We all shudder at the thought of having a flea problem in our home. A basic knowledge of the flea life cycle helps us understand why year-round flea prevention is important to help keep them at bay. Although many generally think of fleas as a problem on the animal, you will see that the majority of the fleas are present in the environment and they wait to hatch until the environmental conditions suit them.
The different stages of flea development
Eggs- Although they are laid on the host dog or cat, they fall off and hatch in the environment. They prefer high humidity and warm temperatures.
Larvae- They hatch in the environment and feed off of flea dirt (excrement). They molt several times before forming a cocoon for pupating.
Pupae- This is the dormant stage for the flea, where they can reside in the environment and wait for the right time to emerge when the conditions (temperature, humidity) are right. They are very difficult to kill in this stage.
Unfed adult flea- A mature flea that is seeking a new host. It can live for months without feeding but is actively seeking a host.
Fed adult flea- This flea can now reproduce and begins to produce eggs within 1-2 days of feeding. An adult female flea can lay up to 40 eggs per day and live for 4 to 6 weeks. A single flea can bite your pet every 5 minutes, meaning that even a single flea can cause severe itchiness and discomfort for a pet that has a flea allergy.
Why does the life cycle matter?
• The flea spends the majority of its life in the environment, which means you may not see fleas on your pet but there may be a significant flea problem. Veterinarians often look for telltale signs of fleas on a pet (flea dirt, rashes on the rear end or groin area) because directly visualizing a live flea is uncommon unless there is a heavy flea load.
• Flea eggs and larvae often develop in dark, humid areas such as under furniture or in between cushions, in carpet, in between hardwood floor boards, and outside under brush piles and bushes. This means that successfully treating the environment may be very difficult because the common sprays and “bug bombs” do not reach the areas where the immature stages of the flea are living. Instead of treating the environment, we often focus on consistently using a monthly flea product on all animals in the household for several months so that the fleas in the environment are killed as they mature and jump on the pet to take a meal. It may also help to vacuum and dispose of the vacuum bags and wash bedding or pillows in hot water. For severe infestations it may be best to consult with a professional pest control company.
Approach to flea control
• Use a flea product year round on all animals in the household. This prevents a flea infestation from setting up in your home over the winter and maturing in spring when the temperatures rise.
• There are many options for flea preventatives that can be tailored to your pets’ lifestyle and preferences. Consult with your veterinarian for the best product for you and your pet.
Marissa Woodall, DVM