Fleas are very invasive pests in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Western Nassau County, especially during the months of July through October, but sometimes persist all year when indoors. It is estimated pet owners alone spend over $1 billion each year controlling fleas.
Adult fleas are not only a nuisance to humans and their pets but can cause medical problems including flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), tapeworms, secondary skin irritations and, in extreme cases, anemia. Although bites are rarely felt, it is the resulting irritation caused by the flea salivary secretions that vary among individuals. Some may witness a severe reaction (general rash or inflammation) resulting in secondary infections caused by scratching the irritated skin area. Others may show no reaction or irritation acquired after repeated bites over several weeks or months. Most bites usually found on the ankles and legs may cause pain lasting a few minutes, hours or days depending on one’s sensitivity. The typical reaction to the bite is the formation of a small, hard, red, slightly-raised (swollen) itching spot. There is a single puncture point in the center of each spot. (Ants and spiders leave two marks when they bite. Mosquitoes, bees, wasps and bedbugs cause a large swelling or welt).
Fleas are an important vector of disease and may transmit bubonic plague from rodents to rodents and from rodents to humans. Oriental rat fleas can transmit murine typhus (endemic typhus) fever among rats and from rats to humans. Tapeworms normally infest dogs and cats but may appear in children if parts of infested fleas are accidentally consumed.
Adult fleas are about 1/16 to 1/8-inch long, dark reddish-brown, wingless, hard-bodied (difficult to crush between fingers), have three pairs of legs (hind legs enlarged enabling jumping) and are flattened vertically or side to side (bluegill or sunfish-like) allowing easy movement between the hair, fur or feathers of the host. Fleas are excellent jumpers, leaping vertically up to seven inches and horizontally thirteen inches. (An equivalent hop for a human would be 250 feet vertically and 450 feet horizontally.) They have piercing-sucking mouthparts and spines on the body projecting backward. Also, there is a row of spines on the face known as a genal comb. Larvae are 1/4-inch long, slender, straw-colored, brown-headed, wormlike, bristly-haired creatures (13 body segments), that are legless, have chewing mouthparts, are active, and avoid light. Pupae are enclosed in silken cocoons covered with particles of debris.
Life Cycle and Habits
Fleas pass through a complete life cycle consisting of egg, larva, pupa and adult. Only a small percentage of fleas found are in the adult stage. Completion of the life cycle from egg to adult varies from two weeks to eight months depending on the temperature, humidity, food, and species. Normally after a blood meal, the female flea lays about 15 to 20 eggs per day up to 600 in a lifetime usually on the host (dogs, cats, rats, rabbits, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, opossums, foxes, chickens, humans, etc.). Eggs loosely lie in the hair coat, drop out most anywhere especially where the host rests, sleeps or nests (rugs, carpets, upholstered furniture, cat or dog boxes, kennels, sand boxes, etc.). Eggs hatch in two days to two weeks into larvae found indoors in floor cracks & crevices, along baseboards, under rug edges and in furniture or beds. Outdoor development occurs in sandy gravel soils (moist sandboxes, dirt crawlspace under the house, under shrubs, etc.) where the pet may rest or sleep. Sand and gravel are very suitable for larval development which is the reason fleas are erroneously called “sand fleas.”
Larvae are blind, avoid light, pass through three larval instars and take a week to several months to develop. Their food consists of digested blood from adult flea feces, dead skin, hair, feathers, and other organic debris. (Larvae do not suck blood.) Pupa matures to adulthood within a silken cocoon woven by the larva to which pet hair, carpet fiber, dust, grass cuttings, and other debris adheres. In about five to fourteen days, adult fleas emerge or may remain resting in the cocoon until the detection of vibration (pet and people movement), pressure (host animal lying down on them), heat, noise, or carbon dioxide (meaning a potential blood source is near). Most fleas overwinter in the larval or pupal stage with survival and growth best during warm, moist winters and spring.
Adult fleas cannot survive or lay eggs without a blood meal, but may live from two months to one year without feeding.
There is often a desperate need for flea control after a family has returned from a long vacation. The house has been empty with no cat or dog around for fleas to feed on. When the family and pets are gone, flea eggs hatch and larvae pupate. The adult fleas fully developed inside the pupal cocoon remain in a kind of “limbo” for a long time until a blood source is near. The family returning from vacation is immediately attacked by waiting hungry hordes of fleas. (In just 30 days, 10 female fleas under ideal conditions can multiply to over a quarter million different life stages.)
Newly emerged adult fleas live only about one week if a blood meal is not obtained. However, completely developed adult fleas can live for several months without eating. Optimum temperatures for the flea’s life cycle are 70°F to 85°F and optimum humidity is 70 percent. The cat flea is the most common flea and which feeds on a wide range of hosts.
