There are currently around 2,300 known species of fleas around the world.
Of these, 95 percent parasitize mammals and five percent feed on birds. Fleas, as you can imagine, don't get on marine mammals like whales, porpoises and seals and they don't infest ungulates and other roving animals because these don't have a permanent nesting site in which young fleas can develop.
Humans are the only primate that houses fleas. Scientists believe that this is because, unlike apes and monkeys, humans have lived in close association with other mammals and birds for thousands of years and their parasites have developed a taste for our blood as well as their original host's.
While the human flea is becoming increasingly rare, there are more than enough other flea species around to make up the difference. The cat flea is the most common one associated with pets.
For most people in the U.S., fleas are more of a seasonal problem. The cat flea is a tropical species and doesn't survive well in areas that have significantly cold weather. For those of us here in the deep South, controlling fleas is a year round event. With global warming, our more northerly neighbors may be soon experiencing the problems we have down here.
Stopping fleas requires a multi-pronged attack. You have to treat the pet and its environment. First, begin with your pets. Treating your pet has become much easier in the past few years. While dog collars, flea sprays and flea shampoos are still available and work relatively well.
Monthly applications of products such as Frontline and Advantage have proven much more effective. Another product recently introduced to the market is Comfortis. This pesticide uses a product (Spinosad) created by a fungi that was discovered in an abandoned rum distillery. Whatever treatment you use, read and follow the label directions. There are pesticides that are safe to use on dogs that can kill cats (permethrin) or rabbits (fipronil).
You have to get control of the fleas on your pet. A single female flea lives up to three weeks and can lay up to 50eggs a day (do the math). These eggs don't hatch on their host. When an animal lies down, the eggs fall off and the young fleas emerge. They feed on the fecal droppings of the adults (congealed blood) and, after a few weeks, they pupate.
When they become adults, they wait for their host to return, then hop on and start the cycle again. A flea actually spends 90 percent of its life off its host. This means that you have to do a thorough cleaning of your pets bedding.
Begin by discarding the bedding or washing it in hot, soapy water. Next, vacuum the area where the bedding is located. If the animal sleeps on furniture, remove the cushions and vacuum the cushion and the interior of the chair or couch. If the pet travels in your vehicle, give it a thorough vacuuming as well. If they sleep with you, your bedding should be washed and the bed vacuumed. Once you've finished vacuuming, discard the bag. Those fleas that survive the passage can develop inside a vacuum bag and emerge from the machine pissed off and hungry.
Now that you've managed to reduce the fleas on your pet and in your home, you'll need to tackle the problem in your yard. Periodic applications (every two or three months) of almost any pesticide labeled for use in your yard will work to control fleas.
Granular insecticides are preferable over liquids because they tend to last quite a bit longer than the liquids even if they're the same pesticide. Concentrate particularly on those spots where your pet rests or feeds.
Combined, these methods will help you get your flea problem under control. However, if you don’t keep a vigilant eye out for potential reinfestation, the whole cycle will begin again.
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.