Fleas eat blood, and they're not picky about where it comes from. They'll feed on your dog, cat, other pets, and you. Beyond creating itchiness and discomfort, fleas sometimes carry infectious bacteria and tapeworms, both of which they can transmit to your pets and you. This makes it extremely important to know what fleas and flea eggs look like as well as how to get rid of the nasty little critters.
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What to look for
Adult fleas are tiny insects. Measuring about 2.5 millimeters long, they're red or brown and quite flat. When using a magnifying glass or looking at a flea photo, you can see that they have hairy bodies and specialized mouthparts perfect for sucking blood. They lack wings, however, so if you see one sailing through the air, he got there thanks to his incredible jumping ability rather than the power of flight.
Flea dirt is another indicator of a flea problem. A polite way of saying flea feces, flea dirt is waste excreted by a flea after he eats. Although small, flea dirt is visible to the naked eye and looks like black pepper flakes.
Eggs also indicate a flea problem. Flea eggs are a tiny 0.5 millimeters long and 0.3 millimeters wide, but you can see them without a magnifying glass or microscope. Oval in shape, the eggs are translucent when laid but quickly turn white, resembling tiny grains of rice or dandruff flakes.
Where to find fleas and flea eggs
You're most likely to find fleas themselves on your dog or cat, often congregating at the base of the animal's tail, in his groin, and along his back. Flea dirt, too, usually appears in these areas since fleas spend most of their time there. You could also notice fleas and their dirt in your pet's bedding or in his other favorite hangouts.
Flea eggs, however, work a bit differently. After her first blood meal, an adult flea will begin laying eggs and do so every day, laying 20 to 50 eggs at a time. Along with her eggs, the female drops a bit of digested blood for her young flea larvae to feed on when they hatch.
Because she deposits food along with her eggs, there is no reason for a flea egg to stay attached to an animal. Instead, the eggs fall off of their host, spreading themselves far and wide. You'll find flea eggs nestled in bedding, furniture, carpet, clothing, and the lawn. Flea eggs can even make their way in between the boards of hardwood floors.
The invincible flea life cycle
Fleas are hard to eradicate, and the problem begins with their eggs. Because they're so tiny, numerous, and prone to getting everywhere, it's challenging to get rid of every flea egg. A further complication is that most pesticides and flea treatments kill only adult fleas. Even if you kill every single adult flea in your home, eggs are likely getting ready to hatch and start your flea problem anew.
Pupal fleas prove equally problematic. After hatching, a flea larva eats the meal his mother left him with her egg and begins to grow into a pupa. The pupa wraps himself inside a cocoon where he waits, emerging only when the conditions for life are right. If they're not, he can wait several months.
Unfortunately, the cocoons flea pupae hide in serve as protective fortresses and are quite impenetrable. Insecticides and flea treatments can't permeate them. Any pupal fleas that survive your attempts at flea eradication just wait inside their cocoons until your exterminator leaves. When he does, the pupae finish growing into adults, leave their cocoon, and get back down to business.
Getting rid of fleas and eggs on your pet
Getting rid of fleas requires a multifaceted approach, and the process takes a little time. Start by treating your pet. Bathe the animal in a flea-killing shampoo. After the bath, give your pet a long-lasting topical or oral medication to kill any fleas you missed and offer ongoing flea protection.
Consider talking to your vet before treating your pet. Fleas can develop resistance to certain chemicals and treatments, making them harder to kill. Your vet can tell you which treatments seem to be working the best in your area.
Getting rid of fleas and eggs in your house
To rid your home of fleas and eggs, wash everything you can in hot water. Wash your pet's bedding along with his favorite blanket or pillow. If your pet sleeps with you, wash your bedding as well. Once the washing machine is going, vacuum everything.
When you vacuum, do so as if your fastidious mother-in-law is coming to perform a white glove test, leaving no stone or sofa cushion unturned. Vacuum the carpet, the furniture, and all of your hardwood or tiled floors. Vacuuming pulls some flea eggs and pupae into the vacuum cleaner and lifts others to the surface of carpets and upholstery where insecticide will more easily reach them. When you're done vacuuming, take your vacuum cleaner outside, remove the bag and dispose of it.
