Fleas are small, wingless insects that survive by drinking the blood of their hosts. Fleas can be found on dogs, cats, and humans as well as other animals. With heads surrounded by sharp spikes and mouths that can pierce through their host’s skin, fleas are perfectly adapted for their method of survival.
Despite their small size, fleas can cause big problems. Found on humans, fleas can cause itching, rash, illness and injury. Humans with an allergic reaction to flea bites can get rashes or may have more severe reactions.
If you have a dog or a cat, protecting your pet from fleas is important. A pet that has been infested with fleas can easily spread fleas to humans in their household. Therefore, it is important to understand how to properly identify fleas, how they can be prevented, and how you can treat and get rid of them in your home. Most of the time, you can prevent your pet from getting fleas by giving your pet medical preventatives prescribed by the veterinarian. You can also prevent your pet from getting fleas by making smart pet care choices and by preventing your pet from coming into contact with another animal that is also infested.
One thing to remember when trying to eliminate fleas from your home is that for every one flea you see, there may be 99 fleas hiding somewhere in your house. If you have a flea problem, it’s important to eliminate them.
Table of Contents
- Flea Lifecycle
- Identifying Fleas
- How to Prevent Fleas
- How to Get Rid of Fleas in the Home
- Flea Home Remedies
- When to Consider Professional Flea Control
Fleas have a complex lifecycle. Knowing where fleas come from, how they reproduce, and what you can do to disrupt their reproductive cycle can help you stop fleas from taking over your pet’s fur as well as your own home. The flea life cycle starts with eggs, moves into larva, pupa, and finally adult flea stages.
In ideal weather (warm and humid), fleas lay 10 to 50 eggs in a day. Because an adult flea can live up to 100 days, a single female flea can lay up to 2,000 eggs in her lifetime. Fleas lay eggs on their hosts, and many of those eggs fall off. As a result, most flea eggs can be found within about 50 feet of their host’s bed or favorite spot to rest. Eggs hatch within 1 to 10 days, or longer if the weather is not right for a flea to thrive.
Flea eggs are about the size of a grain of salt, or about half a millimeter in length and about half as wide. Their eggs are off-white in color and have a soft shell called a chorion. Flea eggs are difficult to identify with the naked eye; to see what an egg really looks like, you’ll need some kind of magnifying glass. Flea eggs are oval in shape.
What’s the Difference Between Flea Eggs and Flea Dirt?
Flea dirt is made up of flea feces. It’s dark, crumbly, and when put in water, it may smear red. The red smear is an indicator that the dark, crumbly thing you’re seeing is comprised of dried blood.
The larva stage lasts between 4 and 18 days. Flea larva are between 3 and 5 millimeters long and are off-white in color. They have no eyes or legs and feed off the feces from adult fleas. As they eat, flea larva turn a darker color. Larva will also feed on materials like dead insects, feathers, food particles and dead skin. Larva cannot drink blood straight from a host.
After they fall off the host body, larva look for shady locations to take shelter, as they need very specific conditions in order to survive. Humidity over 50 percent and soil temperatures greater than 95 degrees can kill larva. Larva can hatch at any time of year, as long as the environmental conditions are right for their survival. At the end of 4 to 18 days, the larva spin a cocoon and enter the pupal stage. Flea larva can be found in places like crawl spaces.
Larva are difficult to control, because they seek the darkest, most secluded spot they can find. Use a vacuum to remove them from dark spaces like the cracks between floor boards and between the fibers in carpeting.
The pupa stage is a time when the flea goes through major developmental changes. It’s also at this stage that the flea is most difficult to control. Fleas spend the pupa stage in a cocoon known as the pupal casing. They spend that time in the cocoon turning into a fully adult, grown flea.
Though the flea’s transformation takes place over the course of about 7 to 10 days, fleas may stay in their cocoon for much longer. Fleas must immediately eat a blood meal upon emerging from their cocoon or they will die. To help ensure success, fleas do not emerge from their cocoon until they sense a likely host is somewhere nearby. Vibrations and other changes in the environment alert fleas when a likely host is in the area. When they sense the host, fleas emerge.
