Updated: May 25
“I think that I shall never see
a beast as loathsome as a flea.
A flea whose hungry mouth consumes
all the blood that it exhumes.”
I think most of us share Kilmer’s aversion to fleas, although he forgot to tell us that this ‘lowly creature’ is merely one of some 2,500 species of small, flightless parasitic insects.
The common flea (or Siphonaptera, derived from the Greek "siphon", meaning a tube or pipe, and "aptera" meaning wingless) may be tiny, some 3 mm, or 0.12 inches, long but it has literally changed the course of human history!
Did Fleas Cause the Black Death ̶ and More?
Now, some of you out there may think that we’re prone to exaggeration when we detail the human health threats posed by some of the insects we’ve discussed, but in the case of the common flea, there’s no doubt about the risks it poses.
If you have any doubts, keep in mind that the so-called “Black Death” ̶ an epidemic of bubonic plague that marched across Europe from approximately 1346 until 1352 and is said to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population ̶ was actually caused by fleas feasting on the carcasses of rats felled by the disease.
From today’s standpoint, almost 700 years later, this seems almost inconceivable, but look at the recent outbreaks of Ebola in Africa or SARS in China if you want a notion of how dangerous such epidemics can be!
Of course, bubonic plague is hardly a threat these days, but, there are diseases that originate with flea bites, such as Murine typhus, Tungiasis, a rare but unpleasant ailment that tends to originate in places like the West Indies, the Caribbean, and Central America; and Tularemia, a potentially serious illness that can be transmitted to humans via a bite from an infected flea.
In general, most flea bites are associated with allergies such as dermatitis (which usually appears on patches of skin as itchy bumps or a rash) or, in very rare cases, asthmatic-like symptoms when flea feces are inhaled.
How Do You Spot Fleas?
Spotting fleas hopping around in your home or office is difficult, to say the least. Your first clue may well come from your pets’ persistent scratching, since fleas are external parasites that afflict both cats and dogs! Given their ability to jump up to 6 inches at a time, adult fleas are consummate ‘hitchhikers’, using passing dogs or cat as temporary transportation. Actually, we should also include ourselves ̶ the common, or garden-variety ‘unsuspecting human’ ̶ as another mode of conveyance sometimes used by fleas.
Pets can also acquire fleas from kennels, groomers, etc., or from other dogs or cats, even from wildlife that they encounter in your yard. Opossums and raccoons are the prime suspects here.
Unfortunately, pet scratching may not be the only sign that your home has become a haven for fleas: You, too, may be victim to flea bites. They are usually small, with a red spot surrounded by a sort of halo, which tends to swell and can cause itching (which can become serious for those with sensitive or reactive skin).
These bites usually cause nothing more than minor itching, but humans and pets alike can also fall foul to fleabite allergic dermatitis, which is characterized by severe itching, hair loss, reddening of the skin, and, in some cases, secondary infections.
Getting Rid of Fleas on Your Pets
Combatting a flea invasion is usually a two-fold affair: First, treating you pets and, second, eradicating those fleas from your home.
This time of the year can be particularly challenging, flea-wise, since these annoying ‘invaders’ love the warm weather. Time was our seasonal variations meant that Fall and Winter put a quick end to these parasites, but our centrally heated (and air-conditioned) homes permit fleas to thrive year-round!
Another problem with fleas is that it only takes one to start an infestation cycle. Once a flea has glommed onto a pet it can lay up to 50 eggs a day on the poor, unsuspecting animal. After that, those eggs will begin to fall from your pet’s fur ̶ onto rugs, carpets, sofas, and the animal’s bedding. That done, the larvae quickly pupate and develop into adult fleas, which once again will reattach themselves to your pet (or pets). Dogs, cats, it makes no difference to the fleas. They are equal opportunity parasites!
Our tales of horror about the Black Death and other flea-borne ailments notwithstanding, your pets are more than likely to develop tapeworm infections than anything else, since they invariably ingest some eggs as they groom themselves.
