Fleas: Flea Control

I try, I really do, to find the good in everything in Nature, and generally I am able to look at the big picture and understand the value of each living organism in the smooth flow of a natural environment. Even most of those bugs that we consider to be "pests" - flies, termites, carpet beetles - have a very important and helpful role to play outside of our homes. But, when it comes to the parasites, like fleas, I admit I tend to stumble.

However, fleas exist, so there's no sense in denying it, and unfortunately they commonly exist on our pets. There are actually well over 2,400 different kinds of fleas known around the world, and around 250 different species in the United States. They range from tiny, almost microscopic fleas to one called the Mountain Beaver Flea that is over ¼ inch long, but the one that we almost always are dealing with, when it comes to fleas in our homes in the United States, is The Cat Flea - its Latin name is Ctenocephalides felis.

Fleas are all parasites, feeding on the blood of warm-blooded animals, as well as some reptiles. The Cat Flea is the common flea on both our dogs and cats, and actually got that common name from its association with the large felines in Africa. When it bites our pets, or the people in the house, the flea causes quite a bit of distress to some people who are particularly sensitive to the bite. The "flea bite" reaction usually is caused by the saliva of the flea and our body's immune system reaction to it, and for some people the reaction is quite severe, while others in the family may not have any visible bumps or itching.

The point of this article on fleas is to discuss how you can deal with them, initially by prevention and often by elimination, and what to expect from a flea control program from a licensed professional pest management company. I will pretty much steer clear of making specific recommendations on chemicals, as we feel that applications of pesticides might best be left to those licensed and trained to use them. But, chemicals are only one part of the important steps in a flea control program, and those other steps are entirely up to you, even when you hire a company to take care of the flea problem for you.

There are also new technologies and non-chemical alternatives being used by some professionals, and these may be very effective and preferred by you if the economics of it fit your budget.

The life of a flea

Fleas undergo what is called a "complete" life cycle, and this is best understood if you think of a butterfly or moth, which most people are very familiar with. The four stages are the egg, the larva, the pupa, and the adult, and it is ONLY the adult flea that bites. The larva is a scavenger that crawls around in your carpet, feeding on whatever organic junk it can find. However, one very important ingredient in that organic junk is some dried BLOOD, and the source of this dried blood is the fecal drops that have come out of the adult fleas as they feed on your pets. We'll get back to this important point in a few minutes.

So, the female flea lays her eggs (potentially several hundred of them in her lifetime) on your pet. The eggs are not sticky, so they fall off the pet onto the surface below. If it's your cat, and she sleeps on the couch, then the eggs fall under the couch cushions. If she has a favorite window sill then the eggs are dribbled onto the carpet below this spot. If it's your dog, and he lays in the sunlight by a window or glass door, then that's where most of the eggs will be, and therefore the larvae that come from them. If your dog is as spoiled as mine, and sleeps on your bed, then the eggs fall there, or onto the floor below the bed when he jumps off in the morning.

The eggs hatch in just a few days, and become the larva. You will never see a flea larva. They just stay hidden in the thatch of the carpet and avoid light and activity. You also are not bitten by the larvae, but that's only a small consolation, since they all become adult fleas. The larva feeds for around 10 days and then goes into the pupa, or cocoon stage, by wrapping local debris around itself with a sticky material that causes it to adhere to the carpet fibers.

Inside this pupa the adult flea develops, and there are two groups - those that will hatch in a few days simply because the temperature is warm enough for them, and those that may stay in that pupa case for over 6 months (!!), waiting for the presence of some animal nearby to trigger it to emerge as the hungry adult flea. It may be the vibration of the animal (or people) walking on the carpet, or the physical contact of being stepped or sat upon, that causes the flea to emerge within seconds after resting there for a long time. This is another very important point we will discuss more.

I came back from vacation, and in 10 minutes had fleas all over me!!

This is a typical problem for people who have pets with fleas. You go on vacation, either taking the dog with you or leaving it boarded or loaned to a neighbor for the two weeks. You really didn't have a flea "problem" when you left, but you sure have one now when you return. What the heck has happened?

Well, a pet with fleas has a constant production of flea eggs falling off, larvae moving through their life cycle in the carpet, and adult fleas generally hopping back onto the dog or cat once they emerge from their pupa, since these warm, hairy animals are much better environments for fleas than people are. We just don't have enough hair to make the flea comfortable, but we still will do in a pinch if the dog buffet is not available. Since there is a gradual cycling of eggs off and fleas on the problem remains pretty invisible. But, when we leave the house vacant for two weeks, there is no stimulus to cause the fleas to emerge as adults, and they all move on through to the pupa stage…..and wait for you.

You drive in late in the evening, worn out and looking forward to falling asleep in front of the TV, and as you make your second trip in from the car with luggage the flea attack begins. Your renewed activity in the home caused the flea adults to emerge, and my goodness but they are hungry. Nothing like trying to fall asleep with fleas all over the place.

How about if I just "bomb" the place?

It's very tempting to give into advertising, and believe that an aerosol can will eliminate a severe problem in which the fleas are living and breeding within the house. However, don't count on it. Aerosol "bombs" (more properly called Total Release Aerosols) give off a spray mist that goes up…….and falls down. The droplets land on top of the carpet and may kill lots of adult fleas, but do nothing to affect the eggs or larvae down deep in the carpet. Plus, the ingredients in aerosols quite often are very, very short-lived - perhaps only a couple of hours - and don't affect adult fleas emerging after that.

What you are looking for is some way to kill the adult fleas and the larvae, and also to kill flea adults that emerge over the next couple of weeks.

So, what are my steps for control?

First, you would like to eliminate the source of the whole problem. No, I don't mean eliminate the dog, but certainly eliminate the fleas on the dog so that no more egg production occurs. According to one flea research expert, the Cat Flea adult is "a permanent ecto-parasite on pets", meaning it does not jump on and off the pet, but stays on board, hidden in the dense fur. It only gets off as an adult flea if it is forced off by your brushing or the dog's chewing.

There are many materials now available to use on the pet, and the best ones will affect not only the adult fleas, but also the eggs that they lay. These contain a growth regulator that kills the eggs that come in contact with the chemical. This same chemical can be applied to your carpets by licensed professionals, and it keeps the flea larvae ever from becoming those darned biting adult fleas. There also are several brands of "drops" that can go on the pet, placed in the fur behind the back of the head, and these kill the flea adults over a 3 to 4 week period. There is, of course, also regular bathing of the pets, possibly with a flea shampoo that can definitely kill fleas that are present.

Oh, by the way, please do not fall for any of the advertising for "ultrasonic" flea collars, that claim to set up "flea free" zones around your pets. According to one University of Florida researcher, these devices do no good whatsoever, and he states that dozens of studies around the world at other universities have come to that same conclusion.

Step two, if your home has reached the point where the flea eggs, larvae, and pupae are widespread in the carpet, is to treat all those areas with a properly labeled product. This is best done by licensed professionals, who have materials that are excellent, odorless, and of extremely low hazard when used correctly. They have the knowledge to apply it in the proper places and already own the equipment needed.

How do I prepare my home for chemical treatment?

Since flea eggs and larvae can be just about anywhere in the home that the pets go, your goal will be to apply the spray to all those susceptible areas. I know in my home one of my cats likes to hide under the hanging clothes in our bedroom closet, hoping to escape detection and not get tossed outside for the day. If she had fleas she no doubt would be seeding that carpeted area of the closet with flea eggs, and if we failed to spray there we would miss one of the "hot spots" in the house. You want to ensure, though, that you DO NOT SPRAY any clothing, children's toys, or any other personal materials. Not only do you not want to contact pesticide by touching these things later, but it is highly unlikely that fleas are breeding in the roller blades or the Candy Land game. So, whether it is you doing it or the professional company you have contracted with, prior to spraying you must:

  • Pick up everything on the floor, including under beds and inside closets
  • Flip up the bed blankets so the area below is readily accessible
  • Tie back floor length drapes so the edges of walls are accessible
  • Pull out sofas and chairs and pick up the kids' Leggo collection that you thought you'd never see again, and vacuum that area thoroughly
  • Remove all pet dishes from floors
  • Cover fish tanks and turn off the air supply during the application
  • Vacuum every square inch of carpet as thoroughly as you can. That bears repeating - VACUUM every square inch of carpet as thoroughly as you can. This will not only straighten up the fibers of the carpet to facilitate the action of the spray, but it also is the physical movement and contact that will cause many of the flea pupae to hatch to adult fleas, and get them past the difficult stage.

Another thought, of course, is to discuss the options with the company that will do the flea treatment. If chemical odor is a concern then mention that, and there are excellent products that do not smell. Believe it or not, there is a large percentage of homeowners who are NOT satisfied if they cannot smell something, thinking that pesticides must stink if they are going to work. The times have changed, though, and odors were usually associated with the oil and kerosene solutions that are not used anymore.

What should I expect AFTER the flea treatment?

You will be asked to do three very important things after a flea spray application. First, do NOT go back into the home if the carpets are still damp. You want to wait till the spray is dry, so that it does not contact your skin, and once it is dry it adheres very, very tightly to the carpet fibers. You can check this by placing a tissue paper on the carpet and stepping on it lightly with your shoe. If it shows a wet spot then you need to leave again for another hour or two. Opening windows and turning up heaters prior to the application, if possible, will speed up drying time.

The second important step is to vacuum again, every day if at all possible. This is not going to remove any flea chemicals, but will once again cause flea pupae to hatch to adults. The chemical cannot kill the pupa, as it is hidden within its cocoon, but the adult fleas that emerge can be killed by the freshly placed spray, even after it is dry. You should dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag after vacuuming so that flea eggs that have been sucked inside do not hatch within the vacuum cleaner and become another problem.

The third thing you will be asked to do is to please be patient. The Cat Flea is not going to change its biology just to please us, and the fact is that it takes about 3 weeks for fleas to complete their life cycle, from egg to adult. Even if the professional company does the best job that is possible, using the state of the art chemicals and equipment, you still will see occasional fleas for the next two to four weeks, until they are all emerged from their pupae. You can speed up this process by vacuuming regularly, but adding more chemical applications on top of what is already there is not really helping.

I hope this helps, but it is important for you to understand the reality of flea control, so please discuss it with the professionals, and they will tell you what to expect.