Fleas in the pupa stage are not killed by standard insecticides. In fact, the only way to remove pupa from your home is to use a vacuum and dispose of the vacuum bag outdoors. Keep the bag sealed when disposing of it. Because fleas in pupa form are not affected by insecticides, and pupa wait until a host is nearby before hatching, fleas can emerge in waves. Many homeowners experiencing a flea infestation must treat their home with insecticides and by vacuuming their home multiple times.
Adult fleas are about 1/8 of an inch long with large hind legs and a reddish-brown coloring. They can leap about 12 inches in a single jump. There are approximately 2,000 species of fleas in the world found all over the planet. Although there may be some variation in behavior, they generally behave the same from one species to the next.
After emerging from their cocoon, their first instinct is to search for food. An adult flea may start sucking blood within 5 minutes of jumping onto the body of a host and may take a blood meal for up to 2.5 hours. In that time, the flea may consume up to 15 times their body weight in blood. This is especially true of females.
Fleas spend their entire adult life feeding on blood and reproducing. Because one female flea can produce up to 2,000 offspring, fleas can turn into a very serious problem very quickly.
Although you can see fleas, it’s not easy. The easiest way to tell if your pet has fleas (or if you have fleas) starts with noticing the symptoms. For example, fleas cause discomfort; if you are able to identify the type of discomfort that is indicative of fleas, then you should examine your pet.
Fleas are not easy to identify because they’re so small. However, if you know the signs of a flea infestation, and know where to look for evidence of fleas, you should be able to identify a problem in its early stages. Long-standing flea problems can be difficult to eliminate, because fleas in the pupa stage are difficult to kill and remove.
If you’re a pet owner, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs of a flea infestation.
Adult fleas are reddish brown in color. After feeding, their reddish tone deepens. Their bodies are hard and flat, and their six legs enable them to jump up to 12 inches in any direction. This makes it easy for adult fleas to attach themselves to a host or abandon their host and land on a new host. Because they can jump vertically from the ground, they don’t even have to be at a good vantage point to reach a new host.
Flea bites can appear anywhere, but they’re commonly found on the feet and legs. They’re very itchy at first and may soon become painful. Scratching flea bites only makes them worse by increasing your body’s irritation and by potentially scratching through your skin, exposing yourself to potential infection.
What They Look Like
Flea bites are red bumps on the skin. They’re usually found in clusters of three or four, positioned in a straight line. Even if you continue to scratch them, they will remain small. You will also see a red "halo" around the center of the bite.
Where They’re Found
Though they’re most often found on the feet and legs, flea bites can be found elsewhere as well, including the breasts, groin, under the arms, around the waist, and in the folds of your elbows.
How They’re Different from Mosquito Bites
Flea bites are smaller than mosquito bites, and they appear in small clusters. They’re red in the center and have a raised halo around them. Because some people have an allergic reaction to flea bites, they may get hives when they’re bitten. These hives will appear in the vicinity around the bites.
By comparison, mosquito bites are larger, firm, often pointed, and appear singly or spaced apart from other mosquito bites.
What Happens During An Allergic Reaction?
Allergic reactions to flea bites vary from one person to the next. While many people only experience hives, others may experience swelling in the tongue or the lips, difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest, which can all be very serious symptoms. If you experience an extreme reaction of this nature, contact emergency authorities for help.
How to Identify Dog Flea Bites
Dog flea bites are much more difficult to identify because dogs have fur that can hide the bites. To identify flea bites on your dog, look for symptoms and behavior changes that indicate your dog is struggling with fleas.
- Persistent scratching
- Red, inflamed skin
- Biting and chewing affected areas
- Hair loss in affected areas
To an untrained dog owner, symptoms of flea bites can resemble other problems. For example, dogs with allergies may also scratch and bite their skin. To ensure that your dog gets a proper diagnosis and treatment, take your dog to the veterinarian.
How to Identify Cat Flea Bites
Cats with fleas behave much like dogs with fleas. If your cat is struggling with fleas, this is what you should see:
- Persistent scratching
- Excessive grooming
- Hair loss
- Red, inflamed skin
Your cat may also start to avoid parts of your house where fleas currently live. Therefore, you should observe your cat’s behavior. If they’re staying away from carpeted areas of your house, this could be a red flag. If you suspect that your cat has fleas, contact your pet’s veterinarian for confirmation and help.
If there are fleas in your house, on your pet or on you, you’ll also notice flea dirt in parts of your house where fleas live. Flea dirt is a mixture of blood and flea meal, which is the waste left behind after your pet’s blood is consumed. Flea dirt can be found in clumps near your pet’s rear or belly, but it can also be found in other places as well, including your pet’s bedding, upholstered furniture and carpeting in the areas where you or your pets spend time.
Flea dirt gets its name from the fact that it looks like real dirt – so much so, that it can be hard to tell the difference. The easiest way to tell the difference between normal dirt and flea dirt is to wet the dirt just a little bit, then smear it with your finger. If it’s flea dirt, it will turn red when re-hydrated (because it’s actually blood), and the smears will appear red as well.
How to Identify Fleas In the Home
Fleas can be seen and flea dirt is visible to the naked eye, so if there are fleas in your home, you should be able to identify them. Start with a systematic check of the places in your home where your pet spends the most time. If you have been getting flea bites yourself, you’ll want to broaden your search to places where you spend the most time.
Check the parts of your pet’s bed by looking under the folds of the bed and in the cracks between couch cushions. Does your pet have a favorite corner of the house where they like to sleep? Stand in that spot with white socks on your feet. If fleas are present, they will likely jump onto your socks. They’ll be small, wingless and dark brown, black or red.
Another trick is to place a damp, soapy bowl of warm water on your rug in an area where fleas are likely to be hiding. Shine a flashlight on the water and watch for fleas to jump in. If the water is soapy, the fleas should die in the water. When checking sheets in your bed and on upholstered surfaces, look for black smears on the surface.
How to Prevent Fleas
Once established, flea infestations can be very difficult to eliminate. It’s better to prevent fleas from moving into your home, and there are many things you can do to prevent fleas from entering your home. Whether you have a pet or not, the following tips can help you keep your house safe from fleas.
Start in the Yard
Fleas can live in your yard and could eventually find their way into your home. Maintaining good yard hygiene can keep fleas out of your yard. Fleas like hot, humid conditions and darkness. They like to hide in tall grass while waiting for a potential host to come by. When the host is in the area, fleas take the opportunity.
You can prevent fleas from inhabiting your yard by making your yard inhospitable to them. In other words, keep your yard bright and well-trimmed. Mow grass to keep it the ideal height for your grass type, but not less than 2 inches. Mowing your grass to lower than 2 inches can drive away spiders and other insects that feed on fleas. The following suggestions are additional ways to prevent fleas in your yard:
- If you’ve had problems with fleas on your lawn in the past, treat your lawn with insecticide designed to kill fleas.
- Trim back shrubs, and keep them away from the edge of your house.
- De-thatch your lawn periodically.
- Avoid over watering.
- Improve drainage if standing water is periodically left on your lawn after rain storms.
- Mulch with cedar.
- Thin trees and shrubs to let light onto your lawn; clear away thickets that block light.
Finally, you can keep fleas off your lawn by preventing animals, which tend to be carriers of fleas, from accessing your property by adding a fence. If your pet ever experiences a flea infestation, consider treating your lawn for fleas, especially if your pet spends time "doing business" or laying on your property.
Know Your Options for Pet Flea Treatments
Fleas can be prevented on your pets in many ways. The best way to keep your pet flea-free is to work with your pet’s veterinarian. There are many types of flea preventatives, including topical applications, pills, flea combs and collars.
Flea treatments can be used to prevent fleas and can also be used to kill fleas once they’ve infested your pet. It’s always better to treat your pet for fleas before they’ve been infested than after. Most flea preventatives are administered to your pet monthly.
How do you choose between different preventatives? Work with your pet’s veterinarian to decide. Usually, the decision to use one preventative over another depends on factors like your pet’s age, health and any chronic conditions your pet may be experiencing.
