Fleas and your pet's health

Fleas are the most common external parasite to affect your pet and it is likely that they will pick up a few in their lifetime – but don’t worry, this isn’t a reflection on the cleanliness of your home or your pet! There are a number of different species too, including dog fleas, cat fleas, rabbit fleas and even human fleas! Plus, different species of fleas can infest different host species. As a result preventative action is the recommended course of action.

What are fleas?

Fleas are small, dark brown, wingless, blood sucking insects. They can jump can live on their host for up to two years and a female can lay up to 50 eggs in one day!

The Flea lifecycle

Dog or cat flea under real magnifying glass over whiteThe flea is only really obvious to pet parents when it is an adult, which is towards the end of its life cycle, and therefore really too late. Since the female produces so many eggs in her life time, adult fleas that you may find on your pet represent less than 5% of the total fleas that might be in your home!

Adult Fleas - Adult fleas start to lay eggs within two days of finding their host

Flea Eggs - The flea eggs fall off your pet and into the surrounding environment together with “flea dirt” which provides nourishment to the larvae which emerge after 2-5 days.

Flea Larvae - The flea larvae dislike light, so move away from into the soft furnishings, under furniture, between floorboards and deep into the carpet. There after 7-14 days the larvae develop into pupae and are encased in a protective cocoon.

Flea Pupae - Flea pupae can remain dormant for up to 2 years (depending upon the type of flea, the temperature and humidity of the environment) and waits for a sign of a host. It does this by detecting pressure, noise, heat, carbon dioxide or vibrational changes, the adult flea hatches out and jumps onto your pet.

While the cycle can take up to two years, if the conditions are right, it can be completed in 15 days – fleas can therefore be active all year, rather than just in the warmer months, since our centrally heated homes provide ideal conditions for the parasites.


Dog scratching fleas in garden flowers

In severe cases it may be easy to see fleas on your pet but you are more likely to notice the symptoms of an infestation before you see anything.

• Scratching
• Agitation, edginess and restlessness
• Chewing and biting
• Excessive licking
• Pale gums
• Patchy areas of hair loss
• Skin abrasions and hot spots

If left untreated your pet could develop a more serious illness, such as;
• Severe allergic reactions such as flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) - the most common veterinary dermatological condition
• Anaemia - especially in very young or very old pets
• Tapeworm infection – From flea larvae which have fed on tapeworm eggs

They can also transmit serious diseases to humans as well, such as
• Bartonellosis - the bacteria that causes “cat scratch disease”
• Tapeworms – If a human receives a bite from an infected flea

And in very rare cases
• Bubonic plague
• pneumonic plague
• Typhus

How to Detect Fleas

Apart from the obvious signs and symptoms in your pet, and potentially, bites you might have received, you can detect the presence of fleas in a number of ways; the easiest include the following;

Check your pet visually - if you are quick, you might see an adult flea but you are more likely to notice dark specks like pepper in your pet’s fur – this is “flea dirt”. At the base the tail and between their shoulder blades are the best places to look because these areas have the most blood vessels close to the surface, and therefore attract more fleas. You can make sure that it isn’t ordinary dirt by dropping some of the specks on to a wet tissue. “Flea dirt” will dissolve, creating tiny red stains.

White sock test – walk through the effected environment wearing white socks. The pressure and vibrations that you create will cause the adult flea to jump. The fleas will end up on your socks and because of the contrast between them and the sock they will be immediately visible. You might also observe “flea dirt” as black or brown specks.


Cat apply flea treatment

There are several ways of treating for fleas. There are two main methods for treating your pets directly; internal treatments (i.e. ingested by your pet) and external, or topical, treatments (i.e. applied directly on to the animal); there are also products that treat the affected environment!

External Treatments

There is a wide variety of external treatments on the market, some are more effective than others; while some only eradicate one part of the lifecycle of the flea and others are only suitable for specific animals (e.g. some treatments contain permethrin, an insecticide that is safe for dogs but highly toxic to cats).

Treatments include;

Spot on liquids - The liquid is applied to the skin between your pet’s shoulder blades so they aren’t able to lick it off. The liquid is absorbed into the body and protects your pet for around 30 days. Your pet is protected from all parts of the flea’s lifecycle.

Flea Collars
- This treatment is rather old fashioned and has been somewhat superseded but there are many pet owners who choose to use this method over others. There are several types of collar and can serve one, or both, of the following functions;

Repelling – this collar emits a substance that repels the flea – the flea must bite the animal before being affected by the substance

Treating – this collar has medication embedded within it and seeps into the neck of your pet. This type can kill the flea on contact before they bite your pet

Collars usually last around 30 days but some can continue working for several months, which makes them an economic choice. However, because they are worn around the neck tend only to be effective in that area. In addition, the substance on the collar is constantly in contact with the skin of your pet and, as a result, may cause irritation.

– these treatments kill only the adult flea and so aren’t a long term solution, particularly if your pet spends a lot of time in water. In addition, they can be hazardous to the person applying the spray and can be difficult to apply if a pet is nervous or uncooperative.


Shampoos – these are used like any other bath product, although most require the product to be applied to the skin for several minutes before rinsing it off. Shampoos aren’t preventative so you should use them in conjunction with another product

– these treatments, like flea collars, are old fashioned and therefore rarely used, particularly since they tend to dry the skin of your pet.

Flea Combs – This method is particularly useful for newborn and very young pets where treatments could be toxic. However, flea combs tend to remove less than 50% of the fleas on your pet because the act of combing encourages the flea to move somewhere else! However, combs can be useful in conjunction with other treatments to confirm that the infestation has cleared.

Internal Treatments

Dog vet injection

As well as topical treatments, you can treat your pet from the inside, which is particularly useful in animals who like to spend time in water or if they have sensitive skin which external treatments can exacerbate.

Oral treatments – Oral treatments do not kill the adult flea; rather they prevent the eggs from hatching. There are different types of pills which act for different lengths of times, so don’t forget to read the instructions before treating your pet!

- these are available only from your vet and are rarely used due to the possible side effects of a medication that is effective for up to 6 months. In addition, the flea has to bite the host before being useful, so it is not recommended if your pet has a flea allergy. While it does not kill adult fleas, it does prevent them from breeding.

Household treatments

Once your pet is affected by fleas, it is important to treat your home. There are various methods you can use;

Household Flea spray - There are various household sprays available that can be used on carpets and furnishings. Fleas tend to hide in dark places so it is important to treat under furniture and in crevices

Foggers – Foggers can treat your home for over 6 months. Foggers are similar to smoke bombs and should be used in every room and left for up to 8 hours. Some rooms may have to be fogged several times to be effective, so this method can be a huge inconvenience to you and your family!

Remember! Prevention is better than cure!

In order to prevent any recurrence it is recommended that you treat your home as well as your pet at the same time so make sure that you vacuum thoroughly, especially in areas where your pet frequents. It is estimated that vacuuming can remove up to 50% of flea eggs! In severe infestations you should discard the vacuum bag straight after use. You should also wash your pet’s bedding thoroughly and keep on doing so in case of re-infestation.

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