Flea control is best achieved with a simultaneous, coordinated effort involving strict sanitation, pet treatment, and premise treatment (both indoors & outdoors).
Inspection – Before treatment, discuss the pet’s habits with family members to determine where resting and sleeping occurs most frequently. Flea activity “hot spots” can be detected by placing white socks over shoes and walking through the residence into suspected areas. Research has demonstrated that these areas will contain the highest amount of eggs, larvae and pupae even after vacuuming. Hot spots for homes with dogs are usually areas where the pet goes in and out of the house, eats, sleeps and spends time with the family at the base of furniture. For cats, check the tops of refrigerators, cabinets, book cases and higher locations. Sanitation – Before vacuuming, collect all items (toys, shoes, clothes, etc.) off the floor, under beds, furniture, in closets, etc., to ensure best access for treatment. Also cover fish tanks, remove bird cages, pet food and water dishes and wash or dry clean any pet bedding. Vacuuming carpet with a beater-bar type vacuum where the pet rests and sleeps will help control flea larvae by removing eggs and dried blood feces (larval food) plus opening up the carpet’s nap for more effective insecticide treatment. Vacuuming must be performed on a regular basis every other day to be effective. Flea larvae do not move far from the site of hatching when there is adequate food (dried blood feces from adults). Research indicates larvae spend 83 percent of the time deep in the carpet at the base of fibers frequently becoming entwined within the carpet. At pupation, the larva move up the carpet fiber spinning a camouflaging cocoon around itself. Vacuum especially where lint and pet hairs accumulate along baseboards, around carpet edges, on ventilators, around heat registers, in floor cracks, and under and in furniture where the pet sleeps.
After vacuuming, place the vacuum bag in a large plastic garbage bag and discard in an outdoor trash container. If the cleaner uses a liquid water medium in a plastic pan (rather than a dust bag) discard dirty water far away from the house.
Biological – Use an insect growth regulator (IGR), which is a hormone to prevent eggs from hatching and larvae from pupating into biting adults. The IGRs methoprene (Precor) and pyriproxyfen (NyGuard, Ultracide) are odorless and nonstaining on carpets or fabrics. Methoprene usually will reduce flea populations up to 95 percent in just 14 days while pyriproxyfen, due to its photostability, lasts in carpets for many months controlling fleas. IGRs do not kill pupa or adults and are more effective when mixed with an adulticide. Recent research shows the new IGR pyriproxyfen mixed with permethrin will often give 90 day control. IGRs are considered biodegradable and are not known to accumulate in the food chain. Methoprene, approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), is used in drinking water in some countries for mosquito larva control. IGRs are of negligible hazard to humans, pets, and the environment.
Prevention – Trim lawns and weeds to create a drier, less-ideal environment for flea larvae. Avoid piles of sand and gravel around the home for long periods of time. Fence yards to prevent dogs from roaming freely in heavily infested areas or contacting other infested animals. Discourage nesting or roosting of rodents and birds on or near the premises. Screen or seal vents, chimneys, crevices, etc. where rats, mice, squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, etc. may use to enter crawlspaces and buildings. Wash or destroy pet bedding, regularly groom pets and vacuum frequently to remove up to 95 percent of the flea eggs, some larvae and adults. Only about 20 percent of the larvae might be removed when vacuuming since they wrap themselves around the bottom strands of carpeting.
An ultra flea comb, a product of Four Paws Product, Ltd. available through your licensed veterinarian, works well to remove fleas from the pet’s hair coat.
There are literally hundreds of products on the market for flea control on pets and the premises. For successful flea control, infested pets and the premises need to be treated at the same time. Before application, read and follow the insecticide label and safety precautions. People and pets should be out of the house when treatments are made, and not return until the treated spray surfaces have dried. Depending on the carpet and type of treatment, it may take several hours (usually three to four hours to give the insecticide a better chance to work). To assist in drying, open windows and use a fan or air conditioner.
Magic Exterminating is a licensed professional pest control operator, which has the experience, training, equipment and most effective insecticides for overall flea control.
Fleas and Your Pets
Usually, the most effective pet treatments are available through licensed veterinarians.
Outdoors – If the cat or dog regularly goes outside, treatment will be useful. Cats generally roam over greater areas than dogs and will pick up fleas seeding the home grounds with their infestations. Cats using sandboxes and dogs sleeping under shrubs and crawlspaces provide a reservoir of fleas. Treat outdoor areas frequented by pets during the summer months. Animal pens, kennels, doghouses, crawlspaces and sandy soil or gravel driveways are important to spot-treat with a hand sprayer. Clean and sweep porches, mow the grass and soak the dry soil with water before treating to bring the flea larvae up to the surface. Additional treatments at intervals, according to label directions, may be needed.
Ralph H. Maestre BCE