Because it’s very important to remember to administer the preventatives (or they won’t prevent anything), mark your calendar and administer the preventatives according to the veterinarian’s instructions.
Keep Your Home Clean
Fleas can more easily take root in parts of the home that are not cleaned very often, so clean your home regularly and thoroughly. You’ll find fleas living in parts of the house like the carpeting and throw rugs, sheets, under the bed and in dark, dusty places. Superficial cleaning practices are good, but they will not eliminate fleas from hard-to-reach places like the corners of your room, under your bed and the cracks of the couch.
- Vacuum your house, including the corners, between the cushions of the couch and on upholstered chairs on a regular basis.
- Mop regularly in parts of the house that require mopping.
- Clean your pet’s bedding weekly.
- Change your own sheets weekly.
- Pay close attention to the parts of the house where your pet spends time, vacuuming and cleaning those areas more thoroughly than other parts of the house.
- Change vacuum bags frequently.
- Get rid of or clean up clutter, especially clothing clutter left on the floor.
How to Get Rid of Fleas in the Home
Flea infestations are much less common now than they were just a few decades ago; however, homes can still become infested. When an infestation happens, it’s important to know how to get rid of fleas. Ridding your house of fleas requires a combination of special treatments and also good cleaning practices. Understanding the behaviors of fleas can also help. Additionally, it’s important to use the practices outlined below.
A fogger, more popularly known as a "bug bomb," is a device that emits a toxic cloud into the room where it is let off. When purchasing a bug bomb, read the manufacturer’s notes to ensure that the device you buy will kill fleas. Read all manufacturer’s instructions before setting off a bug bomb in your home, and follow the instructions to ensure the work is done right. Some tips about using a fogger:
- Clear the room of all food and toys before using the bomb.
- Leave the room as soon as the device is set off.
- Don’t leave pets in the house when setting off a bug bomb.
- Leave your house for a minimum of two hours after setting off the bug bomb.
While powder treatments add an extra level of protection, they may not be entirely effective for removing fleas from your house all on their own. Powders are applied after bedding is washed in hot water and cushions are removed from the couches.
First, clean all the bedding, carpeting and upholstered areas. Next, sprinkle powder over all cleaned surfaces. Work the powder into the fabric (or brush it into your carpet) so that it is no longer visible. Follow all manufacturer instructions when applying powder to your home, and don’t allow your pet into the room until the powder has been applied.
Sprays for Your Yard
Sprays can attach to your garden hose. Use sprays in parts of your yard that are dark and moist such as in your plants, under your porch or deck. Repeat treatments every 2 to 3 weeks for about 6 weeks. If you feel that fleas are still a threat beyond that point, you can switch to treating your yard for fleas every 4 to 6 weeks from that point forward. Follow all manufacturer’s instructions when spraying for fleas.
Flea Home Remedies
Over the years, humans have developed some crafty home remedies for treating fleas. The effectiveness of home remedies can vary. Some of these remedies, though effective, take a long time to work.
Home remedies are especially popular among homeowners who worry about the toxins that many commercial flea remedies rely on, because home remedies usually utilize all natural, non-toxic materials that people keep at home.
There are two ways that dish soap is used to eliminate fleas.
Dish Soap Flea Trap
Fill a bowl with water and dish soap, then shine a light on the bowl over night. In the morning, you’ll find that your bowl of dish soap has little fleas floating in it. The dish soap reduces the surface tension of the water, so fleas that jump into the bowl are unable to swim or jump their way out. Place the light trap near where your pet spends the most time, but keep your pet away from the light trap to avoid a soapy, watery mess.
Pet Dish Soap Bath
Dish soap baths are safe for pets and they’re said to be a way to eliminate fleas from your pet. When choosing a dish soap, look for one that has a neutral pH. Before bathing your pet in dish soap, talk to the veterinarian. Some pets may have sensitivities to certain types of soap, so give your pet’s vet a chance to weigh in before moving forward.
Herbal Flea Spray
This herbal flea spray is non-toxic and safe to use in the home.
