They are so small, you can hardly see them. But the trouble they cause is tremendous and millions of pet owners have to spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars trying to get rid of fleas. As per a report by American Veterinary Medical Association, fleas and related problems that they cause account for most of the dermatological issues in pets that lead to vet visits. Thankfully, I can help you avoid all of this. In fact, this is the only guide you need to read to get rid of fleas in your home, in your yard and on your pets.
Please remember, you cannot ignore this problem. Fleas will not go away on their own. You need to take steps and measures and use the right products if you wish to dispose of them for good. Let me start with a sincere warning: you need to spend a decent amount of time and effort to completely get rid of fleas. But trust me, it is worth the effort as you want to be sure they are entirely gone, or else you have a new flea infestation to deal with in weeks.
I will guide you through every step of the process, so let us begin with the basics.
What are fleas?
Fleas are small, wingless, bloodsucking parasites that bite domesticated and wild animals as well as humans. They may be light or dark brown in color with an adapted tube-like mouth having parts to pierce the host’s skin. Fleas are extremely robust; do not let their small size fool you. They can be very resilient and their bodies are extremely tough. This is what makes it difficult to eradicate them. It is important to understand fleas completely, especially knowing what they look like, their life cycle and feeding habits, so you can utilize this information to get rid of them.
The flea life cycle
You might not think too much of it, but understanding a flea’s life cycle is very important for its complete eradication from your household. A female flea is capable of laying up to 1000 eggs in her lifetime and each egg will go through a process before evolving into an adult flea. The total life cycle of each flea can be divided into 4 parts: eggs, larvae, pupae and adults.
Female fleas lay nearly 45-50 eggs per day. These may be dropped on the hosts’ bodies, on sofas, carpets, in cracks and crevices etc. This is the main reason why you need to use measures to clean your entire house again and again as the newly hatched eggs can again give rise to a massive infestation. In case the adult flea remains on the host, she can lay eggs in nearly every room of your house, yard and pretty much everywhere your pet goes.
Larvae come out of eggs between 2 to 10 days after the eggs are dropped. There are again three different stages of larval growth – a time during which they feed and grow and form a cocoon around their bodies. The larvae are small worm-like creatures which can move about to feed. They search for organic matter and primarily feed upon fecal matter left behind by adult fleas. Larvae are off-white in color to start with but turn darker once they grow. Flea larvae love warm, moist and dark places to hide in and can crawl up to 20 feet in search of organic matter to feed upon. As their end of life cycle nears, they build a nesting cocoon/pupal casing.
Flea pupae is a stage where the larvae create a nest-like casing made using animal or human hair, carpet fibers and other inorganic and organic matter. This is extremely difficult to see it with the human eye. Therefore, vacuuming the house is very essential to get rid of this stage. Insect growth regulators, flea powders, sprays, shampoos and spot treatments can come in handy when you need to get rid of fleas at this stage. During this stage, the larvae develop into an adult flea. This stage can last for several days, weeks or even up to a year.
The final stage of the flea life cycle. The adult fleas will now begin their search for hosts as they need blood quickly to survive. After the first meal, they are capable of reproducing. It is worth mentioning that under perfect conditions, it only takes one month for a flea infestation to populate to a quarter of a million fleas.
What do fleas look like?
A flea’s body is divided into abdomen, thorax and head with the antennae and mouth parts. They have powerful, hairy legs which enable them to jump up very high. This ability makes it easy for them to jump from one host to another. It is estimated that a flea can jump nearly 150 times its own body length and 80 times its body height. One set of legs also has claws that enable them to grasp firmly to animals skin or fur. The eyes and genitalia lie on opposite ends of the body. A fleas total body size can range between 0.2 to 1.2 mm.
Do fleas bite and what are the symptoms?
Fleas can bite both humans and animals leading to various symptoms.
Flea bites on humans
Humans can show many different signs of flea bites as follows:
- Red, itchy, raised spots on the skin.
- Often, flea bites are not itchy for everyone, as some humans are immune to them and may not show any symptoms at all.
- The bites are typically seen on lower parts of the body like the feet, legs and calves, especially if you walk about in your shorts.
- Symptoms of flea bites vary from human to human. Some people might go crazy with the itching, which can even cause blisters, raised welts and secondary skin infections. The lesions last for a few days and if the itching is driving you mad, you might want to take some antihistamine for it.
- If you develop fever, blisters and pus filled boils, see a doctor to prevent serious infections.
Treating flea bites in humans
To treat flea bites, you must wash the skin with cool water and an antiseptic soap. Do not scratch the bites as they will just itch even more and they can get infected with bacteria. You can apply some hydrocortisone cream on the bites to stop the itch. A bag of ice cold vegetable packets or some ice cubes can also relieve itchiness and swelling. For very severe itching, take antihistamine like Benadryl for relief.
