My Pet Has Fleas! Now What? Dealing with Flea Infestations
Fleas are small bloodsucking insects about 2.5 mm long. While they do not have wings, they can jump long distances, resulting in fleas jumping on your pets and introducing them into your home. Fleas can transfer from animal to human. Once fleas infest your pets and home, it is challenging, but possible, to get rid of them. The best way to deal with fleas in your environment is to prevent them from entering it in the first place. However, if you suspect or have confirmed you have a flea infestation there are steps you can take to remove them permanently.
A Flea-Flickin’ Primer…
Fleas are parasites that love to live on the fur of animals. They can lay up to 50 eggs a day, and up to 2,000 eggs in a female flea’s short lifetime. The eggs remain dormant until the temperature and humidity of their environment are optimal for hatching. Fleas are stimulated by vibration and heat. As an example, fleas can remain dormant for months in a vacant property, but after a family moves in, these resilient tiny buggers will seek out a host and start to feed on their blood. There are more than 2,000 species of fleas, some feeding exclusively on certain species of animals. Flea poop is called “flea dirt". Fleas mostly feed around the ears, neck, back, and belly of their host. Fleas seen on your pet represent only 5% of the flea life cycle which includes four stages: eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults.
How do I know if I have a flea problem?
The first indication is that your pet will be scratching more than usual. The skin in the location of your pet’s scratching can become irritated. A discolored ring around the bite will also signal fleas. Flea bites do not swell to the size of a mosquito bite. Your pet’s fur may be carrying small black “dots” which look like dirt. Flea bites have a unique bite pattern and location and appear as small, discolored bumps on the skin. The bites often appear in a straight line or a cluster. Your human family members may be scratching as well. Fleas are more likely to bite humans on feet, calves, and ankles.
What diseases can fleas cause in animals?
Flea bite dermatitis is an allergic reaction to the flea saliva which leads to intense scratching and itching, allowing the skin to break open and form scabs that can get infected. The most frequent site is the lower back and base of the tail. If an animal continues to scratch at a bite, it can cause swelling, irritation, and welts. Broken skin leads to skin infection and pain. Veterinarians usually prescribe an oral, topical, or injected medication to ease irritation and prevent further itching. If an infection has developed, antifungal medication or antibiotics may be prescribed.
Tapeworms are passed to a pet when that pet ingests a flea that carries tapeworms. This is especially common in pets that self-groom such as cats. Tapeworms cause an itchy rear end as well as weight loss. Without treatment, tapeworms can result in a loss of nutrients and eventually, weight. Severe infestations can result in bowel obstruction. Other symptoms include nausea, weakness, and abdominal pain. If diagnosed with tapeworms, your pet will need treatment. Conventional treatments include anti-parasitic drugs such as praziquantel. Pumpkin seeds are an extremely effective natural deworming agent because they contain a chemical called cucurbitacin. This paralyzes the worms making them easily eliminated from the intestine. They can be fed whole or ground into a powder. The recommended dose is one teaspoon of raw pumpkin seeds per 10lbs of body weight twice a day until the tapeworms are gone.
Flea bite anemia occurs mostly in small animals (puppies and kittens) that have a severe flea infestation. The fleas feed so much on these animals that their red blood cells decrease and they become anemic. Symptoms of flea anemia in dogs and cats include lethargy, poor exercise tolerance, dark stools, dark blood in feces or vomit, pale gums, and skin bruising. To treat anemia, veterinarians may suggest intravenous fluids, antibiotics and in severe cases, blood transfusions.
Cat Scratch Disease (CSD) occurs when fleas pass the bacteria “Bartonella” to cats. Infected cats can then pass the bacteria to other cats or humans through a bite or scratch. Bartonella is associated with numerous conditions including heart disease, eye inflammation, and seizures. The typical signs of CSD are mild fever, chills, and lethargy accompanied by enlarged lymph nodes and lesions on the skin or conjunctiva (the membrane that covers the white of the eye and inside of the eyelid). To treat the disease, pets are given antibiotics for six weeks to three months. More serious symptoms include encephalitis (swelling of the brain), fever, and severe muscle pain.