That’s why it’s important that you consult your veterinarian as soon as you suspect your pet has fleas. These days there are a wide of treatment choices on the market and your vet will be happy to recommend the one most suitable for your pet’s needs. Oh yes, and don’t assume that the recommended treatment is a one-off deal. You should always try to maintain a continuing treatment program for your pet ̶ dogs and cats both.
There are a few, further steps you can take to eliminate the flea problem, but before you do you might consider evacuating the house for a few hours just to lessen the possibility of children (and spouses) inadvertently tracking fleas and eggs around while the grim work of death-dealing proceeds.
Making You Home Flea-Free
A few tips, then:
1. Wash pet bedding (and toys)
Wash all of your pet’s bedding, in as hot a wash as possible. High temperatures will
kill any hiding fleas, and their eggs. Plus, wash any pet toys you may have. If they’re not washable (and many aren’t), just thrown them in the garbage.
2. Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum
Make sure you vacuum all your floors, carpets, rugs, sofas, easy chairs, etc, as often
as you can.
3. Treat your own bedding
Let’s face it, or dogs and cats love to jump up on our beds and share our nighttime
slumbers. Again, put that bedding in a hot wash and dry. Also, remember to treat
your cushions, curtains and sofas as well. They, too, need attention ̶ if not with a hot
wash, then with the appropriate insecticide.
Keeping Fleas Out of Your Home
If you have managed to eradicate those pesky fleas from your home (or office) your work, alas, is not over. To keep them away you need to look to wider vistas; namely, your yard!
This is prime flea real estate, especially if you have wildlife traipsing across your property. Much as we may love them, all of those creatures ̶ foxes, opossum, deer, turkeys, bats, chipmunks, coyotes, mice, raccoons, moles, squirrels, and so on ̶ can, and do, carry fleas. So, do whatever you can to keep them out of your house!
Lock down the lids of any garbage cans you may store outside (racoons just love digging around in the trash for morsels of discarded food) and if you must compost left-over food either keep the pile far away from the house or else invest in a sturdy composter, with a suitably sturdy cover.
Here are few more keep-the-fleas-away tips that you should consider going forward:
Mow your lawn at least once a week. Fleas are especially at home in tall grass ̶ and are always ready to hitch a ride inside. By all means rake the uncovered areas, but don’t throw the clippings on your compost heap. You’ll just be transporting the fleas from one part of the yard to another. Better to bag the cut grass and leave it by the curbside for the trash collectors.
Remove any leaves, weeds, prunings, and brush, as well as loose rocks, discarded sod and branches. Once again, you’re eliminating flea-friendly habitats.
Hunt down any warm shady places in your yard ̶ especially if they’re damp or humid. Fleas have a particular affinity for places like these, so you would be well advised to get rid of them.
Getting Rid of Fleas...for Good!
Sterifab is one of the best options for your anti-flea efforts. In addition to killing fleas ̶ and a whole host of other pests Sterifab can be used to de-bug virtually any inorganic object or area, and there are no other U.S. EPA-registered products that can be used in so many ways– as a viricide, a bactericide, a sanitizer, an insecticide, a deodorant, as well as a germicide, disinfectant, mildewcide, fungicide, bacteriostatic or fungistatic.
Assuming, of course, that you’ve removed your pets and had them de-bugged, you should go ahead and use Sterifab. Obviously, you need to treat those areas in which your pets sleep ̶ as well as carpets, rugs, beds, sofas, and so forth ̶ especially since they are probably the areas most likely to harbor that flea eggs, larvae and pupae. As a rule, you don’t have to worry too much about hardwood, tile and concrete floors, but they should get vacuumed regularly.
Keep in mind that even after you’ve treated your home (or office) with insecticide you may well see the occasional flea. These are usually newly hatched adults, who have yet to encounter the insecticide you laid down. But go on vacuuming. In time they will all vanish.
However, if they don’t, it may be time to either retreat your premises or, if you think the problem is now too serious, to hire a pest management company.
If you want to learn more about fleas and how to get rid of them, take a look at our extensive article: How to Get Rid of Fleas