Can My Pet Carry Bedbugs?

Most people cringe at the mere thought of bedbugs in their home, crawling over their bodies while they're sleeping and sucking their blood. But, unfortunately, a bedbug infestation is a grim reality for many people. Epidemic in many urban centers throughout North America, this most despised true bug of the family Cimex lectularius has cleverly managed to make a healthy resurgence in the last couple of decades.

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After a long period of relative obscurity and near eradication in the 1950s — primarily due to more targeted pest control products like DDT and application methods — bedbugs returned with a vengeance in the late 90s due to a proliferation of international travel, increased domestic travel, lack of knowledge about prevention, pesticide resistance, and ineffective pest control practices, explains the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Aside from the itchy welts from bedbug bites, and the anxiety, stress, depression, and sleeplessness caused by the creepy, nocturnal bloodsuckers, there is also the worry about whether your pet can carry bedbugs. Well, bedbugs can latch onto your shoes, socks, and clothing, and they can even hitch a ride on your pet, during which they may bite any place on the body where they are unobstructed by fur. But these nasty critters don't live on pets. However, they can travel from room to room via your pet, which can be a concern if your home is infested with bedbugs.

How do bedbugs operate?

Bedbugs take a meal from their host, then leave the scene of the crime to hide in tiny cracks and crevices in hardwood flooring, baseboards, ceiling/wall junctions, crown moulding, dressers, lamps, and upholstered furniture. However, if the infestation is heavy, the bugs tuck right into the tufts and under buttons of the mattress and hide there, or scurry into cracks in the headboard and bed frames, and they can even spill out all around the bed searching for a place to hide.

Bedbugs also hide in wall voids, behind light switches and pictures, and in books, too. When night falls, bedbugs take their cues from heat and carbon dioxide to locate their hosts, emerging from their hiding places to feed.

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Do bedbugs bite cats and dogs?

If your pet is in the path of hungry bedbugs, she may be a bedbug's first victim before it gets to you. Despite the widely held belief that bedbugs only parasitize humans, while they may prefer humans, they also feed on any warm-blooded animal, such as poultry, mice, guinea pigs, bats, and even our cats and dogs. However, fur is something of a barrier, so if your pet is bitten, it will likely be on a bare patch of skin like the belly, or inside an earflap.

Signs to look out for

Most people become aware of a bedbug infestation when they find bites on their body, says Dini M. Miller, Ph.D., Department of Entomology, Virginia Tech, and also blood spots on the sheets. However, bites are not a reliable indication of bedbugs since other insects, like spiders, can bite, and the appearance of bedbug bites can vary from person to person.

Bedbugs don't just appear, they have to be brought into your home, so if you have recently traveled, or purchased a piece of used furniture from a garage sale, it's more likely your bites could be from bedbugs.

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Bedbug appearance:

Most importantly, you need to know what a bedbug looks like so you do not confuse it with a carpet beetle, for example. Adult bedbugs can easily be seen by the naked eye and when they have not recently fed are about the size of an apple seed (3/16" long), reddish-brown, flat like a disc, oval-shaped, and wingless.

When an adult has had a blood meal, it blows up like a balloon, and the body elongates to look more like a torpedo than a disc taking on a distinctly bright red appearance if the meal was within the last couple of hours. It's also helpful to know that a hungry bedbug can be almost pale white or yellowish. And once it feeds, it will look like a plump raspberry seed, says Dr. Miller. Eventually, the bug darkens and flattens again over the next few days as the meal is digested.

There are five nymphal stages in a bedbug life cycle with the immature instars being smaller than the adults, translucent, and whitish-yellow in color, says Dr. Miller. The first nymphal stage which hatches out of the egg is the most difficult to see unless they are in motion, or if they have recently fed, they will be filled with blood thus bright red in appearance. The bedbug eggs themselves are about the size of the head of a pin, pearl-white, with eyespots when older than five days.

Bedbug cast skins:

Like all insects, bedbugs wear their skeletons on the outside of their bodies (exoskeleton) and as they grow they shed their skin. These molted skins are another telltale sign of an infestation. These cast skins are translucent and the same shape as a bedbug, in various sizes correlating to the instar stage.

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Bedbug fecal spots:

Bedbugs' excreted waste is in a semi-liquid form and quite conspicuous since it is black, the color of digested blood. You'll find it along mattress seams, behind the headboard, on electrical outlets, in curtain seams where they gather at the rod — anywhere that bedbugs congregate and hide.

Check for signs on your pet:

If you discover that you have a bedbug infestation, carefully check your pet's entire body, even the furry parts, for signs of bedbug bites. You should call a pest control professional to learn about the treatment process, the cost, and how to prepare for a service. You'll want to ensure his recommendations take into consideration your pet's safety as well as your own. While you can take measures to prevent bedbugs, eliminating them is not a DIY project.

How likely is it that my pet is carrying bedbugs?

While bedbugs don't spend as much time on your pet's body as fleas or ticks, they are efficient hitchhikers, says the American Veterinary Medical Association. It's quite possible that bedbugs could travel in your pet's fur, his bedding, stuffed toys, or pet coats to another location in your home; or theoretically, to someone else's house, a public place, boarding facility, or turn up at your vacation destination if you take your dog or cat along with you. But it would be unusual, and unlikely since any bugs that crawled onto your pet to feed during the night generally would have gone into hiding during the day, says Araceli Lucio-Forster, Ph.D., College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell Univeristy.

Are flea and tick preventives effective against bedbugs?

Bedbugs live in your home, not on your pet, and flea and tick preventives are developed to address those specific parasites, and not as a preventive for bedbugs, explains the AVMA.

What to do if your pet is bitten by bedbugs

The EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Department of Agriculture all consider bedbugs a public health pest. But unlike most public health pests, bedbugs are not known to transmit or spread diseases. Of course, that's the best thing you can say about bedbugs; the many public health issues they cause means placing a strong focus on prevention and control of the insect.

Consequently, if a healthy dog or cat is bitten by bedbugs, the main concern are the itchy welts that develop at the site of the bites. Keep in mind, though, that allergic reactions are a possibility, and older or immunocompromised pets could be at risk for complications. It is prudent to seek veterinary consultation for instructions on how to care for the bites, and a visit to your vet is warranted if there is any sign of infection, or other signs the bedbug bite has adversely affected your pet.

While your first reaction will be to get rid of all of your own and your pet's bedding, stuffed toys, and any blankets, etc., these items can be saved by following a few simple steps, as follows:

  • Be careful to contain the items as they are transported to the laundry room to avoid spreading the bedbugs so gather the items and place in a sealed plastic bag.

  • Launder at the hottest temperature setting on your washing machine

    — minimum 120-degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Dry at your dryer's high or hottest setting. Any item that cannot be washed, should be placed in a dryer at high heat for 10 to 20 minutes.

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Conclusion

The bottom line is: the likelihood that pets can increase a bedbug infestation by carrying bedbugs is minimal. Though pets can technically transmit these insects, bedbugs will not actually live on your pet. Generally, you will have nipped an infestation in the bud by recognizing the signs of bedbugs and hiring professionals to exterminate them, ultimately giving you peace of mind, and your pet a good night's sleep.