Flea bites on pets
In cats and dogs, there may be the following symptoms of flea bites:
- Your pet might itch, gnaw or chew its skin or try to chase its tail.
- Flea bites also tend to leave behind visible excretions in the form of reddish, brown, bloody spots as well as flea debris and discarded skin.
- You might also see red lesions, hair loss and scratched red marks on the pet’s tummy, ears, face and legs.
- Symptoms naturally vary from animal to animal. Some pets may not even itch; others might have raised lesions that itch a lot.
Treating flea bites on pets
Start by bathing your pet with a flea shampoo. You can use oatmeal shampoo if the itching is severe. Your pet will naturally scratch the area, so pay attention to the bite and look for infections. Use a soothing vet-approved ski cream, gel or lotion containing natural ingredients like Aloe Vera on the lesions. This way, even if your pet licks the skin, it will not harm it.
Are fleas dangerous?
It is hard to believe that the flea is dangerous given its small size. But it is still capable of spreading diseases. First of all, their bites cause intense distress in pet cats and dogs. In some animals, the constant itchiness can cause flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) and even serious anxiety. Severe itching can lead to hair loss as well as anemia. Weak animals, kittens, puppies or elderly pets can also suffer greatly due to flea bites. In humans, flea bites are capable of causing plague as well as a serious disease called typhus. This disease begins with a rash, fever, and upset stomach. Body temperature can go up to 104 F and can rage for weeks before falling back to normal. If left untreated, it can result in multiple organ failure.
Signs of a flea infestation
If your home or pets have fleas, then one of the first signs will be flea bites on the animals and humans in your household. Flea bites can give rise to many symptoms as discussed above, primarily bites and itchiness. You might even see fleas jumping off your pet or from your carpet etc. Fleas also leave behind discarded debris which appears as rust colored or dark fecal matter, skin etc. Here are the top signs of a flea infestation:
- Your pets might be continuously scratching.
- There may be salt-pepper colored debris in pet’s bedding.
- If you examine your pet’s body, there may be scabs, bits of ‘dandruff’ and brownish, reddish specks.
- When you wake up in the morning, you might have tiny welts or itchy skin on the legs, or exposed parts of the body.
- Your socks may have tiny black specks and debris as described above.
Why you may have a flea problem
Fleas are excellent hitch hikers. They can jump from animal to animal and can even travel on humans when one goes out hiking in grassy areas. Fleas are usually predominantly found in crowded places like dog boarding facilities, hotels and motels and grassy areas, trails etc. Your dog can inadvertently bring fleas home if it has been boarded at dog care facilities. Wild animals like raccoons, rodents, squirrels etc are also hosts to fleas. These animals nesting in your yard, under patios and decks, play sets etc can also drop flea eggs around your garden where they get picked up by pets. Here is why you may have a flea problem:
- Even if you do not have pets, you can still get fleas. So no pets does not equal no fleas.
- In the summer months, fleas survive in your yard and can be carried inside your home.
- You might even get fleas from other people’s homes.
- If you have recently moved to a new property, it might have fleas from previous owners.
How to get rid of fleas
In the past few years, there has been a breakthrough in the way we fight fleas; many excellent products are available that can kill and prevent fleas for months at a time. However, you must still fight fleas on all fronts. This means get rid of fleas in your home, on your pets and in your yard.
Getting rid of fleas in your home
One of the main reasons why fleas are so difficult to get rid of is because of the fact that even if there are none on your pet; there may be a hundred in their environment, i.e., your home, waiting to climb on you and your pet’s body. Fleas, as stated before, are capable of multiplying rapidly and hence an integrated approach is your best solution to getting rid of them.
Step 1 – Vacuum
A clean home is a happy home. This is also true when it comes to fleas, as you will be very happy when they are gone. Start by vacuuming every room to suck up the flea larvae and eggs from all the rooms. You must also vacuum the upholstered furniture and curtains, bedding etc. Pay special attention to areas where your pets rest or sleep. After you are done with vacuuming, throw all of the vacuum bags outside even if they are only half full. Failure to do so will have the fleas crawling out of them back into your home.
Step 2 – Treat your home with insecticide
Many pet owners do not like using chemicals but the only surefire way of getting rid of fleas is with chemicals. Most products available in the market are safe for pets and humans. Professional pest control treatment from exterminator companies also remain effective for nearly 18 months after treatment. Medicated sprays and flea bombs are effective ways to eliminate fleas from homes. Premise sprays can be evenly applied around the house and in the yard and have helped many homeowners get rid of ticks, fleas and other parasites.
Step 3 – Use diatomaceous earth powder
This is an important tool in your arsenal against fleas. It is also known as chinchilla dust and is made from fossilized remains of algae. Its sharp molecular structure rips open the fleas’ exoskeleton killing them instantly upon contact.