Now it's time to spray. Cover or remove your pet's food and water dish and spray your chosen insecticide throughout your home as directed on the label. For the best results, choose a spray or aerosol that contains permethrin, imidacloprid, or dinotefuran as well as some type of insect growth inhibitor. Remember to spray under and behind furniture.
Other problem areas
If your pet spends a lot of time outdoors or takes frequent car trips, you may need to treat more than just your home and him. To treat your car, take the same steps you did in your home. Vacuum thoroughly and then treat the carpet and upholstery with your spray. You may want to do so at a time when you can leave the car windows down and air things out for a bit before your next drive.
Thinking you may have fleas in your yard? To find out, put on a pair of white socks, pull them up over your pant legs, and take a stroll around your lawn. If fleas are present, they'll jump into your legs where you'll easily see them against your white socks. If you find them, treat them with your flea spray.
Start by spraying your dog's kennel and areas where she frequently rests or runs. You should also spray protected and shady areas along fences, under decks, and near your home's foundation. Fortunately, you do not need to treat the entire yard, as areas of direct sunlight run too hot for fleas and their eggs.
How fast treatment works
Don't panic if you continue to spot the occasional flea after treatment. Keep vacuuming every day to expose any missed eggs or pupae to the insecticide and have patience. The number of adult fleas you see will steadily decline. If you're still seeing adult fleas four weeks after treatment, however, it's time to treat again or call a professional exterminator for help.
Will baking soda kill fleas?
As much as they hate fleas, some pet owners still understandably shudder at the thought of spraying pesticides around their home. If you're one of them, there are a few natural flea remedies you can try. You may ultimately need a pesticide to curb a flea problem, but natural alternatives are worth trying for small problems caught early. Baking soda and salt are two popular natural solutions, and you can use them together.
To do so, sprinkle baking soda and salt on your carpet and then rub them in a bit with your hands or an upholstery brush. Both chemicals will help dry out any fleas, eggs, or larva hiding in your carpet. Let the mixture sit for one or two days and then vacuum it up, carefully disposing of the vacuum cleaner bag in an outdoor trash can as soon as you're done.
You can also make your own flea spray by combining 4 liters of vinegar, 2 liters of water, 500 milliliters of lemon juice, and 25 milliliters of witch hazel. Vacuum your home just as you would before using an insecticide and then spray your mixture in all the same places, remembering to spray under couch cushions as well as behind and under furniture. This spray is completely safe for you, your children, and your pets, so feel free to spray as liberally as you like.
Flea treatments to avoid
When battling a flea problem, avoid treating your home with foggers, commonly referred to as bug bombs. Foggers do contain potent insecticides, but they work by spraying them upward into the air. Fleas, flea eggs, and pupal fleas, however, hang out in low places like in carpeting and on pet beds. As such, foggers only serve to shoot chemicals onto your kitchen counter and other potentially dangerous places while missing the fleas they're meant to kill.
Flea traps are another commonly misused product. These traps attract fleas with a light source and then contain them with a glue board. Though an excellent way to monitor your flea population, traps alone won't eliminate a flea problem since they only work on adults. Instead, use them to monitor the number of fleas in your home after using a flea treatment to see if it's working.
When looking for natural remedies, remember that natural isn't necessarily safe. Garlic can cause life-threatening anemia in dogs and cats, and essential oils are equally dangerous when ingested or applied directly to a pet. Diatomaceous earth is also hailed as a natural flea remedy but can cause cancer when inhaled. Always talk to your vet before trying a natural flea remedy so you don't end up doing more harm than good.
A word of caution
When using an insecticide to eliminate fleas and flea eggs, remember that these chemicals are regulated by law. You must use these products exactly as specified on their labels. Your city or county may also have laws regarding how you may dispose of any unused product. These laws keep dangerous chemicals away from food and water sources, and it's important to follow them.
It's also important to be courteous to your neighbors. Some insecticide sprays used on your lawn, for instance, may be harmful to animals until they dry. If you're spraying your lawn or along your fence line, let your neighbor know, so he can keep his pets away from the area until it is safe.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.