How to Identify, Mitigate, and Prevent a Flea Infestation
A flea infestation is not quite like other pests that people can find in the home. Fleas can carry diseases, sometimes very serious ones like the bubonic plague or typhus. They also try to live close to a host, not unlike ticks. The bites that fleas cause on pets can trigger allergic reactions and even severe health problems if the infestation isn't caught early enough. Fleas are also tricky to eliminate, especially since they breed so prolifically. By following these tips, homeowners will know what to look for and the best ways to get rid of or prevent a flea infestation.
Table of Contents
- How to Identify a Flea Infestation
- How to Get Rid of Fleas
- How to Prevent Fleas
- Protect Pets and Property From Pests
How to Identify a Flea Infestation
Identifying a flea infestation is an important first step for homeowners. By understanding the flea life cycle and how fleas differ from other types of pests, people can start to inspect their homes and pets for the most common signs.
Flea Life Cycle
The flea life cycle lasts at least a few months, up to one year. Adult fleas look for a warm, passive host where they can reside, like a dog or cat. Adult female fleas can lay dozens of eggs per day. The tiny white eggs sit in place for up to two weeks, after which they hatch into larvae. Larvae are tiny worms that can crawl on the host for as long as 3–4 weeks. Eventually, they turn into pupae, small white cocoons that last for a couple of weeks but can sometimes lie dormant for much longer. After this stage, the adult flea emerges.
Adult fleas can live for several months, although the average is 2 to 3 months. They do not fly, and they appear flat and brown, without wings. During this time, they can:
- Find a host
- Jump to a new host
- Hide in pet bedding, upholstery, or cracks in the floor
- Bite pets or humans
Adult fleas live on blood, which they typically get through biting pets. Since female fleas lay eggs every day, and the life cycle includes two dormant periods lasting up to several months, homeowners should keep in mind that it may take months of flea treatments to eliminate the problem entirely.
Signs of Fleas
People usually discover that they have a flea infestation because their pets are showing signs of a pest. Homeowners may want to watch their pets' behavior, especially for these common symptoms:
- Constant scratching all over the body
- Hair loss
- Whitening of the gums, which may indicate anemia
- Irritable behavior
- Noticeable bites on the skin
These signs can be indicators of other types of pest infestations, too. However, fleas are common for pets, so it may make sense for people to assume that their pets have fleas, especially if they have a few other common signs. Homeowners should check pets' bedding, as well as nearby carpeting, for signs of flea eggs or pupae. Fleas also excrete a reddish-brown dust that can accumulate on the carpet. One way that people can check for fleas is to run their feet on the carpet or bedding while they wear knee-high white socks. This process can stir up eggs that are buried in carpet fibers and may even entice an adult flea to jump onto the socks. Finally, if people notice that they're also getting bitten by the pests, they may have a flea infestation and will need to take action to mitigate it.
Pests that Can Be Mistaken for Fleas
There are numerous insects that homeowners can confuse with fleas, and it's essential to know the difference. Pests that have a similar look and behavior to fleas include:
- Flea beetles
- Flour beetles
As a general rule, the chief problem with fleas is that they bite and consume the blood of pets. Flea beetles look similar, but they eat plants outside. Bedbugs will also bite and commonly live indoors. However, bedbug bites are more common on broad surfaces of the body, rather than crevices like armpits or behind knees. Bedbug eggs are also black, not white.
How to Get Rid of Fleas
Once homeowners have identified a flea infestation, they should act quickly to get it under control and eliminate it. This process takes time and several steps. By remaining committed to mitigation efforts, people will notice improvement over time.
