Fleas are small insects from the Siphonaptera family (insects without wings), approximately 0.12 inches long and bodies flattened sideways, which allows them to move easily between feathers and fur.
Fleas have no wings but they can jump a distance up to 50 times their own size!
Their mouth pieces are prepared to pierce the host’s skin and feed on blood. They are external parasites.
So…what is a parasite?
A parasite is an organism that created a non-mutual relation with another organism, which is called a host. Parasites usually cause harm to their hosts, although they don’t normally kill them. They use their hosts to grow and multiply, harnessing the necessary resources from the host. One way to classify parasites is between ectoparasites (parasites who live outside the body) and endoparasites (parasites who live inside the body). Fleas are part of the first group. Some species of fleas are specific to their host species, others breed on their host alone but will feed on other hosts. There are many species of fleas that infect mammals. However, only 3% of all fleas will strictly affect birds.
“Dog fleas” are known as Ctenocephalides canis and they can infect both cats and dogs, among other species. “Cat fleas” are known as Ctenocephalides felis and they infect an even wider range of hosts and they seem to be more ubiquitous that the “dog fleas”. So no surprise if your dog turns out to have a “cat flea” infestation.
But pay attention! Many fleas use other species as hosts. Therefore, humans and other animals might be bitten if there are fleas in the surroundings.
Fleas use their mouth to pierce the skin: the main effect of this bite is the local swelling (similar to a mosquito bite) and an intense rash.
Some animals are very sensitive! They can develop flea allergy dermatitis to the flea bite, in reaction to the flea’s saliva. Look for these signs:
- Intense rash
- Fur loss
- Shabby fur
- Skin inflammation, which can redden and might even turn into infected wounds
If your pets show any of these symptoms you should take them to a vet appointment as soon as possible. The DVM will prescribe adequate ectoparasite treatment, as well as treat any secondary lesions that may have appeared due to the infestation. Your pet might need antibiotics, for example, in case of infected skin wounds.
The main issue with parasites is that they might carry and transmit other diseases that can be very dangerous to your pet, like viruses, bacteria and even other parasites.
Examples of such diseases:
- Rickettsiosis: a blood parasite;
- Dipylidium caninum: an intestinal parasite (similar to tapeworm) in dogs;
- Haemobartonella felis: a very common blood parasite in cats that causes anemia and can be deadly.
- Myxomatosis: a viral disease that affects rabbits and frequently results in death.
Some of these diseases might have symptoms that can be mistaken for other problems, like loss of appetite, weight loss and fever. So, if your pets show any of these symptoms take them to your vet and warn them about any recent flea episodes. This might be crucial in reaching a diagnosis.
If you are unsure, check with a professional if you notice any fleas or flea droppings on your pet’s fur, skin or bed. Flea droppings can be seen as small black dots that seem to gather on and around certain body parts, mainly in the abdomen and near the base of the tail. To find them you just need to brush your pet’s fur in the direction opposite to growth. If you are not sure if they are flea droppings or just dirt, try brushing them onto some tissue paper moistened with water. Flea faeces are basically digested blood and they will dissolve in water and stain the paper red.
All of this might seem scary but fortunately there are many easy, cheap and effective ways to prevent fleas from showing up on your pet!
To follow a correct flea prevention plan and you need to consider the flea growth cycle: it takes 3 weeks for them to grow from larvae into their adult form. The eggs can survive for several months and fleas usually choose dry, dark places to lay them.
There are several anti-flea products available, adjusted to each pet’s and tutor’s needs. You have them in different formulas, like spot on solutions, collars, pills and sprays. Most will protect against OTHER ectoparasites simultaneously and all of them come with a predetermined period of effectiveness: one, three or six months, generally.
Before starting the prevention plan, check with your vet to learn about the various products available and how frequently you should use them! The type and dosage may vary according to your pet’s age, weight and species!
Oh, and if you’re a Cat Owner, NEVER EVER use flea/tick products intended for dogs. They are toxic to cats! This actually constitutes one of the main causes of pet poisoning vets treat in their practice.
Fleas are a common parasite, even if your pet does not go outdoors frequently: they can cling to your shoes and clothes and proliferate in your home. Sometimes all it takes is stepping on the grass for eggs to stick to your shoes, get in your home and then they will hatch and find your pet!
If your pet still has fleas after treatment/prevention, you might have a flea infestation in your home! In that case you should do a general disinfestation, using proper insecticides that are pet friendly. You should also change all your sheets and bed covers and wash your pet’s bed with warm water, vacuum your home with a flea collar in the vacuum bag. You may need to repeat treatment on your pet, alternating the product you used in case of flea resistance. Talk to your vet before doing so.
This is a very common parasite and it causes great discomfort to pets and humans alike! Use the Petable App to remind you when it’s time for flea prevention so you never forget a treatment and leave your pet unprotected.
Say no to parasites! Protect your pets!
Author: Carolina Vargas, DVM