Last weekend I geared up for spring. I put away my insulated coveralls (in a plastic tote to prevent mice) and put away some sweaters (in sealed bags to prevent clothes moths). Then it snowed. To everyone in the Northeast—I jinxed us and I’m sorry.
This too shall melt, and soon spring will be here. For those of you further south, spring has sprung. Pest control companies across the country are gearing up for this busy time of year when the insects wake up and scope out our buildings for their summer abodes. Pest management professionals (PMPs) talk about “pest pressure” on an area—picture the pests swarming your door (or foundations, eaves, and windows as the case may be). This time of year, there is increased pressure from pests like termites, carpenter ants, wasps, and fleas. This post will be about fleas. They’re out there. Get your IPM action plan in place!
I’ll set the stage.
What you’re likely to see scurrying in between pets’ hairs and jumping is the adult stage. Fleas go through a complete metamorphosis—the babies don’t look like the adults. Like butterflies, they go through the following stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult. In the case of cat fleas (the kind most likely to hang out on pets), eggs are laid on the host and usually fall off. Where the eggs land, they hatch. The microscopic larvae crawl around, eating dander, bits of dried blood, and flea dirt. All this usually happens around where pets sleep—bedding and carpet. Once they’ve fed and grown for a while (5-11 days), they pupate. The pupae will often be deep in the carpet or pet bedding. The adults emerge from the pupae, ready to feed on blood.
How do they get inside in the first place?
They are good hitchhikers. Perhaps a pet picked some up at a friend's house? Also, fleas do exist outside. They like moist soil, often in the shade…where a dog is likely to take an afternoon siesta. Fleas are pretty sensitive to heat and humidity—if it’s too hot or dry, they don’t do well. In spring and throughout the summer, adult fleas will hop onto pets and hitchhike inside. If you suspect this is happening on your property, inspect for fleas and talk to a PMP about outside control options. It’s always good to prevent indoor pesticide applications, but don’t treat unless you find fleas.
1. Inspect and identify
Fleas are usually noticed because of their bites. Either a pet is scratching or someone is bit. Inspect pets by parting their hair and looking for “flea dirt” or the fleas themselves. See a little insect that dodges between the hairs, navigating easily because of its flat body? Might be a flea.
Pets don’t have to be present. Adult fleas that haven’t come out of their pupae can live without a meal for a long time (5 months). New residents sometimes end up with fleas that were there all along—dormant in carpets or cracks and crevices in the floor. Flea bites are usually red welts with a dot in the middle on a person’s ankles and legs. If someone is being bit, you may be able to find fleas by putting on tall white socks and scuffling around the home—or maybe have the resident do this. Fleas will jump up and land on the socks—white just makes them easier to see.
If you can get your hands on one, have some soapy water ready. Because they are flat, fleas are hard to squish. You’ll want to drown them.
A flea is pretty easy to identify, especially if you see it jump! The 1/8” insect will be dark colored, flat when viewed from the top, somewhat oval when viewed from the side. And they have those big hind legs. Most fleas that infest our homes are cat fleas (don’t be fooled, they’re not loyal to cats).
2. Determine if action is necessary
If you’ve caught an adult flea, there are likely many more eggs, larvae, and pupae around. Take action. In addition to the irritating bites, fleas carry and transmit all sorts of nasty stuff—like the plague.
3. Plan treatment and take action
Just targeting the adults will not solve the problem quickly, but it should be the first step for the sake of all being bit. It takes a lot of brushing for flea combs alone to have much impact. Also, there has to be some soapy water on hand to drown the combed out fleas before they make an escape. Focus on combing around the head and neck and in front of the tail. A long soapy bath for the pet doesn’t hurt either. Flea dirt is food for the larvae.
There are flea shampoos available, but they will likely have to be repeated. The best bet is to consult a veterinarian about options for pets—there are lots of low toxicity treatments available. Always follow label directions especially since some dog products are dangerous for cats.
To stop the infestation you have to target all the life stages. Get rid of eggs, larvae, and pupae with some elbow grease. Have residents vacuum as much as possible, at least once a week. The heat and movement from the vacuum can trick the adults into emerging from their protective pupae, speeding up the control process. Focus on carpets, cushions, under furniture, and along baseboards. Know where the pets like to hang out and focus efforts there too—cats can be creative about where they roost. Seal the vacuum bag in a trash bag and throw it away outside immediately—there are live fleas in there. High heat will kill all stages; so if there is a steamer available, use it too.
As with bed bugs, don’t underestimate the power of a hot clothes dryer. Laundry is effective on all life stages. Wash and dry pet bedding and fabric toys on hot cycles weekly until there are no more fleas.
Aim for prevention when possible, early detection, and rapid response. If the infestation is found early, the steps above (killing adults on the animals, vacuuming, and doing laundry) may solve the problem. If adult fleas persist, talk with a PMP about pesticide options for the floors. Don’t bomb. A bomb puts pesticide on top of all surfaces, but the flea larvae are more likely do be safely snuggled in the carpet.
There are many least toxic pesticide options for fleas. Most use an insect growth regulator (IGR). This set of chemicals works by disrupting an insect’s ability to grow or develop. They’re not very toxic to our pets and us because we don’t grow up like insects do! Pesticide applications alone won’t solve a flea problem, an integrated approach is key. A resident will need to prepare the home to receive the pesticide application, vacuum, and do laundry.
4. Evaluate effectiveness
It will take a few weeks for all the efforts to come together and eliminate all flea larvae so it’s important for the resident to keep vacuuming. After 2 or 3 weeks, do another inspection. There are light traps that attract and catch flea adults, but visual inspection is usually enough. Fleas aren’t too stealthy—inspect pets and use the white sock trick to assess whether they’re still around.
If the fleas persist and the resident has been vigilant about vacuuming and laundry, call the PMP and see if he’s got another option in his toolkit of IPM approaches.
For a more in-depth discussion of the pesticide options available for use against fleas, follow the links from the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) flea page. http://npic.orst.edu/pest/flea.html