Endemic murine typhus is less common but can occur in warm coastal areas in tropical and subtropical regions. In the US, most cases occur in Southern California and Texas. This disease occurs primarily in rats and mice but can be transmitted to domesticated animals such as cats. Symptoms are like those of distemper and include vomiting, diarrhea (with blood), darkening of the white part of the eye, unusually foul mouth odor, chills, or listlessness. The antibiotic doxycycline is the standard treatment protocol.
Plague is rare in domesticated animals with only a few cases annually reported in the southwestern US. Cats are more susceptible to the plague and are more likely to show clinical signs than dogs. Symptoms include sudden onset fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal and/or back pain, and weakness. Treatment is achieved through antibiotics.
What flea-borne diseases occur in humans?
Just as in animals, fleas can cause allergies and infections in humans. Small, red itchy bumps will appear when fleas bite humans. Young children are more likely than adults to experience bites and possible infections since they spend more time on the floor. Fleas like to hide in carpets and floor cracks. The key is to reduce the itching and scratching as most infections occur when scratching results in broken skin. Flea bites and itching can be treated with over-the-counter products or home remedies such as antihistamines, hydrocortisone creams, ice, aloe vera, chamomile tea (steep a tea bag for 20 minutes, squeeze it to remove excess water, then apply the bag to the bite). Other remedies include honey, particularly manuka honey (apply topically or take internally), and colloidal oatmeal powder (make a paste with warm water).
Humans can also contract some of the less common flea-borne diseases such as anemia, Cat Scratch Disease (CSD), typhus, and plague. The most common symptoms of these diseases are headache, chills, weakness, nausea, fatigue, and weight loss. If you experience any of these symptoms following flea bites or a home infestation, contact your physician. Most of these diseases are treatable with antibiotics.
How do I eliminate a flea infestation?
To deal with a flea infestation, the fleas must be killed at every stage in their life cycle. Since only 5% of the flea life cycle is spent on the pet, the environment must be treated as well as your pets.
- A flea comb can be used to remove fleas and flea dirt from your pet. If you find any trace of fleas, remove the collected fleas and fur, transfer to a disposable bag and put it in the trash immediately. It is best to do this outside. When finished combing, wash the comb in warm soapy water.
- Fleas on pets can be treated with shampoos, topical treatments, and sprays. Repeat shampooing weekly until all signs of adult (active) fleas and flea dirt are gone.
- Wash all pet beds, bed coverings, pet clothing, cloth toys, as well as human bedding and clothing with hot water every few days until there are no longer signs of fleas or flea dirt in your home or on your pet. Dry these items on the highest possible heat setting.
- Vacuum carpets thoroughly. Change your vacuum bag immediately. Bagless vacuums should be emptied outside to prevent re-infestation.
- Diatomaceous earth (DE) can be applied to your yard as well as to the pet, pet beds, and carpets. Purchase “food-grade” DE only. DE can irritate the lungs; wear a mask when applying indoors and keep children and pets away until it is thoroughly vacuumed. Repeat the treatment in 4-6 weeks to catch the next batch of younger fleas to prevent another infestation.
- See all flea & tick options.
- Avoid the use of toxic chemical pesticides, particularly those in the isoxazoline class, as many pets will develop tremors, incoordination, seizures, and may die after application of chemical pesticides.
How do I prevent a flea infestation?
Fleas are most active when the weather is warm. They prefer cool, damp areas with a lot of shade. They live around trees, leaves, tall grass, and shrubs. In climates where the temperature dips below freezing, fleas will either be killed or lie dormant until warm weather returns. Those living in warmer climates will find themselves battling fleas all year long. For those living in “4 seasons” climates, September and October are particularly vulnerable as the cooler weather forces fleas indoors. It is suggested flea prevention continue through at least two frosts.
The following blogs provide several natural ways to prevent fleas from infecting your pets and invading your home: