Every year, an estimated 10 million people in the United States suffer from a serious bout of head lice. These tiny insects cause itching and irritation that can be quite painful especially when combined with other conditions like eczema or dry scalp. But what about those pesky little critters called fleas? They’re not nearly as prevalent as head lice, but they still cause some pretty intense discomfort and skin irritations.
While we may think of them as parasites that only infect our pets, these winged pests have actually been known to attack us humans since ancient times. In fact, Alexander the Great was rumored to have suffered from flea bites while he fought his enemies. The first written account of this kind of infestation came during the seventh century A.D., when monks were said to have been bitten by fleas while praying.
So how exactly do fleas make themselves at home inside our bodies? And is there any way to keep them out of our homes? Read more to find out.
How Do Fleas Feed?
It’s important to know how your body reacts to flea attacks before you begin treating yourself or your pet. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being attacked by mosquitoes, then you already know that blood sucking isn’t always pleasant. Flea bites don’t work along the same lines.
Instead of drawing blood, fleas rely on the carbon dioxide produced by mammals’ breathing process to fuel their own metabolism. This means that even though you might be able to spot dozens of tiny bugs crawling across your skin, you won’t see much actual evidence of them eating.
This doesn’t stop fleas from causing some nasty symptoms, however. When fleas latch onto your skin, they create small welts that itch intensely. As you’d expect, scratching these areas often leads to further irritation and inflammation. Your immune system will also send inflammatory agents to fight off the invaders.
Unfortunately for you, these chemicals release formaldehyde into the surrounding air, which causes burning eyes, nose and throat irritation. Flea bites aren’t typically dangerous in most cases, but allergic reactions can lead to life-threatening situations if left untreated.
The best way to avoid flea bites is to avoid getting infested in the first place. You should check your house and yard regularly for signs of flea activity. Take note of where you’ve noticed the fleas congregating, and treat those spots immediately. Look around furniture and bedding for adult fleas, eggs or larvae. Check your pet’s fur for signs of head shaking, excessive grooming or scabs. If you notice any of these things, it’s time to take action.
What Does it Mean If My Pet Has Fleas?
If you catch your cat or dog having problems with fleas early enough, there’s hope yet! While it’s true that many households deal with regular infestations, there are ways to minimize the damage. Luckily, there are several treatments available for both ourselves and our furry friends.
Treating a flea infestation requires patience. It takes several weeks for medication to reach its full potential, so you shouldn’t expect overnight results. Be sure to follow all instructions carefully, including any warnings regarding possible side effects. Consult your veterinarian prior to starting any new treatment regimen to ensure that you don’t experience any adverse reactions.
One thing to remember is that topical medications are usually easier to apply than oral ones. For example, using a liquid spray such as Advantage kills adult fleas within hours. On the downside, this type of product needs to stay on the animal’s coat continuously until it wears off completely. Other products require multiple applications over the course of a few days to kill fleas effectively.
Insect growth regulators (IGRs) are another popular choice among pet owners who want to rid their houses of fleas without resorting to harsh pesticides. Like topical meds, IGRs come in a variety of forms, including sprays, dips and tablets.
Each one works differently, but they all share one feature in common: they inhibit insect development rather than killing them outright. Adult fleas would normally die within two weeks after ingesting IGRs, making them effective against young flea larvae as well. This allows users to protect their pets from future infestations.
There are hundreds of species of fleas, each with different physical characteristics and feeding behaviors. Most commonly, we think of fleas as belonging to just three major groups: Ctenocephalides felis, Canicola canis and Ornithocera capensis. There are also smaller varieties of less harmful flea species, such as Xenopsylla cheopis and Pulex penetrans.
Can Dogs Get Fleas from Cats?
Yes, dogs can become infected with fleas just like we can, although the likelihood of this happening is relatively low. Dogs tend to pick up fleas from their environment rather than directly from other animals, unlike cats. Cats are more likely to spread fleas through close contact with other animals. However, if you happen to come into direct contact with fleas, it’s unlikely that you’ll contract the disease.
Even if you do end up with flea bites, they’ll probably look similar to mosquito bites because fleas use saliva to carry out egg production. Unlike fleas, ticks pose a greater threat to dogs. Ticks transmit diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis, all of which affect the heart, nervous system, joints and brain. Because fleas are external parasites, they cannot spread disease.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, household flea control products containing carbamates are considered safe, non-hazardous alternatives to organophosphate compounds. Despite this claim, certain types of carbamate products have been banned in Europe due to health risks associated with their active ingredient. To learn more about the controversy surrounding these issues, click here.
Are flea-killing shampoos necessary?
Not necessarily. Shampoo products marketed specifically for flea infestation contain ingredients that disrupt flea reproduction, including pyrethrin, permethrine and malathion. Pyrethrins break down into toxic elements called pyrethroids. Permethrines interfere with the central nervous system of fleas. Malathions act as anticholingerics, meaning they block the chemical neurotransmitters used by fleas to move around freely.
These substances are generally safe for humans and wildlife, but there are exceptions. Certain breeds of domestic dogs are sensitive to pyrethrins, for instance. Also, pregnant women should steer clear of products containing permethrines and malathials because they can harm unborn fetuses. Finally, children under age six should never use shampoo products intended for flea infestation because they could accidentally swallow the contents.
You can try removing fleas manually by brushing them off your pet with a fine-toothed comb or fluff brush. Afterward, wash your pet thoroughly with soap and water to remove the dead fleas and their waste. Then repeat the application process every day for four to five weeks.
A number of flea-fighting solutions are available commercially. Among the most common are powders, liquids, gels, foams, wafers and collars. Powdered preparations include diatomaceous earth, garlic powder, pennyroyal mint oil, cedar chips, citronella oils and essential oils such as clove, lemongrass, rosemary, lavender and peppermint. Citrus oils have proven to be particularly effective against fleas, according to studies performed by scientists at Cornell University.
Liquid products include alcohol-based lotions, organic vegetable oils and petroleum jelly. Organic repellants such as DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, PMD, Oil of lemon eucalyptus, and Protopectin are also effective against fleas. Although DEET is regarded as the safest pesticide for use on pets, it can cause liver failure in large doses, so it should be handled with care. Other natural repellents include extracts of plants such as basil, chives, cloves, fennel seeds, geranium, lemongrass, marigold, neroli, nutmeg, patchouli, rose, tarragon, thyme, and ylang-ylang.
Gels and wafers include products such as Avon Skin So Soft with Insect Shield, Frontline Plus Spot On Dog & Cat Flea Control, and Advocate Flea-Buster Gel. Collars made of materials such as wool, cotton, nylon or leather have been shown to repel fleas.
Finally, electronic devices such as alarms and motion sensors can alert you to flea infestation. Devices such as the Furby Pet Guardian monitor your pet’s movement via an RFID chip, then sound an alarm if the animal ventures too far from its designated area.