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The dangers: why we control fleas

Risk to people

In the UK at least, fleas do not commonly spread disease.

Although fleas do not pose a direct health risk, flea bites can cause intense irritation and itching to pets and humans alike.

Studies show Black Death, responsible for wiping out 15% of London’s population in the 17th century, may not have been spread by rat-borne flea bites but rare human fleas.Studies show Black Death, responsible for wiping out 15% of London’s population in the 17th century, may not have been spread by rat-borne flea bites but rare human fleas.

The most problematic aspect of a flea bite on humans is the infection which can be caused by prolonged itching when left untreated.

Flea bites have been known to cause skin complaints, and can also exacerbate respiratory illnesses and cause complications.

Risk to pets

If your pet has fleas, it will suffer from a great deal of discomfort and could also have an allergic reaction to the flea’s saliva.

Lengthy periods of infestation can cause your pet to develop anemia from the loss of blood, although this is rare. (See Fleas on pets below.)

Types of flea in the UK

The most common species of flea in the UK is the Cat flea Ctenocephalides felis. They are an extremely common pest whose primary host is domestic cats, but are known for readily biting humans and dogs too.

That’s right – just because it’s called a Cat flea, it doesn’t mean the pest won’t try and bite people too!

The Dog flea Ctenocephalides canis can also use a variety of mammals as a host, but primarily targets dogs and cats.

dog flea

 Other types of flea to be aware of are; the Bird flea Ceratophyllus gallinae and Human flea Pulex irritans.

The Bird flea only lives for a short time but is an impressive breeder, multiplying in great numbers in habitats such as hen houses.

Finally there are Human fleas, which are now rare in the UK. They are a known carrier of plague Yersinia pestis.

DID YOU KNOW: In World War Two, Japan tried to use fleas carrying Y. pestis as a biological weapon, dropping them in China.

Habitat: how fleas choose a home

Fleas can live on any warm-blooded animal but are often found to be living on humans, domestic animals and rodents.

When not feeding on a host, fleas are mainly active in communal rooms, places where pets sleep and wherever there is most activity.

Fleas and their eggs can be commonly found in soft furnishings which provide plenty of insulation, such as carpets, pet bedding, clothes and upholstered furniture.

If you have an active infestation, you may see fleas jumping in your carpet and furniture. 

Where do fleas come from?

It’s not always obvious where they’ve come from, as even homes without pets can get flea infestations.

Feral cats, foxes and other wild animals are the most common carriers of flea parasites. Photo by Jared Belson. Feral cats, foxes and other wild animals are the most common carriers of flea parasites. Photo by Jared Belson.

Around 95% of flea eggs, larvae and pupae live in the environment, not on pets.

As flea eggs can survive dormant for long periods of time, sometimes up to 18 months, it’s possible that the infestation was a problem before you even moved into your current home!

If you have pets, they can pick up fleas from other animals or places and give them a ride home.

And although it’s less common, so can humans: the fleas will hitch a ride on your clothes, your skin or hair.

Once you find fleas, you’ll want to get rid of them fast before they become established.

People usually feel ashamed to find out they have a flea infestation, as fleas are often associated with dirty environments.

But this is a common misconception – fleas are not picky!

Although a home or business that isn’t vacuumed or cleaned is more likely to provide a better environment for fleas to thrive, they will also infest clean places in their search for a warm-blooded host.

Either way, it is crucial to solve a flea infestation without hesitation as they can quickly get out of control.

How to prevent fleas

It’s difficult to prevent your pets from getting fleas. However, householders can put steps in place to try and avoid a flea infestation:

  1. Pet maintenance – apply veterinary approved flea products to your pet on a regular basis
  2. Walkies – when returning home, brush out your pet’s fur before going inside
  3. Vacuuming – frequently vacuum the areas your pet is around, especially carpeted areas in and around any furniture that is used by your pet
  4. Washing – regularly wash your pet’s bedding, blankets and other washable items in the hottest water possible
  5. Gardening – keep your garden tidy by mowing your lawn and raking up any leaves, grass or bush clippings, giving fleas fewer places to hide.

Six tell-tale signs that fleas are about

  1. Pets constantly scratching, licking or biting themselves may be the first sign
  2. Seeing fleas or flea droppings in the coat of your pet (easily spotted in light-coloured animals by brushing back the hair, in dark coated breeds it may be better to comb the animal over a sheet of paper)
  3. The identity of the black specks may be confirmed by adding a few drops of water: if they turn red, your pet has fleas!
  4. Bites on you or other members of the household, usually around ankles and legs
  5. If you have been holding or stroking a pet, you may find bites on your arms
  6. And the most obvious sign of a flea infestation? Seeing them! When they aren’t busy leeching our AB positive, fleas can often be spotted jumping around on soft furnishings.

What if my pest controller can’t find evidence of fleas?

Delusional Parasitosis (DP) is a mental disorder in which individuals incorrectly believe they are infested with parasites, insects or bugs when, in reality, no such infestation is present.

If a professional pest controller carries out an inspection and cannot find evidence of an infestation, then it’s possible that DP is the issue.

Individuals with DP usually report tactile hallucinations known as formication, a sensation resembling insects crawling on or under the skin.

Sufferers of this condition should see their GP.

How do professionals get rid of fleas?

Pest technicians get plenty of call-outs to treat properties for fleas – so if you’re having issues, you’re not alone!

The standard treatment for any infested premises is the application of a residual insecticide, either as a liquid spray or powder. The insecticide is applied to all floor surfaces.

Pest management professionals may also use something called an Insect Growth Regulator (IGR).

Flea eggs and pupae are not affected by insecticides – this fact is very important to understand after your home has been treated.

This prevents proper completion of the flea life cycle, from larvae to the adult stage. It won’t kill adult fleas, so will be used alongside a conventional insecticide.

Once treatment is complete, it is critical you do not wash or vacuum your carpets for a minimum of two weeks – longer if possible.

Over the course of the treatment, eggs and pupae will continue to go through the life cycle stages, eventually emerging as adult fleas.

As the insecticide has a residual effect, it will kill the newly-formed fleas.

If you clean your carpet, you’ll be in danger of eliminating the residual insecticide which will lead to a failed treatment.

Allergic reaction to a flea bite

If you’re allergic to fleas, your immune system will release an increased amount of histamine.

This may prompt a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

These are common symptoms of an allergic reaction to flea bites:

  • Intense itching
  • A rash or hives on various parts of the body
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Swelling of the face, hands, mouth, or lips
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain.

Anaphylaxis is life-threatening if it isn’t treated immediately.

Call 999 or go to the hospital right away if you believe you’re having a severe allergic reaction to a flea bite.

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