Fleas Navidad

The dark depths of December are now upon us. I offer you this delightful diversion from the lack of sunlight, and the crass commercialism meant to distract you from the darkness and lighten your wallet.

December has holidays for many interests. If the religious observances such as Christmas and Hanukkah are not to your liking, you have options. Dec 10 is Jane Addams Day in honor of the feminist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, not necessarily the rest of her family. Festivus (for Seinfeld fans and the rest of us) is on Dec 23.  Dec 12 is Gingerbread house day. Dr. Who fans have International Dalek Remembrance Day on Dec 21. They might also want to participate in Pretend to be a Time Traveler day on Dec 8. If you have out- of-town gifts to be sent, you can send them via air mail and appreciate the achievement of the Wright brothers on Dec 17, the anniversary of their first flight.

It seems like I have been seeing a lot of fleas lately (professionally, not socially), so it seems appropriate to devote this blog to them.

There are over 2,000 species of small, wingless, parasitic insects known as fleas. Most of them dedicate their lives to sucking blood from a particular species of mammal or bird. Some notable exceptions are the one that plays bass for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the cat flea, which is the one most commonly found on both dogs and cats.

There are also things called sand fleas, which may or may not even be fleas, depending on your location. What Americans often refer to as “sand fleas” are small, harmless crustaceans (aka sand hopper, beach flea or beach hopper). There is another creature that may be called a sand flea, that is actually a flea called the chigoe flea. It is found in sandy places like beaches and farms in tropical and subtropical areas in Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and Africa. Chigo fleas start out as the smallest of fleas, but they burrow into skin, start feeding and swell a thousandfold. The individual embedded flea dies after a few weeks, but not before spreading a lot of eggs into the environment, to ensure its timely replacement.

Flea circus performers were the larger, human flea variety. The concept of the flea circus seems to have originated as a way for craftsmen to show the scale of tiny objects. Then someone started using very thin gold wires to attach fleas to tiny carriages and other objects they could pull around. This is actually quite an impressive feat for both the creators of the tiny vehicles and harnesses as well as the fleas themselves. It also took a certain level of dedication on the part of the flea master, who also kept the fleas fed. These shows are now a thing of the past, because even if human fleas were still readily available, PETA would certainly not allow such acts to be displayed.

The fleas that are found on dogs and cats have a somewhat different lifestyle. For the remainder of this blog, I shall refer to your pet as Salem, in honor of a certain town that was plagued by bloodsuckers. The fleas that parasitize Salem shall be named after Barlow, who brought the scourge to Maine.

Barlows’ preferred environmental conditions are a temperature in the range of 40-85 degrees F and at least 50% humidity. They may be a seasonal problem, depending on your location. However, the conditions commonly found year-round in your house are often beneficial to their survival.

Much of the following information about the flea life cycle comes from a parasitologist from Kansas State University, Dr. Michael Dryden, aka “Dr. Flea”.

Adult Barlows living on your Salem are the most visible but are only a small percentage of the total population. They feed on blood, blood and more blood (up to 15 times their body weight in a day) then start laying eggs, eggs and more eggs (40-50 per day).

The eggs fall off your pet and into the surrounding area, which is your house and/or yard. Depending on the temperature and humidity, those eggs will hatch within the next 2-5 days.

From eggs emerge the larval form of the flea. Larvae are legless and avoid light. They lurk in the shadows, amongst the carpet fibers and in cracks in the floor and eat organic debris in the environment. An important source of nutrition for the larvae is the partially digested blood adult Barlows excrete. Some of this so-called flea “dirt” may be visible as small black specks on Salem. It can easily be differentiated from actual dirt by getting it wet. Dirt stays brown or black, while flea poop will turn reddish brown because of the blood content. Most of it falls off Salem and into the environment to be ingested by the larvae. And you thought birds regurgitating into their babies’ mouths was a repulsive method of feeding one’s young.

After eating their parent’s poop off the floor for 5-20 days (again, depending on the temp and humidity), larvae spin cocoons and enter the pupal stage. The silk that comprises the cocoon is sticky, so dust and dirt adhere to it and provide camouflage.

Pupae wait for an opportune time to emerge. They can emerge after only a week in the cocoon or they can stay dormant for up to a year. They don’t have radar, sonar or internet, so they rely on such signals as heat, vibration and increased CO2 level to signal the presence of a potential host. When the time seems right, newly formed Barlows come forth and leap upon the warm, breathing, moving being whose presence summoned them. Dogs and cats are the preferred hosts, but Barlows are willing to settle for a raccoon or opossum. Once aboard a tasty animal, Barlows feed within minutes. After partaking in their requisite blood meal, they will breed and lay eggs within 24 hours. When they find a good host, Barlows (unlike some other flea species) are not inclined to leave. They stay on Salem for the rest of their lives, which can be up to 100 days. They do not trade up by jumping onto another host. They just keep eating, laying eggs, and pooping out nourishment for their offspring.