Make sure you cover your nose with a mask as diatomaceous powder dust can be irritating to the lungs. It is also recommended to remove pets and kids from the vicinity when using this method of flea control. Liberally sprinkle DE powder on your floors, carpets, furniture and inside cracks and crevices, behind frames, headboards and all other areas where your pets reside. Let the powder remain on the surfaces for at least 24 hours. This way, it can eliminate all of the flea eggs and larvae. Vacuum the next day-thoroughly and completely. You can even dust the vacuum bags with DE powder as well so fleas trapped by vacuuming are also killed off. Discard vacuum bags immediately, far away from your home.
You will need to repeat this treatment after 3-4 days to eliminate the newly hatched eggs. As part of ongoing flea prevention, sprinkle the diatomaceous dust all over the carpets from time to time and vacuum the next day.
Treating your pets for fleas
Being the number one reason why people have flea infestations, you have to treat your pets. If you fail to do so, I can almost guarantee that at some point, you will get fleas. People who do not have pets can also get fleas, but they usually get them when someone who has a pet visits. Pets are the preferred hosts of fleas, so this is where you should look first, if you suspect you have a flea problem.
Step 1 – Use a flea comb
A fine toothed comb is the best way to eliminate fleas from your pets’ body. It can remove adult fleas and larvae as well as the eggs they leave behind. So do invest in good quality brushes and fine toothed combs to groom your pet with every day. The key is to get as close to their skin as possible. In case of dogs or cats with lot of fur, part the hair with your fingers and brush from head to tail. Do not forget to inspect your pet’s paws. In between combing and brushing, dip the comb in soapy water to drown the trapped fleas.
Step 2 – Bathe your pets
Fleas cling to the pet’s fur but they cannot resist water. Bathing is one of the most important steps to get rid of fleas on pets. Start by wetting the pet’s fur thoroughly and shampoo your pet with a vet approved flea shampoo. Lather up and let the shampoo work its magic. Fleas will try to jump from the body on to the pet’s head. So make sure you also get these fleas by shampooing the head. Avoid getting the soap in your pet’s eyes and mouth. Wash off the shampoo completely after 10 minutes (longer you leave the shampoo, the better). This method will get rid of larvae, eggs and adult fleas but you need to repeat the bath again in 3-4 days time to get rid of newly hatched fleas. You can repeat shampooing in case of heavy infestations.
Step 3 – Use vinegar
Distilled white vinegar and organic apple cider vinegar can also repel fleas instead of chemical based shampoos. Mix up some dish soap like Dawn® with organic apple cider vinegar. Wet your pet’s fur completely and rub the detergent and vinegar mixture all over its body. Wipe down your pet’s ears with diluted vinegar to eliminate fleas hiding in the ear. Rinse off thoroughly after 10-15 minutes. Repeat 2-3 times a week to get rid of newly hatched fleas. In between baths, you can also spray watered down vinegar solution on your pets to keep fleas away.
Step 4 – Use sprays, powders and collars
As a part of integrated flea management approach, bring out the flea sprays, powders, collars and spot treatments. You can buy these from pet stores, local grocery and drug stores and even from vet’s clinics or online retailers. Use the products as directed on the label and make sure they are designed to be used on pets.
Sprays and powders are generally safe but you must take care not to get them inside your pet’s mouth and eyes. Powders tend to be messy and difficult to apply but you must dust your pet’s body completely with flea powder after bathing it and while the fur is still a bit wet. Reapply the powder every few days. Sprays are easier to apply but you must take care to avoid their eyes and mouth. If needed, saturate a cloth with the spray and wipe down the pet’s body with it.
Attach a flea collar around your pets’ necks; some of these products even offer tick prevention. Make sure you replace the collar every few months and especially if it gets wet from swimming/bathing. Instead of a collar you can apply flea drops, which I use on my two dogs. It is very effective as long as you remember the monthly treatment, so be sure to mark the calendar.
Step 5 – Time to load up the laundry
In addition to all of the above steps, you must also load up the washing machine with your pets bedding, curtains, linen, bed sheets and pillow covers. Use hot water and detergent and, if the fabric can withstand it, mild bleach to wash the load. If your pets sleep on carpets, use a carpet shampoo along with a steam cleaner to eliminate larvae, eggs, adult fleas and flea debris from these areas. If your pets share your bed, you may want to discard a heavily infested mattress or at least steam clean it properly to get rid of fleas that are hiding here.
How to eliminate fleas in the yard
Fleas are very robust creatures and can survive harsh weather conditions. Many fleas enter our homes thanks to wild animals like raccoons, rodents, etc residing in the yard. Therefore, treating your yard is an essential part of flea eradication.