Flea Treatments for Your House
One of the best forms of protection against a flea infestation is a thorough cleaning. To start, homeowners should evaluate the most common sites for a flea infestation, including pet living spaces, nearby carpet or upholstered furniture, and rugs near exterior doors. At this time, they can:
- Thoroughly wash or replace pet bedding
- Vacuum and shampoo carpets
- Vacuum or steam clean upholstered furniture
- Sweep and mop hard floors near these areas
Homeowners looking for a non-toxic preventative might consider sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the furniture and on the carpet. Diatomaceous earth is a natural product that robs fleas of necessary moisture. Otherwise, people may need to apply a pet-safe insecticide. It's important to follow all instructions from the manufacturer, as insecticides can sometimes be toxic to humans and pets. Excessive use or placement in the wrong spot can cause injury or death. For a severe infestation, homeowners might want to consider hiring a professional exterminator. Professionals use sprays, foggers, and powders to immediately kill adult fleas and leave a growth inhibitor that stops immature fleas from reaching adulthood.
Flea Treatments for Your Pets
In most cases, the best way to start flea treatments for pets is for people to make a call to the veterinarian. There are several different products that homeowners can use to remove fleas from their pets, but depending on the individual pets in question, not all products may be practical or safe for use. Consulting with a veterinarian may help people understand how best to protect their pets while controlling the infestation.
Assuming that the pets are in otherwise good health, homeowners can use a variety of approaches to get rid of fleas:
- Using a flea comb on pet hair
- Bathing pets with flea shampoo meant for that type of animal
- Washing pet bedding in hot water every other day
- Giving pets flea medicine as directed by a veterinarian
Oral or topical medications may be appropriate for pets, particularly in cases where the flea infestation is hard to remove by combing or shampooing. This medication may contain a growth inhibitor or insecticide. The pet's owner should consult a veterinarian before using any specific product, especially flea collars. In some cases, certain products can be toxic to pets.
Controlling Fleas in the Home
As soon as homeowners start working to control a flea infestation, they should keep in mind that the adult fleas will continue to lay eggs and promote the flea life cycle until all mitigation attempts are effective. As such, people may not notice a significant improvement in the first couple of days. They should continue their efforts on a daily basis until they can no longer find signs of the infestation. It may take weeks, and if any dormant eggs and pupae are missed, the infestation may return in a later season. As a general rule, people can expect to do the following:
- Vacuum infested areas thoroughly every day
- Vacuum or wipe pet furniture daily
- Sweep floors every day
- Comb pets daily for eggs
- Wash pet bedding and toys every other day
- Shampoo as directed
- Apply insecticide once, or as directed
People should avoid using shampoos or insecticides more often than directed by manufacturer instructions. Instead, they may want to increase combing or vacuuming as a way to mitigate the problem. For a serious infestation, it may be better to call a professional than to apply potentially toxic treatments without proper guidance.
How Long Does a Flea Infestation Last?
Getting rid of fleas may be a cyclical problem for homeowners, especially if the infestation is severe. Most treatments in the home will kill adult fleas but may not affect eggs or pupae. Unfortunately, pupae can lie dormant for months while they wait for access to a host. The constant production of new eggs means that people can be vacuuming, steam cleaning, and washing for several weeks until the last fleas are gone. Even a brief lapse in the routine could cause the infestation to surge, with dozens of new fleas emerging every day.
Homeowners may need to consider an exterior flea infestation as part of their long-term control plan. Although fleas often live and breed indoors, they can also thrive in parts of the yard with moist soil and yard debris where they can hide. People struggling to keep fleas from returning to the home after cleaning might want to consider applying an insecticide that targets fleas on the exterior of the property. Professional exterminators may be able to advise on the best products to choose for a repeat infestation.
How to Prevent Fleas
One of the best ways to protect pet health and mitigate the problems caused by a flea infestation is to prevent it. By understanding why fleas are attracted to humans and animals, homeowners can formulate a plan to stop them from thriving in the home. Similarly, once people know where fleas are more likely to reside, they can target traps and other treatments there.
What Causes Fleas in the Home?