A basic understanding of Barlow’s life cycle is important when you need to combat an invasion. By the time you see Barlow, the siege is already underway. The infantry has been there for 1-2 months and they have already established their supply lines. Successful counterattack depends on breaking the cycle, preferably in more than one point. This can be accomplished by killing the adult Barlows (preferably before they eat and breed), using Insect Growth Regulators (flea birth control, not minions of Tak) to decimate the next generation and environmental control measures (such as frequent, thorough vacuuming) to decrease the number of fleas already developing in the vicinity.

When confronting a flea infestation, please, please, please consult your vet first. Then follow your vet’s recommendation. All men may be created equal, but flea products are not. Please don’t waste your time and money (and Salem’s comfort) on cheap, over-the-counter flea remedies. Frequently, people who do so end up rather frustrated with the results. Then they have to go to the vet to buy the “expensive” stuff anyway. Yes, we want your money, but more importantly, we want you to spend your money on effective products that will improve Salem’s well-being.

Flea shampoos (and dish detergent) are NOT effective flea control. These methods remove the fleas on Salem at that moment, but reinforcements will arrive shortly. Bathing Salem with these substances is also very labor intensive and harsh on the coat. Please save the Dawn for your greasy dishes and oil-spill victims.

Garlic is purported to stave off fleas as well as vampires. Unfortunately, there are no good studies to this effect. There is evidence that, especially at high doses, garlic can be toxic to dogs and cats. The destruction of red blood cells and the resulting may make Salem’s blood less appealing to bloodsuckers, but it is not worth the harm done to your beloved pet.

Effective flea control needs to be applied to all the dogs and cats in your household. Any unprotected Salems will allow the Barlow life cycle to continue unimpeded. The treatment must be used continuously for at least 3-4 months. Otherwise, the emergence of adult Barlows from the longer lasting pupae will rekindle the flea onslaught.

Measures to help decrease the amount of potential Barlows in Salem’s lot involve a lot of house-cleaning duties. Wash soft toys, bedding (yours and Salem’s) and rugs in hot water once a week. Vacuum floors and furniture frequently and thoroughly. Don’t forget the couch cushions – there may be a treasure trove buried under there. Concentrate on the places where Salem spends the most time, because that is where the flea eggs were most likely to fall off.

You can also use a flea trap, to lure naïve Barlows to their doom. Dr. Dryden developed the “My Fleatrap” which uses specific variations in light to attract fleas as they emerge from their pupae. The fleas are drawn by the LED siren song and then get hopelessly mired on a sticky mat.

There are also fleas lurking outside. Salem may never leave your yard, but Barlow doesn’t need an invitation to come in. Stray dogs and cats, raccoons and opossums can carry cat fleas around and don’t really care where the flea eggs fall. You can’t control the itinerant trash predators, but you can keep Barlow from establishing a foothold in your house by protecting Salem.

Some pets are particularly sensitive to Barlow’s presence. Actually, they have an allergic reaction to flea saliva. In these cases, Salem may have few, if any visible fleas, but intense itching, especially near the base of the tail. Treatment for this condition usually involves something to counteract the allergic reaction, as well as the elimination of Barlow and prevention of future attacks.

You are probably aware of the flea’s ability to jump many times its own height. According to fleascience.com, the cat flea can jump an average distance of 8 inches (20 cm) with a height of 5.2 inches (13.2 cm).

This is not the equivalent of a person jumping over Godzilla. Physics would not allow a six foot tall flea to jump many times its own height, at least not on this planet.

Jumping ability does vary by species. Barlows use it to jump from the ground onto a potential host. If they jumped onto Salem, they set up shop and stay. If they jumped onto the wrong host, such as a person, they don’t stay long. According to pestpolicy.com, female cat fleas will spend an average of 7.3 minutes (males give up quicker and leave after 4.3 minutes) on a human. This is plenty of time to bite and potentially transmit disease. At the very least, it can cause itching or an allergic reaction. But human blood cannot support cat flea reproduction, and un-hairy people feet don’t provide much cover. Hobbit feet may be another story.

No discussion of fleas is complete without mentioning the fact that they can spread disease. As you may already be aware, especially if you have watched the Ratatouille bonus features, rat fleas are the vector for the plague commonly known as the Black Death. It is still around, but the availability of antibiotics has significantly decreased its mortality rate since its heyday in the Middle Ages. Worldwide, between 1,000 and 2,000 cases are reported to the World Health Organization each year. Europe seems to have gotten its fill, so modern cases occur in Africa, parts of Asia (China, recently) and South America. Here in the good ol’ US of A, it is found in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado.

If this blog has not adequately scratched your itch for flea knowledge, there is a series of fantastic videos on the subject on YouTube. It is called The Amazing World of Fleas – Plain and Simple and consists of 3 parts, all of which are quite amusing and educational.

The time has come for me to flee from this talk of fleas. I hope I have provided you a little respite from Holiday madness, Bored Surfer.

Best wishes for the remainder of 2019, and a reminder to beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Dr. Debbie Appleby