Fleas have been around for a very, very long time. When dinosaurs were running around, they had their own fleas. Chinese paleontologists found fossilized flea-like insects in Inner Mongolia.
They were 10 times the size of modern fleas — about the size of the last joint of your little finger — and had a stiletto-like proboscis. There are around 2,300 known species of fleas around the world. Of these, 95 percent parasitize mammals and 5 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 primates that house fleas.
Scientists believe 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. Until the 19th century, fleas were such a normal part of human life that an individual found to be without fleas was thought to be diseased and was often made an outcast or killed.
While the human flea is becoming increasingly rare (it is almost always found on pigs these days), 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. There is a dog flea as well but it is in a distinct minority.
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.
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 50 eggs 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). After a few weeks, they pupate. When they become adults, they wait for their host to return, then hop on and start the cycle all over again.
A flea actually spends 90 percent of its life off of its host. This means that you have to do a thorough cleaning of your pet’s bedding. Begin by discarding the bedding or washing it in hot, soapy water. Vacuuming the area where the bedding is located is next. 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 can emerge from the machine ticked 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.
Remember, prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is especially true with fleas. These days, controlling fleas is safer and easier than ever. In the war on fleas, the failure to maintain preventative measures throughout the year is the No. 1 reason pet owners find themselves frustrated.
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.