If you thought that fleas are insects found only on dogs and cats, think again. Sure, they do prefer our warm-blooded pets, but when hungry they will not hesitate to bite humans. And a few fleas left unchecked will rapidly turn into a plague. Flea infestations mean misery for your pets, embarrassment for you and your house guests, and irritation for your neighbours.
Fleas are tiny reddish-brown parasites that live on the blood of warm-blooded animals and humans. They have piercing mouthparts and a body which is flattened to facilitate crawling through animal fur. Their long powerful legs allow them to leap very far horizontally and vertically, so their tiny size combined with their agility makes them very difficult to catch and control.
To get at a blood source, adult fleas first pierce the skin and inject anti-coagulant into the wound to help the blood flow easily; they then suck on the blood. They swallow some of the blood to feed themselves, and the rest they pass straight to their intestine. They deposit undigested blood from their rectum onto our pets, and within the home and workplace environment. This undigested blood is left as food in preparation for unborn fleas.
Although adult fleas rely on blood to survive, they are capable of fasting for several months if they have no access to blood. Even flea eggs can lie dormant for up to two years until disturbed by the vibration of animal or human footsteps that tells them that food (blood) has become available, and suddenly hatch. But it’s not only this ability to withstand severe abstinence that makes fleas so resilient.
Fleas’ rate of reproduction is incredibly fast. Female fleas live for around two years and can lay up to 60 eggs per day. Warm and humid weather helps flea eggs mature more quickly and a flea egg can turn into an adult flea within 2 weeks. Within 48 hours of her first feed, a newborn female flea will start laying eggs. In Malta, the weather tends to favour the flourishing of fleas and egg-laying. So a flea infestation can lie undetected during the winter months and suddenly explode to plague proportions when the weather warms up.
As in other parts of Europe, in Malta the most common flea is the cat flea (also known as ctenocephalides felis or berawt??). Despite its name, the cat flea also infests dogs, birds, rodents and domesticated animals. They are generally introduced to the home through dogs and cats that unwillingly pick them up while out walking. In fact, infestations of fleas happen not so much because of the fleas on your pets as much as the flea eggs that the fleas scatter on our carpets, bed linen, pet bedding, gardens, yards, and even crevices in floor-tiling. It’s worth pointing out that flea infestations of your home can happen as a result of fleas migrating from neighbouring areas, especially if there are animals nearby that are not treated for fleas; strays are generally a major cause of unexpected flea infestations.
Apart from the evidence of your own eyes, you can tell that you have a flea infestation from some of the symptoms that flea bites cause. Your pets will demonstrate their discomfort by scratching uncontrollably and their skin may well exhibit allergies resulting from flea bites. Your veterinarian is the best person to talk to for guidance and medication in this regard. But fleas bring more than discomfort to your pets.
At the very least, flea bites on humans can cause acute itching and the bites can become infected. But fleas can also transfer parasites such as tapeworm to your body, as well as life-threatening diseases such as typhus. If you have a problem with rats or mice, you are also at risk of tularemia disease which fleas transfer from the blood of rodents that they have ingested. You should always seek the advice of your doctor if you have been bitten by fleas, and it’s important to bear in mind that infants are more vulnerable than adults to flea bites.
There are quite a few very simple measures that you can take which are safe (see box). Home remedies such as flea bombs might sound like an effective low-cost solution, but besides having to vacate the house for a specified time, flea bombs can pose a long-term health hazard because they leave an invisible coating of highly-toxic pesticides on everything we and our pets come into contact with. They are also highly-flammable and, ironically, the gases may actually fail to reach the hidden areas where flea-eggs are most likely to be situated. Even if your home remedy contains only natural products, you need to be aware that they may still be unsafe for your pets, so always seek the advice of your veterinarian before applying anything to the skin of your pets.
Once you have sought the advice of your veterinarian and doctor, you need to take the necessary steps to get rid of the infestation. Your pest control expert will advise you how to prepare your house or workplace for treatment. The products your pest control company administers will contain ingredients that have been approved by the regulatory authorities in line with established safety criteria for both humans and animals. The formulations used could vary from special approved dusts to insect growth regulators. A professional company will know exactly which areas to target to exterminate hidden flea populations and will inspect the area beforehand to make sure that it is safe to treat.
What can you do
- During the warm months, check your pet daily by lifting its body fur. Look out fleas, and flea dirt which looks like specks of dried blood. You can verify whether it’s flea dirt by placing a sample on a white napkin and adding a drop of water. If the water stains red, then this confirms that it’s flea dirt.
- Regularly wash your pet with shampoos that your veterinarian has approved. Follow the vet’s advice with regard to related medication that your pet needs.
- Wash your pet’s bedding every week in high temperatures (over 50°C) to kill off fleas and flea eggs. Take care how you handle the bedding to prevent cross-contamination.
- Ask your veterinarian for spray products that you can apply to household furnishings. These sprays are safe for both human and animal contact.
- Vacuum your carpets every other day. If possible, use disposable vacuum bags that you can throw out, fleas and all, wrapped up in an airtight plastic bag.
- Do not leave piles of dead vegetation in your yard or garden where fleas can live and breed - decomposing vegetation provides the warmth and humidity which fleas love.