Start off by eliminating all kinds of clutter in the yard. This includes old stuff, rusting objects, bikes, play sets, toys and piles of lumber or wood chunks etc from under the decks, patio etc. These create hiding places for rodents, raccoons and possums which are flea hosts. Concentrate on treating shaded areas such as patios and decks as fleas usually do not like sunshine and hot temperatures.
You must keep grass blades trimmed as this will eliminate hiding places for fleas. So mow your lawns regularly. Raking the yard will also make it uninhabitable for fleas.
Another way to get rid of fleas in the yard is to use a biodegradable flea control spray containing Nematodes. Beneficial nematodes devour fleas and flea eggs and once their food sources dry up, they simply bio degrade. So spray it all around the lawn.
When it comes to flea prevention, there are a several things you can do to keep fleas out of your home.
Give your pets a bath once in a while
You can bathe your pet with a good quality, vet approved, flea shampoo every few weeks especially if they spend more time in dog boarding facilities or outside in the yard. Frequent bathing is also necessary in warmer months and after long hikes along grassy trails. This will eliminate flea eggs, larvae and adult fleas and prevent the problem from spiraling out of control.
Use flea control products
Flea prevention medicines or flea control products in the form of spot treatments, oral chews and tick collars are very useful in preventing fleas. They are affordable and easy to use. Buy them from your vet’s clinic or from pet stores.
You can apply the topical flea drops between your pet’s shoulder blades and at the base of its tail. They will protect your pet from fleas for up to a month after which you must reapply. Oral flea products are also safe and effective. You can administer them to your pet instead of using drops or collars. Hide this medicine in pet food or water or administer it to your pet directly. Most pets love the flavored oral chews and will not fuss while taking them.
It is best to treat your pet before flea season starts which is generally at the beginning of warm weather until the cold sets in. Make sure you treat all your pets.
Comb your pets fur and maintain the yard
You should also comb your pet’s fur every 2-3 days, especially in case of long haired pets. You can get a special flea comb for this purpose. I often use it on my own dogs when they have been outside playing in the yard. Speaking of the yard, be sure to keep it free from clutter to deter raccoons, rodents and possums from nesting in them. Mow the yard every 3-4 days to keep grass blade length short. Spray a beneficial nematode solution in the yard and along the fences.
Keep your home extra clean and organized
An important step in flea prevention is cleaning. Vacuum and de-clutter every room in your home. If needed, use diatomaceous earth powder at the start of a flea season. Vacate the home for a day or two when using this treatment. Sprinkle the powder all over the floors, beds, carpets, under the furniture and so on. Let the powder remain for 24-36 hours. Vacuum thoroughly. You should also launder pet bedding and all the linen in the home at high temperature to remove flea eggs, larvae and adults.
Chemical flea control agents and insecticides
There are numerous flea prevention medicines available in the market including topical ones like Imidacloprid, Dinotefuran, Fipronil and Selamectin as well as oral ones like Nitenpyram and Spinosad.
These are extracted from flowers and have been used since many years for flea and tick control. They work on the nervous system of fleas killing them rapidly. These products usually have no residual action but they are extremely safe for use around humans and pets. These days, pyrethrins are available in slow-time release forms that offer longer productions.
These are widely used for flea control these days and are available in the form of sprays, shampoos etc. Permethrin based topical treatment medicines get absorbed through the pet’s fat layer and spreads through the pet’s body to kill all stages of fleas.
This insect hormone disrupts flea life cycle and stops the larvae from maturing into adults. On the downside, it does not stop fleas from reproducing, so you might need to re-administer it or use it with other insect growth regulators.
This flea medicine is available as a topical treatment and kills fleas on contact. If your pet goes swimming or bathing, then its effect may be reduced. Imidacloprid is absorbed into the animal’s bloodstream where it is selectively toxic to parasites like ticks and fleas but not the animals itself. The effect lasts for about a month after which you need to reapply.
This is like Imidacloprid above, except that it is not water soluble. Many vet approved flea and tick shampoos contain Fipronil. It is safe and non toxic to puppies and kittens over 3 months of age. However, it should not be used on rabbits.
How to apply flea control products
Most flea control products are fairly easy to use, but be sure to read the instructions on the label first.
Start by applying the topical medicines as a spot treatment between the pet’s shoulder blades and at the base of the tail (basically areas where the pet cannot lick it). Part the hair and empty the ampoule containing the medicine. The medicine gets absorbed by the skin and kills eggs, larvae and adults. It also prevents new fleas from biting your pet. Shampooing or swimming etc can reduce the efficiency of these medicines.
You can also orally administer flea products like spinosad to your pet as per your vet’s advice. These are safe and effective but you need to re-administer them every few months for on-going flea control. Your vet will give you the exact dosage and times needed to treat.
Wash your hands thoroughly after applying a flea collar, administering flea drops or oral chews.
Fleas are no laughing matter; they can spread diseases and cause a great deal of harm to humans and pets, so please use this guide to get rid of fleas for good.