Did you know that there are cat fleas and dog fleas? Yup…two different species! But cats can get dog fleas, and dogs can get cat fleas, so the common names are not particularly helpful. Regardless of the type, fleas are wild animals that can cause a variety of problems for pets and their people.
Like butterflies and many other insects, fleas have four distinct life phases: egg, larva, pupa and adult. An adult flea feeds on the blood of cats and dogs (and many other mammals like rats, raccoons and opossums), and can double its weight when fully engorged. Females are nearly twice as fast at drinking blood than males, and they use that nutrition to mate and lay eggs. Depending on environmental conditions, the eggs turn into pupae in as little as a day. These larvae crawl on the host animal, drinking blood and eating the undigested blood of adult fleas…their poop. In as few as five days, those larvae create a protective cocoon and metamorphosize into an adult flea, and the cycle begins again.
The most noticeable reaction to fleas in your pets is scratching, and that scratching is also one way that diseases and infection can enter your pet. As your dog or cat scratches herself, the small scratches can become infected by the poop, more politely known as “flea dirt.” Skin ailments like dermatitis are the usual result, but some pets also get dermatitis as an allergic reaction to the flea bite itself. When animals groom themselves, they can ingest fleas, resulting in tapeworms. The most notorious flea-transmitted disease in humans is bubonic plague which killed nearly half the human population of Europe in the 14th century. Believe it or not, bubonic plague is still reported occasionally, especially in the southwestern US where fleas transmit the disease by biting infected rats. Other diseases like typhus and tungiasis are uncommon in South Florida but are still active in the Caribbean and other places.
Keeping your pets inside is the best way to protect them from fleas, but of course dogs go out into fenced yards or on a leash to do their business, and some cats just LOVE the challenge of getting past their dads at the front door (looking at YOU, Elliott Alexander Bremen!). Your veterinarian can suggest the best preventative for your most precious pals. If you do notice an increase in scratching, don’t ignore it. Your kids rely on you as a pet parent to keep them safe and happy.
Gary Bremen is a 35-year veteran of the National Park Service and volunteers at Abandoned Pet Rescue.