There are a variety of things inside most homes that fleas and other pests prefer. Homes tend to be warmer and drier than the outside. Houses also have many dark places where fleas can hide, remain dormant while looking for a host, and breed. Fleas need blood to survive, but they don't necessarily need it all the time or even frequently. Fleas prefer to hide in dense fur, which is what attracts them to dogs and cats. They also like carbon dioxide, which they use as a sign that a warm-blooded host is nearby.
A flea infestation usually starts outside the home. Fleas will jump onto a human or pet while they're outside and jump off once they arrive indoors. Female fleas can lay dozens of eggs per day, so they can start the process of building a significant indoor infestation within a week. These pests do best in parts of the home with minimal care or upkeep. Homeowners who are less likely to vacuum regularly or wash pet bedding may be more at risk for an infestation.
Preventing Fleas on Pets
Since a flea infestation is much more difficult to eradicate once it has a chance to thrive, homeowners are often much better off if they can prevent the fleas from accumulating on their pets in the first place. Pet owners may want to start by limiting the amount of time their pets spend outdoors, particularly situations where pets come in contact with other animals and aren't under immediate adult supervision. Regular grooming, in the form of brushing, washing, and periodic inspection for pests, will help pet owners ensure that there are no fleas or give them the earliest warning of a problem.
Homeowners should consult with a veterinarian before using any preventative treatments for fleas. In some cases, it may make sense to occasionally shampoo a pet with flea shampoo or consider oral medications during the height of pest season in the summer. People should take care not to combine treatments without asking a veterinarian first, as some approaches aren't meant to be used in tandem with others. Most of the time, taking a proactive approach that involves regular cleaning, grooming, and inspection can be just as helpful in mitigating risk.
Preventing Fleas in the Home
Most of the advice that homeowners follow to get rid of a flea infestation will also apply to prevention. Pests prefer areas that do not receive a lot of light or regular cleaning. The more that people can disrupt the space, the harder it will be for fleas to thrive. People may choose to set a regular cleaning regimen, particularly during the warmer months when fleas are more likely to breed. Good cleaning and prevention tips include:
- Vacuuming carpets at least once a week
- Throwing away vacuum bags or cleaning out the canister after vacuuming
- Sweeping or vacuuming floors after pets enter the home
- Washing bedding, towels, and sheets in hot water
- Bathing and brushing pets regularly
- Deep cleaning pet living spaces at least once a season and more frequently during the summer
Using insecticide sprays or powders may be a practical way for homeowners to prevent a flea infestation from returning. These products should always be used according to the directions and under professional guidance as needed. Insecticides can be very effective at killing pests, but they may also harm pets and other household members if not used with care.
Preventing Fleas Outside the Home
Since fleas start an infestation outside, it's not surprising that homeowners should focus at least some of their efforts on their yards. In fact, many pest mitigation attempts will fail if they do not include care and treatment for the outdoor spaces. Fleas like to stay out of the light, and they need a little moisture, so they look for places to hide close to the soil. Ideal spots for a flea infestation might be under a collection of yard waste, under the deck, or inside a crawlspace. Like other jumping pests, fleas will climb up tall grasses and plants so that they can jump onto a possible host as they walk by.
Ideally, homeowners should plan to keep their landscaping trimmed and neat, especially throughout the summer. They may also want to mulch or dispose of yard waste regularly. If people are unsure which types of pests they may have in the yard during summer, they can walk through it wearing tall, light-colored socks, making sure to brush against bushes and other plants. If fleas are present, they're likely to jump onto the socks and be relatively easy to identify.
Protect Pets and Property From Pests
Learning that a pet has fleas is a highly irritating experience for pet owners. The trouble begins when people notice the first sign, and the problem doesn't leave until the last egg has been removed or exterminated. Flea infestations are difficult to remove, since the fleas can lay dormant and start again the following year. Professional extermination may be a necessity to control an infestation or prevent it from coming back. By acting as soon as they see a sign, homeowners can better protect themselves and their pets.