What Do Fleas Do?
The Flea Story
What is the flea?The cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) is the most common flea found on both dogs and cats. It is a wingless, bloodsucking insect and causes itching, scratching, allergies, anaemia, and transmits tapeworms.
Life cycle of the fleaThe female adult flea lives and lays eggs on your pet. The eggs fall off and remain protected in the dirt, cracks and crevices of your house, in pets’ bedding or in your carpet, where they hatch into larvae. The larvae feed on debris and develop into pupae, which can lay dormant for a long time. They hatch into new adults under the right conditions, in as little as 19 days in warm and humid weather, and hop on your pet to feed. The adult flea can survive for up to a year without a blood meal. A large build-up of fleas occurs when the weather gets warmer, especially in humid areas. Cooler areas are still at risk because of heating in our homes.
How does the flea affect my pet?Some pets appear unaffected by fleas apart from the occasional scratch. However, a heavy flea burden in puppies or kittens can cause significant blood loss and anaemia. More commonly, fleabites cause itching and scratching which, over time, can result in hair loss, inflammation and dry, scurfy skin over the base of the tail and lower backline, where fleas like to congregate. The real sufferers are pets that become allergic to the saliva the flea injects into the skin while feeding. These animals will react every time a flea bites, even if only one flea is present. This condition is known as Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD). Fleas can also spread tapeworm among pets and even people, although the latter is rare.
How can I tell if my pet has fleas?Your pet may have fleas even though you can’t see them. ‘Flea dirt’ or flea droppings are detected more easily than the flea itself and can be seen on the skin over the rump and back – like black specks of dirt. Comb through your pet’s coat onto a moistened white sheet or piece of paper. When wet, flea droppings turn red as they contain the blood ingested by the flea as it feeds. Symptoms of scratching, inflammation (reddening of the skin) and dry, scurfy (scaly or flaky) patches over the base of the tail are also signs that fleas are most likely present.
How do I get rid of fleas?Fleas can only be brought under control effectively by treating your pet and any other pets in the household, as well as treating the environment (both inside and outside). Your veterinarian will be able to recommend products that suit your pet’s situation. If your pet has the more serious signs of moist, weeping and raw skin, treatment needs to be started by your vet to heal the traumatised skin and advise you on a flea control program. Also, other skin diseases may have similar signs and need to be ruled out by your vet.
Contributor: Dr Julia Adams BVSc