Fleas

How to Identify and Get Rid of Fleas

Flea in Fur
Vera Larina/ShutterStock

Hoppin’ mad? Got the itch to figure out where those little red marks on your ankle came from? And your pet’s scratching at more than the door? Welcome to the micro world of fleas!

What Are Fleas?

Fleas are tiny insects (1/16 to ⅛ of an inch long) that commonly live as parasites on cats, dogs, and other warm-blooded animals. They are wingless and usually reddish-brown, with hard, polished bodies covered with microscopic backward-pointing spines and hairs.

Fleas’ bodies are compressed laterally (from side to side), meaning that they have a rather tall and narrow profile that allows them to move easily among the hairs of their host. A flea’s mouth is pointed and sharp, built for biting and sucking blood.

Where Do Fleas Live?

Fleas—members of the order Siphonaptera—are common almost everywhere. There are more than 2,500 species and subspecies of fleas, and it has been reported that 94 percent of all fleas feed on animals. 

What Animals Do Fleas Target?

The cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) is virtually ubiquitous and attacks not only cats but also dogs and other animals. Dog fleas (C. canis) resemble cat fleas.

Other fleas target poultry, foxes, woodchucks, squirrels, rats, mice, and many other animals. Fleas are not picky, and sometimes a host animal can even be home to more than one type of flea. Fleas can carry numerous diseases, including plague, typhus, tapeworm, and many other afflictions of both man and beast.

Identification

How to Identify Flea Bites

Flea bites appear as tiny red dots surrounded by a tiny red circle.

They are not to be confused with tick bites, which sometimes can develop a larger “bull’s-eye” circle that can be indicative of Lyme disease or STARI (southern tick-associated rash illness).

Most flea bites are harmless and will go away in a few days. HOWEVER, if you see any type of bull’s-eye pattern or halo circle around any bite or cut, you should always consult a medical professional immediately. (And by “immediately,” we really do mean immediately!)

Symptoms of Flea Bites

Irritation that causes itching and/or scratching is usually the main symptom and sign of fleas. On humans, fresh bites will stop appearing relatively quickly, since the fleas tend not live on us—residing instead on our animal companions and using carpets, couches, and clothing as highways between hosts.

A simple anti-itch cream can be used if absolutely necessary, but usually—if needed at all—a loose bandage over the bite(s) to deter scratching might be all that is required.

Note: Some animals (including some humans) are allergic to flea saliva and thus develop a more bothersome rash or irritation, dermatitis, hair loss, and/or other effects. In such cases, a veterinarian or medical professional should be consulted.

Control and Prevention

What to Do If You Think Your Pet Has Fleas

On our pets, more aggressive action is usually needed, since the flea’s entire life cycle takes place on their host and every stage needs to be dealt with.

If you see your pet scratching like crazy, feel the gritty “flea dirt” on its skin, or even see a flea hopping around (which is pretty common), it’s time to take action!

How to Get Rid of Fleas in the House

  1. Give your pet a thorough going-over with a fine-toothed comb—several times. Be observant. Watch for fleas on the comb and dispose of them on the spot. Watch for them jumping off (just so that you are now aware that there are others in the room). Watch for eggs that may remain in the fur and get rid of them.

    If you wish, use a veterinarian-approved or over-the-counter insecticide in the form of a flea collar (or powder) that is guaranteed to be both biologically (your pet) and ecologically (the environment) safe. Let your vet be your partner in your fight against fleas.

  2. Vacuum carefully everywhere you think that fleas/eggs/larvae/cocoons might be found—and everywhere you think that they might not be found. Remove the vacuum bag outside and discard it. Vacuum everywhere from furniture surfaces to the floor. Do corners. Even do the undersurfaces of furniture if you can reach them. Do smooth floors as well as carpets and rugs (take removable rugs quickly outside during this process to thoroughly shake and keep removed until you’re ready to “move back in”). Feel free to repeat this entire process again.

  3. If possible, use a pet-safe insecticide (spray or powder) inside your home where you think any fleas may remain. Be very observant. Actually try to see if you can spot any remaining fleas on your furniture or floors. If you remove or “collar” the fleas’ usual host, they will come looking for another home base (that would be you), so you may have occasion to see one when it lands between hops.

  4. If you have an outside pet, try to temporarily move it to a new area while you clean the old space, as well as the area where the pet enters and exits the house. Cut the grass (rake and remove cuttings), remove debris, clean the bowls—do everything you can to get rid of flea hiding places. Treat with safe insecticide. If you can safely do so while still providing for the comfort of your pet, reduce shaded areas, as fleas do not like sun and warmth (which dry out young ones).

The Two Most Important Words in Flea Control

Once you’ve done this, repeat the whole process. Seriously. The two most important words in cleaning for flea control are thoroughness and persistence.

Take nothing for granted. It’s common to repeat one or more of the above steps several times. But they will work—and your pet will thank you!

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