Understand the life cycle of fleas

Tick and flea treatments for our pets promise quick and lasting results and are usually very effective when administered correctly. However, these treatments – including chews, spot-on liquids and collars – may not be able to get rid of flea infestations completely when pet owners don’t tackle each stage of the flea’s life cycle head-on. Understanding the life cycle of the flea is the key to eradicating this nasty pet pest.

There are four stages of the flea’s life cycle, each with its own approximate timeline. In total, the flea’s life cycle can last from two weeks to a few months, depending on environmental conditions. The flea moves from one stage to the next when specific conditions trigger each change.

Adult flea

Let’s begin with the adult flea, since this is the creature most pet parents are familiar with. Whether you’re petting your dog or cat and you spot the flea in their fur or if you see the adult flea momentarily jumping onto you, the sight of the flea can cause a certain amount of dread because if there’s one flea in plain sight, how many are lurking about that you don’t see?

The adult flea needs to bite and feed from its host (your dog or cat) before it can mate and start laying eggs, approximately two days after its first feed. The female adult flea can lay around 40 – 50 eggs per day… for three months. That’s thousands of eggs that all have the potential to grow into adult fleas and lay their own thousands of eggs. A flea infestation can happen very quickly!

Flea eggs

The adult flea is attached to the host, but the eggs are not. They may be laid on your pet’s skin or in their fur, but most flea eggs will drop off your pet and land somewhere in the surrounding environment. When your pet gets up from a nap and shakes their body, those flea eggs go flying. Dog and cat beds, blankets, carpets and even pet plush toys make the perfect incubators for flea eggs.

Flea eggs are tiny and almost invisible to humans. If you happen to specifically be looking for flea eggs (with a magnifying glass), they will look like tiny oval-shaped grains of salt. In optimal conditions (a warm, humid environment), the flea egg can hatch within one day to two weeks. The colder and drier the conditions, the longer it will take for the egg to hatch and the larva to emerge.

Flea larvae

Upon hatching, flea larvae are blind, almost transparent and only around 3 – 4 mm long. They are ‘negative phototactic’, which means they are repelled by sources of light. They eat flea dirt, which is the excreted remains of the blood eaten by fleas. These little sightless larvae burrow into carpets and floorboards to develop in the dark for around seven to 14 days (sometimes more). In the right conditions, the larvae begin to spin cocoons around themselves and actively enter the pupal stage.

Flea pupae

When heat and humidity are ideal, the flea pupa can develop rapidly inside its cosy cocoon and emerge as an adult flea within three days. In less than ideal conditions, pupae can survive for up to a year. The cocoons are sticky and buried inside carpets and crevices, and are difficult to remove. There are certain environmental conditions that will trigger the pupae to emerge as full-grown adult fleas. These include the vibrations, body heat and carbon dioxide emitted by potential hosts – animals and people.

As soon as the adult flea emerges, it’s ready to feed, mate and lay eggs again after 48 hours. And so the flea’s life cycle continues.

The only way to get rid of fleas is to disrupt the life cycle

Tick and flea treatments for pets (including chews, collars and spot-on treatments) create an environment that is toxic to adult fleas – whether they bite into the skin and die, or are repelled or killed by surface treatments. These treatments work for adult fleas and some larvae, but don’t kill flea eggs or cocooned pupae, which are generally not on the animal.

Getting rid of a flea infestation will take a multi-pronged approach and it needs dedication or the flea eggs will hatch or the pupae will mature into adults and the life cycle will start all over again. When treating your pets for fleas, use the opportunity to deep-clean your house – especially carpets and cracks and crevices in floorboards.

Insect foggers and chemical products that can be applied to upholstery are intended to kill insects at various stages of their life cycle. These products contain insecticides as well as insect growth regulator, which stops flea development at the pupal stage. Pet owners may want to contract the services of a pest control specialist who understands the life cycle of the flea and has the right products and methods to control an infestation.

After chemical application, a strong-suctioning vacuum or even steam-cleaning carpets, pet beds, couches, mattresses and other places your pets may lie down, will help to remove the dead residue as well as most of the flea eggs. If you vacuum as a first precaution, keep in mind that flea eggs and pupae don’t necessarily die in the vacuum cleaner bag, and may just hatch/emerge from there. After vacuuming, destroy the contents of the bag or reservoir, which may just act as an incubator for new fleas to hatch from if you don’t.

The most effective way to prevent flea infestations from developing at all is to make sure your pet’s tick and flea regimen is up to date and their resting environment is clean at all times.

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