- Vinegar – 4 liters
- Water – 2 liters
- Lemon juice – 500 ml
- Witch hazel – 250 ml
Mix the ingredients together in a spray bottle. Vacuum your home, wash bedding and thoroughly clean any other infested areas. Finally, apply the flea spray. Note: although the ingredient witch hazel can be ingested by adults in small amounts, it is not meant to be ingested in large quantities, and children should not ingest it at all. Keep this spray out of the reach of your children, and do not spray while they’re around.
Baking Soda and Salt
Baking soda and salt, when applied liberally to an area of the home and left in place for days, can dry out flea larvae. Mix baking soda and salt together in one-to-one proportions, then sprinkle the baking soda and salt in the affected area. Keep your pets and children out of the area while the treatment is happening.
Leave the baking soda and salt in place overnight, or for two nights if you have time. Finally, vacuum the mess and empty the contents of the vacuum cleaner into a garbage can outside your house. Throw away the vacuum bag, and replace the bag with a new bag.
To make a lemon spray, slice lemon thinly and put it in a pint of water, then boil the water and the lemon together. After boiling for a few minutes, leave the lemon and water to sit overnight in a bowl. Finally, add the lemon water to a spray bottle and spray affected areas.
Lemon spray cannot kill fleas alone, but it can prevent fleas from returning soon after an infestation. When combined with other home remedies, it’s even more effective. Lemon spray can also be combined with your pet’s flea shampoo to give the shampoo a pleasant lemon scent and boost its effectiveness.
Diatomaceous earth is made of microscopic remains of fossilized algae, crushed into a fine powder. Diatomaceous earth is non-toxic to humans and a known insecticide used in gardens and in homes. Like salt and baking soda, it’s effective because it dehydrates fleas. Sprinkle diatomaceous earth in high-traffic areas, working it into the carpet and upholstery, then leave it in place for two days. Finally, vacuum it and dump the bag.
- Use food-grade diatomaceous earth to rid your house of fleas.
- Wear a dust mask when sprinkling it into the ground, then leave the area alone for two days.
Although diatomaceous earth is non-toxic, it’s such a fine powder that it can cause respiratory problems when inhaled.
Rosemary can be used to treat light infestations. In some cases, rosemary can also be used on pets. To treat flea infestations, it’s ground to a powder. Rosemary is organic and non-toxic. To make a powder using rosemary, combine dried rosemary, wormwood, fennel, rue and peppermint into a pestle and grind it. You can also achieve the same effect by placing this combination of herbs into a grinder.
Sprinkle the rosemary onto affected upholstery, bedding and furniture. To treat your pet with rosemary, boil the rosemary in water for 30 minutes to make a rosemary tea. Next, mix the tea with warm water in a bucket. Finally, pour the tea over your pet and allow your pet to air dry. Do this once per week.
Plant and Maintain Flea-Repelling Plants
Some plants are known to repel fleas. Maintaining these plants around your property and inside your home can help you create an inhospitable environment for fleas. Some common plants include:
- Pennyroyal – This herb contains a medicinal oil that is believed to help with a variety of ailments, including colds and fatigue.
- Chrysanthemums – This fall favorite is commonly sold in grocery stores and lawn and garden centers in late summer and early fall.
- Lavender – Grown outdoors, lavender is beloved because it’s drought-tolerant and requires little-to-no maintenance aside from regular watering.
- Spearmint – This herb can be grown indoors or out and is used in recipes ranging from desserts to drinks.
When to Consider Professional Flea Control
Preventing fleas from entering your home and eliminating fleas that have found their way into your home is an ongoing process. Once fleas are in your life, it can be very difficult to get rid of them. Eliminating fleas is done in stages, first by eliminating larvae and adult fleas, then eliminating pupae, then re-treating for larvae and adult fleas. Only after persistent trial and error can you get rid of fleas in your home.
If you have a stubborn infestation that you can’t eliminate, contact a pest control professional. Your pest control professional can use powerful chemicals to treat your home and make your property more inhospitable to fleas and other insects, thus reducing the number of fleas in your home even when other treatments have failed. Contact a professional if you need additional assistance controlling fleas in your home today.