestation can be very difficult and complicated to manage. The target point of control of flea infestation is preventing the development of flea larva. There are different ways of controlling cat fleas, many of which involve the use of chemical substances and some physical and mechanical approach as well. It may be quite difficult to decide which product or approach to use in controlling infestation, hence we recommend that you consult a veterinarian and a pest control professional, to know which chemical or approach would be more pet-friendly in your environment, and most efficient in controlling the infestation. 

This consultation may, however, be overwhelming, as there is a plethora of products to choose from, so it is advisable that you read about the biology of cat fleas, and have the basic knowledge that’ll come handy in making an informed decision.

Below, we have listed some of the effective methods of eliminating flea larvae and controlling infestation, including the importance of vacuuming. Note also, that any product advertised as an “alternative” control product, such as ultrasonic pest control devices, garlic, B-complex vitamins, brewer’s yeast, etc. may be a waste of resources, as they have little or no effect on fleas.

Where to learn more about fleas, how to control them, and flea-borne disease?

There are lots of resources on the internet that teaches about fleas, most especially cat flea. You can check the following websites to get all the information you need concerning cat flea and their public health risks. You’ll also learn about murine typhus, chigoe flea and many others.


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