Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fleas: The Phantom Menace

Fleas are an issue every pet owner has to face sooner or later and as anyone who has had to deal with them can attest they aren’t always easy to get rid of. To appreciate the complex issue of flea control, you must first understand something about the flea's life cycle.

Although you are only able to see the adult flea, there are actually 4 stages of the life cycle. The adult flea constitutes only about 5% of the entire flea population if you take into account all four stages of the life cycle. Flea eggs are pearly white and about 1/32" (1/2 mm) in length. They are too small to see without magnification. Fleas lay their eggs on the dog, but the eggs do not stick to the dog's hair. Instead, they fall off into the dog's environment. The eggs make up 50% of the flea population. They hatch into larvae in 1 to 10 days, depending on temperature and humidity. High humidity and temperature favor rapid hatching.

Flea larvae are slender and about 1/8-1/4" (2 to 5 mm) in length. They feed on organic debris found in their environment and on adult flea feces, which is essential for successful development. They avoid direct sunlight and actively move deep into carpet fibers or under organic debris (grass, branches, leaves, or soil.) They live for 5 to 11 days before becoming pupae.

Moisture is essential for their survival; flea larvae are killed by drying. Therefore, it is unlikely that they survive outdoors in shade-free areas. Outdoor larval development occurs only where the ground is shaded and moist and where flea-infested pets spend a significant amount of time. This allows flea feces to be deposited in the environment. In an indoor environment, larvae survive best in the protected environment of carpet or in cracks between hardwood floors. They also thrive in humid climates.

Following complete development, the mature larvae produce a silk-like cocoon in which the next step of development, the pupa, resides. The cocoon is sticky, so it quickly becomes coated with debris from the environment. This serves to camouflage it. In warm, humid conditions, pupae become adult fleas in 5-10 days. However, the adults do not emerge from the cocoon unless stimulated by physical pressure, carbon dioxide, or heat.

Pre-emerged adult fleas can survive up to 140 days within the cocoon. During this time, they are resistant to insecticides applied to their environment. Because of this, adult fleas may continue to emerge into the environment for up to 3 weeks following insecticide application.

When the adult flea emerges from its cocoon, it immediately seeks a host because it must have a blood meal within a few days to survive. It is attracted to people and pets by body heat, movement, and exhaled carbon dioxide. It seeks light, which means that it migrates to the surface of the carpet so that it can encounter a passing host. Following the first blood meal, female fleas begin egg production within 36 to 48 hours. Egg production can continue for as long as 100 days, which means that a single flea can produce thousands of eggs.

This entire life cycle (adult flea >>> egg >>> larvae >>> pupa >>> adult) can be completed in 14-21 days with the proper temperature and humidity conditions. This adds to the problem of flea control.

If untreated, the female flea will continue to take blood for several weeks. During that time, she will consume about 15 times her body weight in blood. Although the male fleas do not take as much blood, they, too, contribute to significant blood loss. This can lead to the dog having an insufficient number of red blood cells, which is known as anemia. In young or debilitated dogs, the anemia may be severe enough to cause death.

Contrary to popular belief, most dogs have rather limited itching due to fleabites. However, many dogs become allergic to the saliva in the flea's mouth. When these dogs are bitten, intense itching occurs, causing the dog to scratch and chew on its skin.


  1. What can I do to rid my 6 week old puppy from fleas?

  2. @Anon: Your best bet is to talk to your regular veterinarian since your puppy is so young. Many flea products, such as Frontline Plus, while very effective cannot be used until your puppy is at least 8 weeks old. Since your puppy is still only 6 weeks old you have fewer options than you would with an older dog.